Candidate Muskie's lost tears: Yesterday morning, the New York Times published a page A3 exposé concerning the intellectual hygiene of its many readers.
It reminded some of Diane Sawyer's 1990 interview with Marla Maples. For details, see yesterday's report.
All across the future world, anthropologists hailed the relevance of the newspaper's exposé. Today, though, the shoe, slipper, sandal or mukluk is on the other foot.
We refer to the Times' daily "Of Interest" section (print editions only). Sitting atop today's A3, the presentation starts like this:
Of InterestIn the listing compiled by some Times employee, that was today's first "Noteworthy Fact."
NOTEWORTHY FACTS FROM TODAY'S PAPER
Bob Hawke, Australia's hugely popular prime minister from 1983 to 1991, once bragged of downing two and a half Imperial pints of beer in 12 seconds.
In what world does a fact like that strike a journalist as "noteworthy?" Sadly, it recalls the days when the nation's upper-end mainstream journalists evaluated White House candidates on the basis of who the voters "would like to have a beer with."
Who would you like to have a beer with? According to several future analysts, the press corps' persistent focus on such manifest trivia spoke to the intellectual limitations which eventually led to the devastation of Mister Trump's Unintelligent War.
"In the end, this was really all we humans had in the general area of smarts," one disconsolate scholar has said. Beyond that, the press corps' persistent attempts at the assessment of character was a major part of the syndrome which is now widely known in the future as The Rise of Leadership Down.
According to these future scholars, there were many Basic Skill Levels Down during the era in question:
Journalists routinely engaged in fanciful paraphrase. They were persistently overmatched by such basic activities as "adjusting for inflation" and "reporting the actual facts."
Just as Professor Harari has said, they were heavily drawn to gossip and to the promulgation of potent group "fictions." Their minds would wander to such questions as the one Sawyer raised with Maples:
Was sex with The Donald the best she'd ever had?
Such questions ruled the world of the upper-end press corps during The Rise of Leadership Down.
Journalists of the era had many notable flaws. But above all else, future experts now say, these tribal creatures distinguished themselves by their insistence on forming Group Assessments of Character—group assessments which were routinely comically wrong.
"They kept insisting that Paul Ryan was honest," one future scholar remarked. "What else has to be said?"
Future Historians High in Trees have tried to explain the tendency to produce these assessments of character. Their overview goes something like this:
In the wake of Richard Nixon's downfall, journalists got it into their heads that they should devote more time to the assessment of character. They failed to see that their mental hygiene poorly equipped them for this challenging task.
How faulty could their judgments be? In 1992, Richard Ben Cramer published a three million-page history of the 1988 presidential election.
The book was called What It Takes: The Way to the White House. Though the book was unreadably long and unbearable on a page-by-page basis, it was hailed as a masterwork by other political journalists—a group which was strongly inclined to the familiar human practice of "seeing themselves from afar."
Many reviewers actually claimed that they had read the four million-page book! They would then proceed to hail Ben Cramer's brilliance. The leading authority on this phenomenon cites two examples, then succumbs to despair:
Cleveland Plain Dealer: "Quite possibly the finest book on presidential politics ever written, combining meticulous reporting and compelling, at times soaringly lyrical, prose."Ben Cramer's book codified an emerging type of journalism—a type of journalism in which inane assessments of character were based on trivial bits of behavior, with troubling examples of bad conduct sometimes completely invented.
San Francisco Chronicle: "The ultimate insider's book on presidential politics...an unparalleled source book on the 1988 candidates."
Inane assessments were devised; journalists would stampede off to repeat them as a group. By the fall of 1999, major players were even basing assessments of character on the number of buttons they'd spotted on one major candidate's suit coat.
The third button of the candidate's coat was taken to be a sexual signal aimed at female voters. Everyone else was prepared to pretend that this crackpot assessment made sense.
So went The Rise of Leadership Down in the years leading up to The War. Future scholars suggest that this rampant group behavior may have worked special havoc on Democratic White House candidates, with only one major exception. (In 1996, Lamar Alexander was taken down in New Hampshire on the basis of the hoary old "price of milk and bread" trick.)
Democrats were routinely hit hard. Consider the 1988 campaign, the subject of Ben Cramer's ten-ton book:
In 1987, journalists hid in the bushes outside the home of Democratic front-runner Gary Hart, hoping to prove that he had a girl friend who wasn't his actual wife. When it appeared that he possibly did, Hart had to leave the campaign.
The journalists then eliminated Candidate Biden on a series of minor character raps. Based upon our own knowledge, they also tried to take out Candidate Gore, making endless phone calls designed to see if he had ever smoked marijuana—AKA "Mary Jane"—when he was maybe 19.
That was just in the primaries! In that campaign's general election, Candidate Dukakis went down the drain when he failed to punch Bernie Shaw in the nose after Shaw asked him a repugnant question which imagined the rape and murder of Dukakis' wife.
Plus, he didn't look right in that tank! So it went as roving bands of journalists performed group assessments of character.
In Tuesday's report, we touched upon the state of this crackpot culture by the time of Campaign 2000. But the syndrome went on and on. It sent Bush to the White House in 2001, Trump in 2017.
Who would you like to drink a beer with? Whose suit coats have the right number of buttons? Whose pants are allegedly hemmed too high, making us look at his boots?
Liberal thought leaders stared into air as these questions were pimped on the public. Borrowing from Hemingway, this is the way the press corps was when devotion to Group Assessments of Character began taking hold of their lives.
In all these bizarre assessments of character, one may stand out most. It came quite early in the era. This particular group assessment involved Candidate Muskie's Lost Tears.
The event in question took place in February 1972. Forty years later, the New York Times seemed to be telling the truth somewhat slowly:
PETERS (1/9/12): People have feared and loathed The [Manchester, H.H.] Union Leader ever since the days of the curmudgeonly William Loeb III, who bought the paper in the 1940s and bullied a generation of politicians with vitriolic front-page editorials. Mr. Loeb headlined an article about Henry A. Kissinger’s appointment as secretary of state with an anti-Semitic slur. Edmund S. Muskie became “Moscow Muskie” and a flip-flopper. Mr. Muskie destroyed his candidacy by breaking down and appearing to cry while denouncing Mr. Loeb at a news conference outside the paper’s offices.For background, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/18/11.
Interesting, isn't it? Candidate Muskies had been the Democratic front-runner—the guy who supposedly had the best shot at unseating President Nixon.
Somehow, though, he "destroyed his candidacy" by appearing to cry! This puzzle involves his lost tears.
This must be one of the strangest stories in modern press corps history. It involves a front-page report by the Washington Post's David Broder—a front-page report Broder seemed to renounce fifteen years later.
In that initial front-page report, Broder described Muskie in front of the Union-Leader Building, "tears streaming down his face." In an age when no girlie-man need apply, a giant hubbub ensued.
As Jeremy Peters implied in the Times, this hubbub took Muskie out. Nixon cruised to re-election.
In real time, that front-page report took Muskie down and out. But fifteen years later, it seemed that the the report's basic claim was no longer operative! Writing in the Washington Monthly, a penitent Broder said this:
BRODER (2/87): Within 24 hours, Muskie's weeping became the focus of political talk, not just in New Hampshire, but everywhere the pattern of the developing presidential race was discussed. His tears were generally described as one of the contributing causes of his disappointing showing in the March 7 primary. Muskie beat McGovern by a margin of 46 to 37 percent, but his managers had publicized their goal of winning at least 50 percent of the New Hampshire Democratic vote. Underdog McGovern claimed that the results showed Muskie's weakness and his own growing strength. Muskie never recovered from that Saturday in the snow.Say what? Back in 1972, tears were streaming down Muskie's face. As of 1987, it was "unclear whether Muskie did cry."
In retrospect, though, there were a few problems with the Muskie story. First, it is unclear whether Muskie did cry.
This minor revision was described as "a problem with the story!"
Making this lunacy even more lunatic was a report by Lou Cannon, another major Post correspondent (and one of our favorite biographers). In August 2011, Paul Waldman seemed to tell part of the rest of the story, again in the Washington Post:
WALDMAN (8/14/11): The less well-known part of this story is that some influential journalists had decided long before that there was something slightly off about Muskie. In his 1977 book "Reporting: An Inside View," legendary journalist Lou Cannon wrote that, after playing poker with Muskie, he concluded that the senator was too temperamental to be president. "What does a political reporter do with this kind of insight?" Cannon asked. "As in this instance, it is rarely written as a hard news story the first time the thought arises…What we reporters tend to do is to store away in our minds such incidents and then use them to interpret—to set a context—for major incidents when they occur.”Future Anthropologists sadly say this was very "human" behavior. To wit:
To all appearances, a judgment was formed while major scribes played poker with Candidate Muskie. Later, basic facts were perhaps rearranged to help us adopt the assessment of character journalists had formed.
In 1999 and 2000, so it went as Gore's words were persistently scrambled to reinvent him as the world's biggest liar. In this manner, the press corps found a way to punish Bill Clinton, and to give us the war in Iraq.
Is that what happened in 1972, when the tears which later didn't exist were streaming down Muskie's face? You'll never see that question assessed. When it comes to our upper-end press, Homey don't play that game!
Al Gore's suit coat had too many buttons. Muskie didn't play poker right.
Dukakis should have punched Shaw in the nose. Hillary Clinton (AKA "Nurse Ratched") didn't ski on the bunny slopes right. Plus, she'd murdered all those people! Meanwhile, you'd like to drink a beer with George W. Bush.
Future Anthropologists Huddled in Caves (TM) tell us that, anthropologically speaking, this is all we human beings ever really had.
"Man [sic] is the rational animal?" That was always a fantasy, these despondent future experts have said. "In fact, we liked to gossip and promulgate fictions, just as Harari once said!"
At any rate, so it went during the embarrassing yet unremarked Rise of Leadership Down. This went on and on and on, and then it went on some more. Until a crazy person got elected, nobody noticed or cared.
Was it the best sex she ever had? Mercifully, Maples wasn't willing to answer Sawyer's thoughtful question.
She managed to keep that news to herself. Still, the inanity led to The War. "What I wouldn't give for a glass of beer now," one future scholar has said.
Next week: Professoriate Down!