MAN AND MANDARIN: The pitiful ballad of Cokie and Sam!


Part 2—How will our strivers turn out: Within the mainstream press corps, the previous class of mandarins failed us liberals quite badly.

At one point, the Sams and the Cokies really seemed to be doing the job. Sam was willing to shout questions at Reagan. And Cokie was just very Cokie.

These mandarins never stopped being pro-choice, and so they were always listed as liberals. But as the years went by, as their very fat bank accounts grew, they became rather obvious tools of the scam. In the case of this famous pair, their full descent was memorialized in October 2000, two weeks before a history-changing election.

Below, you see the record of the moment when Sam and Cokie made it clear that they had completely gone over—that they were full-fledged, well-bribed members of a criminal mandarin class.

In the final Bush-Gore debate, Candidate Gore had discussed the need for a patients bill of rights. In response, Sam and Cokie guffawed, clowned, partied hearty. They were advancing the mandarin line, even as George Steohanopoulos tried to make them stick to the actual issue:
DONALDSON (10/23/00): Well, you talk about the message. I mean, remember during the last debate, Gore kept talking about the Dingell/Norwood bill, the Dingell/Norwood bill? And we thought, as a public service, we'd just show you who Dingell and Norwood are. Let us tell you about them.

[Photographs appear]

Representatives of Dingell and Norwood introduced the Patients' Bill of Rights favored by Gore and the House of Representatives. John Dingell, from Michigan, is the longest-serving Democrat in the House. His father, who was a House member before him, was a sponsor of Social Security in the '30s, and pioneered the idea of national health insurance back in 1943. Charlie Norwood from Georgia, a Republican, is a dentist. He served in Vietnam and was first elected to the House in 1994 as part of the Republican revolution. So that's who Dingell and Norwood are. Now I'll tell you—

STEPHANOPOULOS: But the important—

ROBERTS: Yeah, but—

DONALDSON: But there's a guy named Greg Ganske who's also on the bill. It's actually the Dingell-Norwood-Ganske bill!

STEPHANOPOULOS: But the important, the important point—

DONALDSON: But I don't have time to start telling you about him.

ROBERTS: He's from Iowa.

STEPHANOPOULOS: The important point there is that George Bush didn't answer the question about the Dingell/Norwood bill, which is a Patients' Bill of Rights that allows people to—the right to sue.

ROBERTS: Actually, I don't think that is the important point there.


ROBERTS: Because that's not what comes across when you're watching the debate. What comes across when you're watching the debate is this guy from Washington doing Washington-speak.


ROBERTS: And you know, it's having an effect not just at the presidential level, but at the congressional level as well. Because the Republicans did a very smart thing, which is that they voted for their version of a Patients' Bill of Rights, and they voted for their version of prescription drug coverage. So they get to go out and tout all these issues, and then the Democrats are left saying, “But you didn't do Dingell and Norwood.”

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, then they—but what gets lost there—

Wait a second, what gets lost there is that George Bush did oppose a Patients Bill of Rights in the state of Texas. And he did—and he's not for the Dingell/Norwood bill.

ROBERTS: It was lost because Al Gore didn't say it.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Yeah, well, he did say it, actually, in the course of the debate.

DONALDSON: This is very cerebral. George Will, you are, but it doesn't be—helping Gore.

WILL: It's not helping Gore in part because people find him overbearing and off-putting and all the rest.
In fact, Gore did explain all the key points in that final debate. When Cokie claimed that "Gore didn't say it," she was now flatly misstating the truth to advance the mandarin line. To his credit, George Stephanopoulos kept trying to raise the relevant points which had arisen in that debate. But Sam and Cokie, aided by Will, just kept clowning and laughing, in line with a twenty-month upper-class war against Vile Clinton’s successor.

In a move which captured the age, Sam complained that Tedious George was being “very cerebral!” Journalism over!

To this day, the career liberal world has agreed to pretend that these events never happened. But in that mocking conversation, Sam and Cokie showed the world that they were full-fledged members of a mandarin ruling class.

Last week, Megan McArdle described the process by which a new journalistic elite is being formed. And uh-oh! She almost seemed to suggest that this new journalistic class will end up the same way those storeboughts did. To read her full piece, click here.

McArdle isn’t a liberal, but liberals and progressives should consider the various things she said in her piece. We liberals just sat there politely and took it as Sam and Cokie, with many others, went over to the mandarin side during the post-Reagan years.

Now, a new set of allegedly liberal journalists is being assembled for our use and enjoyment. But will they turn out to be the real deal?

Comparing D.C.’s ambitious young journalists to imperial China’s mandarin class, McArdle suggested that these high-flyers may turn out to be lacking too:
MCARDLE (2/21/13): All elites are good at rationalizing their eliteness, whether it's meritocracy or “the divine right of kings.” The problem is the mandarin elite has some good arguments. They really are very bright and hardworking. It’s just that they’re also prone to be conformist, risk averse, obedient, and good at echoing the opinions of authority, because that is what this sort of examination system selects for.

The even greater danger is that they become more and more removed from the people they are supposed to serve. Since I moved to Washington, I have had series of extraordinary conversations with Washington journalists and policy analysts, in which I remark upon some perfectly ordinary facet of working-class, or even business-class life, only to have this revelation met with amazement...
Tomorrow, we will once again examine the claim that these young journalists “really are very bright”—“very smart,” as McArdle says a bit later. For today, liberals and progressives might want to consider the background McArdle ascribes to these rapid risers—and the traits which may perhaps be found among this striving class.

According to McArdle, many member of this class are clueless about everyday aspects of working-class and even business-class life. This statement is perfectly plausible; it’s hard to know why this wouldn’t be true, given their backgrounds and their tender years. She also suggests that these rapid risers are “prone to be conformist, risk averse, obedient, and good at echoing the opinions of authority.”

Sam and Cokie turned out that way. Will our new elite follow suit? For a second day, we think it’s worth reviewing McArdle’s portrait of the way today’s young strivers have struggled to climb, reaching all the way back to third grade:
MCARDLE: The road to a job as a public intellectual now increasingly runs through a few elite schools, often followed by a series of very-low-paid internships that have to be subsidized by well-heeled parents, or at least a free bedroom in a major city. The fact that I have a somewhat meandering work and school history, and didn't become a journalist until I was 30, gives me some insight (she said, modestly) that is hard to get if you’re on a laser-focused track that shoots you out of third grade and straight toward a career where you write and think for a living. Almost none of the kids I meet in Washington these days even had boring menial high-school jobs working in a drugstore or waiting tables; they were doing “enriching” internships or academic programs. And thus the separation of the mandarin class grows ever more complete.


As I say, the mandarins are in many senses deserving: they work very hard, and they are very smart. But there is one important thing they do not know, which is what it is like to be anyone except a mandarin. The first generation to come out of the postwar education revolution did; their parents frequently had quite banal jobs, possibly ones that left them with dirt under their fingernails after a day's work. (I remember as a child watching my grandfather's hands with fascination: after decades in a service station, they were permanently darkened from oil and dirt. He would come home from work every day and go into the first-floor powder room to wash his hands and shave before dinner ... but though I watched him scrub and scrub very thoroughly, the gray never entirely came off.)

But the people entering journalism, or finance, or consulting, or any other "elite" profession, are increasingly the children of the children of those who rocketed to prosperity through the postwar education system. A window that opened is closing. The mandarins are pulling away from the rest of America.
Rightly or wrongly, McArdle pictures a class of strivers who had already started to strive by the time they attended third grade. They have rocketed to the top through their technical verbal skills, although they lack a wide range of life experiences.

She says these young strivers are very ambitious—and she suggests that this high ambition may make them prone to be conformist. She says they are prone to being obedient.

Worst of all, she says they tend to be good at echoing the opinions of authority.

That’s how Sam and Cokie turned out, as you can see in the transcript we’ve posted. By October 2000, Sam and Cokie weren’t even pretending to be involved in journalism. They were simply laughing and clowning as they advanced the preferred point of view of Washington’s mandarin class.

Sam came from an average background; Cokie came from the elite. But fame and money are powerful forces—and the fame and the money have only grown since they turned Sam and Cokie to mush.

Is McArdle just trashing These Kids Today? Or will the fame and the money affect our new leaders in the ways she suggests? Is this process already occurring? For each of the last two questions, we will assume that the answer is yes. But in any case, liberals and progressives refuse to function as active citizens if we assume that It Can’t Happen Here—not among the brilliant new leaders the networks have selected for our brilliant new liberal tribe.

Will our new leaders be mandarins too? Are they mandarins already? Tomorrow, we’ll examine a question which predates those concerns:

Are our brilliant new journalistic leaders even “very smart?”

Tomorrow: A very weak interview session, matched with the bio from Hell


  1. Give the prize to the person who predicted that this multi-day examination of McArdle's allegedly brilliant blog post would soon turn into what someone said 13 years ago.

    1. And the value of this snark is. . . ?

      And, by the way, where did the word "brilliant" or even its rough equivalent appear?

  2. These mandarins never stopped being pro-choice, and so they were always listed as liberals.

    That's not the only reason. Cokie and George came from strongly Democratic backgrounds. Cokie's father, Hale Boggs, was a leading Democrat in Congress, rising to House Majority Leader. IIRC her mother and her sister were later elected as Democrats. George Stephanopoulos was a senior political advisor to Bill Clinton.

    Imagine how liberals would feel if our "unbiased" news was being presented by Karl Rove and Jackie Gingrich.

    1. Quaker in a BasementFebruary 27, 2013 at 1:47 PM

      Congratulations on missing yet another obvious point.

  3. So how did Sam and Cokie end up as establishment loving, content-free careerists who always hew to the Washington Insider line? Doesn't that make them mandarins?

  4. If you are reading TDH then you already know about Bob's obsession with the events leading up to the 2000 election. Bob seems to have this quaint idea that it was the most consequential election in recent history as it may have helped lead to 9/11, and definitely led to two ongoing unpaid for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as helping to usher in the worst recession in 75 years. Silly Bob for wondering where the supposedly liberal media was and what they were up to in 1999-2000. Now we have some new young Turks, mostly ostensibly liberal, on the scene and Megan McCardle has asked some intersting questions about them. Here are two I took away. First, to what extent has an ability to jump through the right institutional hoops as opposed to original thinking led to their success ? Second, and somewhat relatedly, how concerned should we be with their lack of experience or awareness of much of the world outside their "mandarin" training ? That it is Megan McCardle who has provoked this should be immaterial. They are either good points worth discussing or not.

    1. "First, to what extent has an ability to jump through the right institutional hoops as opposed to original thinking led to their success ?"

      And again, this is different today from any other point in human history how?

      "Second, and somewhat relatedly, how concerned should we be with their lack of experience or awareness of much of the world outside their "mandarin" training ?"


      Sure, these are good points worth discussing, but a "mandarin" class has been pretty much in control of just about everything, including media, since at least the dawn of the Industrial Age if not before.

      In fact, look at how many of the "Founding Fathers" could be called "mandarins" under the definition that McArdle has used that Somerby thinks is some brilliant, new revelation.

      And 2000 was "the most consequential election in recent history"?

      How far back do you want to go? I thought that 1980 was pretty consequential with it's ushering in of the "Reagan Revolution" and his building, through using social issues as wedges, his coalition of working class with the "mandarin" class.

      I also thought that 1992 and 1996 were also pretty consequential, given that those elections gave us the greatest peacetime economic expansion in history while turning record deficit budgets into surpluses.

      And God only knows where we'd be if the 2008 and 2012 elections turned out differently.

      In short, EVERY presidential election is pretty doggone "consequential."

    2. "Sure, these are good points worth discussing, but a "mandarin" class has been pretty much in control of just about everything, including media, since at least the dawn of the Industrial Age if not before."
      This feels like too broad a brush for me, almost to the point of evasion. Were Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford, Hearst, Morgan, etc. "mandarins" of the last Gilded Age ? If so exactly what do you mean by mandarin ?
      If not, then who are you are referring to from that time?

      As for Presidential elections, yes, of course they are all important, but they are not all equally important. I agree that Reagan's win in 1980 changed the country dramatically, but really, it was almost inevitable. The country had been heading rightward for a while and wanted someone like Reagan and they got it. There was nothing the liberal media of the time was going to do to stop it. But 2000 was very different. A fat and lazy and smug media - including supposed liberals - helped give us that callow faux Texan for President and he was a complete disaster.

  5. If you go to big media for info, then you will likely get it from McArdle and her fellow "mandarins." (It's hard to see any other way for large corporations to operate that wouldn't be worse.)

    If McArdle were going to write something useful, it would say not to visit any site where she can be found: Daily Beast, The Atlantic, Economist, etc. Instead go read Marcy Wheeler or Greenwald or even TDH.

  6. Excellent, excellent posting. Megan McCardle though I may object to other writings here strikes me as excellent as well.


  7. Content-free snarks from the regulars aside, I agree this is a worthwhile analysis by McCardle. I find most of her work extremely disagreeable, but who else with a platform like hers is saying it? Her right-wing apologetics are obnoxious precisely because they fall squarely within the phenomenon she describes in this piece. Maybe this is step one towards a more realistic perspective.

    1. Wait a minute . . . Am I conflating McCardle with Amity Shlaes? Or is no conflation possible there?

    2. Well, at the risk of violating Godwin's Law, I am sure there were passages of Mein Kampf that weren't as bad as the rest of the book.

  8. A rare moment of clarity from the erstwhile "Jane Galt" who was all about objectivism and Libertarianism in the past. Has she really seen the light? We'll see.

  9. Megan McArdle has so discredited herself in so many ways with just about everybody that she's become almost invisible (blessedly so). This piece may be an attempt by her to regain some credibility and visibility --- credibility and visibility she absolutely does not deserve. Mr. Somerby only discredits himself by promoting her (self-serving, I am convinced) attempt at rehabilitation. He could make the larger points he seeks to make here without appealing to McArdle.

    Next we'll be getting posts from Mr. Somerby praising Luke Russert for denouncing the Mandarin class and nepotism in television journalism while speaking from his perch at NBC/MSNBC.

    Okay, okay, let's leave room for growth. Maybe McMegan has begun to see the light. Let's just not start assuming so till we have further evidence.

    Btw, notice the way McArdle's past behavior as a "journalist" matters not to Mr. Somerby. Were this Joan Walsh, however -- can you imagine?

  10. For the remoteness of the likelihood that McArdle has seen the light and is not just playing people like Bob (among others):

    1. WOW! You know what this tells me? MSNBC is becoming a real problem for the Kochs, and now their propagandist is trying to paint them as "mandarins."

      And Somberby has taken the bait.

  11. I can't be the only one who thinks that using the term "mandarins" as a pejorative is a little, ummm -- racist?

    1. Maybe unintentionally plays into a larger racism. Fair point, given the larger culture. Personally, I think of Mandarins as a highly educated class administering an imperial system which relied on them to such an extent that the Mandarins could compete with the imperial leaders or play them against one another. Loosely analogous to Magi or abbots and bishops, sometimes, in other systems in other places.... But for many people, if the term has any associations, it may be with Charlie Chan.