NEW WONKS ON THE BLOCK: A somewhat peculiar favorite book!


Part 3—High praise for those who failed us: Who knows?

Dylan Matthews may turn out to be the best “policy journalist who focuses on taxes, budgets, and other elements of US economic and fiscal policy” in journalistic history.

(For part 2 of this award-winning series, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/2/13.)

That’s the way Matthews describes himself at his personal web site. At the Washington Post’s Wonkblog site, the gent is profiled as follows: “Dylan Matthews covers taxes, poverty, campaign finance, higher education, and all things data. He has also written for The New Republic, Salon, Slate, and The American Prospect.”

That said, Matthews graduated from college just this past June. For ourselves, we find it odd to think that someone so young would be “covering poverty” for a major newspaper like the Washington Post. Matthews may turn out to be a fabulous journalist—but for ourselves, we’re skeptical of young high achievers who burst full-blown from the head of John Harvard, having started their blogging careers while still in middle school.

At present, new liberal elites are being formed within the mainstream press corps. As this occurs, we think liberals and progressives should be highly skeptical about these important selections. (Trust but verify, as Ronald Reagan once said!) Matthews’ peculiar personal bio may turn out to reflect a wealth of actual talent. But then, it may turn out to have reflected a less helpful set of instincts.

Plainly, Ezra Klein is the most important new liberal intellectual leader currently being hatched at Wonkblog; we’ll return to his recent performance in tomorrow’s post. But we were struck by several points as we perused two year-end lists at this Post web site.

We’ll admit it! We aren’t inclined to believe that Klein was taken aback by the troubling title of Chrystia Freeland’s new book. (“Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else.”) Freeland is smart, and she isn’t a hack; not only that, she’s from Canada! In a world defined by rising plutocracy, why would anyone but a Serious Person be concerned by such a title?

Why wouldn’t someone like Klein be heartened by that title?

Alas! Sometimes, rising stars with a great deal at stake make nice with existing elites. And we’ll admit it: We wondered if something like that was involved when Wonkblog’s Suzy Khimm made an end-of-year book choice which struck us as somewhat odd.

(For the record, Khimm is an elder statesman compared to Matthews. She seems to have graduated from Yale in 2003.)

In this year-end list, each member of the Wonkblog team picked the books they “most enjoyed in 2012.” This book was one of Khimm’s five:
KHIMM (12/31/12): The Woman at the Washington Zoo, by Marjorie Williams

The late, great Marjorie Williams—a longtime Post writer—was an expert essayist and columnist: Her 2004 piece about helping her daughter get dressed for Halloween will simply slay you. But through this collection of her work, I became immersed in the political profiles she wrote earlier in her career, spanning Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton. Williams’ subjects unwittingly reveal themselves, and she guides her readers through a landscape of dueling psyches that’s far messier than the Beltway would ever like to admit.
By all accounts, the late Marjorie Williams was a very fine person. (She died of cancer at age 47 in 2005.) That said, the book in question appeared in 2005; it was a collection of Williams’ past columns and profiles.

Set aside Khimm’s lavish praise for Williams. (We scolded the analysts when they rolled their eyes at this rather familiar manifestation.) Given the layers of age on this book, it struck us as odd that it would have been one of Khimm’s favorite reads in the year 2012.

Everything is possible! That said, we were especially struck by Khimm’s high praise for Williams’ profiles from the Bush I-Clinton years. It’s depressing to think that our nation’s young wonks may see that failed journalistic era as a star to steer by.

Can we talk? As students of the mainstream press, we’re always suspicious when a writer’s subjects “unwittingly reveal themselves” to the writer. All too often, those unwitting acts of self-revelation have been helped along by mainstream scribes, who have put their thumbs on the scale.

Example: Down through the years, Maureen Dowd’s subjects have often “revealed themselves” through “unwitting” turns of phrase which are said to reveal their deep inner states. All too often, it has turned out that these turns of phrase were invented or massaged by Dowd, thus bringing her subjects’ self-revelations in line with her guild’s preconceptions.

As a writer, Marjorie Williams was not Maureen Dowd—but she did play in similar ball yards. It was during the Bush-Clinton years that the so-called Creeping Dowdism was creeping through the mainstream press corps. As described by Katherine Boo, this new journalism tried to define a major pol’s alleged character rather than his proposals/ideas.

Williams didn’t clown like Dowd, but she worked similar fields. Despite Khimm’s lavish words of praise, we think Williams’ efforts largely failed us during the era in question.

Good God! After reading Khimm’s praise for Williams’ insights during this era, we reread some of Williams’ work from Campaign 2000 and beyond. This included her long profile of the “dueling psyches” of Clinton and Gore after the 2000 election, a profile which was reprinted in the 2005 book.

We’ll admit it—we were surprised by how bad this work really was.

Maureen Dowd didn’t write the following passage from the fall of 1999, when the mainstream press corps was flogging the insights it had gained from Candidate Gore’s troubling boots and suits. But Maureen Dowd could have written this—and this, like much that followed from Williams, was close to political porn:
WILLIAMS (11/28/99): Al Gore—even the new improved Al Gore, with the earth tones and the cowboy boots—is forever a man who seems to be doing a stand-up impression of Cordell Hull. Seen in the post-Clinton context, many of Gore's real virtues (his serene family life, his constancy of purpose) seem irrelevant, at best. Some of them even begin to look like vices: A country that just finished the complicated moral contortion of forgiving its rogue president is going to find it hard to cozy up to a candidate who sometimes seems righteous to a fault.

The effects of "Clinton fatigue" are of course unfair, but they may be irreversible. So it must be especially crazy-making, to one in Gore's position, that the Clinton Effect is being dismissed by the political cognoscenti. A recent New Yorker article by Jane Mayer and Joe Klein, for example, which contained great reporting on how thoroughly Gore is spooked by his Clinton problem, went on to find him foolish as a result. Yet it explained, as nothing else has, why Gore was paying $15,000 a month to Naomi Wolf, who turns out to be his inner circle's leading theorist of Clinton-as-albatross: She was the only person around him who was articulating what his instincts told him.

In ways that far transcend the usual vice presidential image problems, Bill Clinton's behavior unmanned Al Gore. Hillary may have been the wronged woman in Clinton's life, but Gore was the political spouse who got placed in an impossible spot. And it's one of the stranger truths of our blame-shifting species that while Americans may be willing to forgive a sinner like Bill Clinton, no one has much pity for a cuckold.
“The new Al Gore” was wearing boots! (He had worn such boots throughout his career.) It was a scandal to think that he had hired Naomi Wolf as an adviser—that he had paid her so much! (The sainted McCain was paying $20,000 per month to Richard Quinn, a man who was a thousand miles farther from the mainstream than Wolf ever dreamed of being. Barely a word was said.)

And as with Dowd, so too in this piece: Gore had been “unmanned;” he was a “cuckold.” Readers were supplied the thrill of the sexual chase and insult.

Go back and reread Boo’s remarks about Dowd. All such remarks apply here. And by the way: The press corps thrilled to this "messy landscape of dueling psyches;" it's what this press corps lived for. Khimm is living a delusion when she suggests that writers like Williams forced "the Beltway" to deal with such troubling insights.

It’s stunning to think that our new liberal wonks can read this work without recoiling—can actually see it as a model for future work! But then, this is how we reached the point which obtained this fall in the case of Susan Rice:

As the Clintons and Gore were once brought to ground, so too the mainstream press corps now chased after Rice. They recited manifest nonsense from Fox and McCain, in a manner taken straight from the bad old Clinton-Gore years.

On MSNBC, our fiery new liberals just sat and stared. The best you can say for these pampered young stars is that they were too uncomprehending, too clueless to see what was being done to Rice. But then, it may be that they simply didn’t want to stand and confront the elites.

Dearest darlings! Massive careers were at stake!

It should be disgusting to see a new wonk praising the ways of that broken-souled era. Khimm may be completely sincere, of course. That said, we’ll recommend that the nation’s progressives sharpen their skeptical instincts:

A new elite is being formed for you. Sometimes, climbers will do what it takes to find their way to the top.

Tomorrow: What Klein said


  1. Thanks to Marjorie Williams, I no longer have a fuzzy, vague impression of Al Gore in my mind.

    When I read Gore seemed to be doing a stand-up impression of Cordell Hull, his image snapped into sharp focus like when the ophthalmologist flips than little lever and ask "which is better."

    Now, if Bob Somerby wants to see our media at its pinnacle, he should read the opinion by Paul Campos today.

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