Part 3—Who is Mark Leibovich: Why do our journalists get so annoyed when major pols talk about substance?
In a rational world, this reaction would make little sense. And yet, our journalists have been reacting this way at least since Bill Clinton took office. Last week, they keened and wailed and tore their hair when Clinton spoke for (gasp!) 48 minutes at the Democratic Convention.
His substance was great, Ruth Marcus said. But why did he make us listen to so much of it?
Why do our journalists react in this very strange way? We can’t exactly tell you. But if we had to take a guess, we would cite a recent piece by Mark Leibovich in the New York Times Sunday magazine.
Leibovich has been writing about politics for more than a decade. Back then, he wrote for the Washington Post. Today, he writes for the Times magazine.
Three Sundays ago, he shared his angst. We join his 4800-word complete waste of time in progress:
LEIBOVICH (6/2/12): This spring, for the first time since I started writing about politics a decade ago, I found myself completely depressed by a campaign. ''How am I ever going to get through it?'' is not the question you want to be asking yourself as you enter what are supposed to be the pinnacle few months of your profession.Who knows? Maybe Leibovich should take some time off to tend to his daughter—or to himself. Having said that, we would also say this:
But that's what I was doing to an alarming degree. Maybe it had to do with how bad off the country felt and how outmatched our politicians were by the severity of our problems and how obvious it was that the proverbial ''tone'' of Washington wouldn't change no matter who won. Or maybe it was because my daughters were getting older and starting to tune in more. When I drop them off at school, I sometimes watch them stare wondrously at the vice president's motorcade as it sirens past en route to the White House. It is a moment of fascination and reverence and one of the cool things about raising a family in what is otherwise the most disappointing city in America. I had also just been through a rough winter in which my 11-year-old suffered a head injury that brought some terrifying and unexplained side effects that incapacitated her for months. There's something about wondering whether your kid will ever be able to go back to school and live a normal life that makes a steady ingestion of super-PAC poison, talking-point Novocain and fund-raising spam a little harder to take.
It’s hardly shocking if Leibovich is depressed by the state of the current campaign. Judging from the work he presents, he brings an empty, upper-class mind to the task of discussing our politics. He shows no sign of having any real interest in the real outcomes of our debates.
He doesn’t seem to care about much (except perhaps his daughter’s health). He has a very high platform from which he could speak.
But he seems to have nothing to say.
Lack of purpose will often result in the depression Leibovich claims—though it’s hard to take the claims he makes in this long, worthless piece seriously.
His piece was entitled, “Feel the Loathing on the Campaign Trail.” As such, it’s supposed to be some sort of homage to Hunter Thompson, who wrote the famous “Fear and Loathing...” way back in 72.
But do you believe the things this scribe says? As Leibovich starts his endless piece, he asks us to believe this:
LEIBOVICH: Sometime early last May, I began to have this goofy notion, which turned into a daydream and eventually became a recurring fantasy. It went like this: One morning, I would wake up to the news that the previous evening, with no advance warning to the media, Mitt and Ann Romney stopped by the White House at the invitation of Barack and Michelle Obama. No one was certain what happened while they were there or what they talked about or how it came together, though eventually some details would trickle out. The couples told funny stories from the campaign trail and shared pictures of their families. Mitt drank lemonade, and Michelle led a moonlit tour of her garden. Everyone ate hot dogs loaded with toppings, which inspired a cable christening of the ''Sauerkraut Summit.''Do you believe a word of that? Do you believe that, sometime last May, Leibovich began to have a goofy notion which became a recurring fantasy? Do you believe that Leibovich had or has a recurring fantasy in which the Romneys go to the White House to enjoy a Sauerkraut Summit?
Sorry, but no—we don’t believe that. Nor do we believe that this represents straight talk:
LEIBOVICH (continuing directly): I knew this would never happen. It was dumb, naïve, unsophisticated and frankly out of character for me, someone with little patience for the Kabuki pleasantries of politics. It wasn't immediately clear what drove the fantasy—a desire for less free-floating hostility in the campaign, I suppose, but that seemed too easy. Whatever the case, I was yearning for something that felt big, or at least different, even if it was just a social visit. Something that messed with what the political know-it-alls refer to as the Narrative.We don’t believe that either. That passage takes us right to the passage we quoted at the start of this post—the passage in which Leibovich claims that he feels completely depressed by the current campaign.
In fairness, there’s a lot to be depressed about in the current campaign—in the current state of our politics and our political journalism. A bit later on in his unlikely piece, Leibovich seems to show that he understands this fact.
Quite correctly, he refers to our current politics as “a giant inanity machine.” But look where this gloomy thought takes him:
LEIBOVICH: I am as cynical as any political reporter. And perhaps my recent craving for uplift was a sublimation of my own anger at being a small cog in a giant inanity machine. But I write and read and talk about politics because beneath that cynicism I understand that the stakes are high. On top of which, oddly, the job also keeps me patriotic, a byproduct of seeing—as I did at a Romney event in Ohio in July—things like a Korean War veteran in a wheelchair removing his insignia cap and struggling to his feet to salute the flag during the national anthem. (Immediately after which, I looked down at my BlackBerry to learn that the Democratic National Committee had just released a new ad ridiculing Ann Romney's dressage horse.)Leibovich says he knows that the stakes are high. But just like that, he’s back in the faux, complaining that the campaign lacks joy.
But what's been completely missing this year has been, for lack of a better word, joy. Yes, it's always kind of fun to follow Joe Biden around and wait to hear what will come out of his mouth next, and who knows what Paul Ryan has hidden under his oversize jacket. But the principals don't seem to be experiencing much joy as they go through their market-tested paces. A kind of faux-ness permeates everything this year in a way that it hasn't been quite so consuming in the past. The effect has been anesthetizing and made it difficult to take any of the day's supposed gaffes, game-changers and false umbrages seriously. The campaigns appeared locked in a paradigm of terrified superpowers' spending blindly on redundant warfare. How many times do they have to blow up Vladivostok?
This campaign lacks many things; joy is the least of its shortfalls. Because our politics really is an inanity machine, the current campaign lacks clarity. It lacks serious, well-defined issues.
As a journalist with a major platform, Leibovich could, in theory, do something about those shortfalls. But no sooner has he noted the inanity of our discourse than he is living off it again, making references to Joe Biden’s gaffes and Paul Ryan’s oversized coat.
Those themes are the basic stuff of that inanity machine! Leibovich complains that the DNC wastes our time on Ann Romney’s horse. He then quickly wastes our time on two other standard distractions.
Go ahead! Read this long, painfully pointless piece, in which a major political journalist pretends to be wander the countryside, looking for joy in the current campaign. The piece is as fake as a twelve-dollar bill. And it’s written by someone who, in theory, could have been using his oodles of space to write about something worthwhile.
But Leibovich has never been about worthwhile reporting—about things that actually matter. Long ago and far away, he started a long, snarky piece for the Washington Post like this:
LEIBOVICH (6/2/02): Teresa Heinz is getting up a full head of rage while her husband, Sen. John Kerry, fidgets.Hiss! Hiss-spit! Hiss-spit! Mee-ow! This profile ate 4800 words. In Washington’s fatuous inner circle, it created a whole lot of buzz.
They are in the living room of their Georgetown home, where Heinz has lived ever since her late first husband, John Heinz, came to Washington in 1971 as a Republican congressman from Pennsylvania. In the front entrance, the first things a visitor sees are two framed photos of Teresa Heinz cuddled with tall, smiling men with big heads of brown hair: In one is John Kerry, in the other John Heinz.
She still calls John Heinz "my husband" and doesn't always correct herself—"my late husband”—even when Kerry is around. She still wears the blue sapphire engagement ring that Heinz gave her.
But John Heinz's enduring presence in Teresa's life is best revealed when someone slights his memory. Which, at least indirectly, is why she and Kerry are now in mid-bicker.
Here’s the reason:
By June 2002, it was time to start the stupid shit about Kerry and his hopelessly bitchy wife, who was also much too rich. The mainstream “press corps” had devoted ten years to poking its long nose all around in the underwear drawer of the Clintons’ marriage.
Kerry was going to run in 04! Darlings! Let’s chat about him!
That was the garbage this scribe was presenting as his nation was moving toward war with Iraq. Today, he pictures himself dropping his daughter off at her school as emblems of power screech by on the street. Frankly, we wondered what neighborhood Leibovich lives is; how much money he is paid by the Times; and what school his daughter attends.
We wondered about his class status.
Why have our journalists spent twenty years complaining when pols give those boring speeches? We can’t answer that question, but we’ll offer a guess:
They possess boring upper-class heads. They simply don’t care about too many things. They have theirs, and they'd like to have yours.
They don't care about folks who aren't like them.
Throughout history, upper-class courtiers have always been boring and bored—and depressed. Today, this famous old syndrome is seen all through our upper-end “press corps.”
Tomorrow: Back to school with Gail Collins