I hate the phrase "guilty pleasure." It seems designed to preempt criticism by the supercilious, which is an unworthy goal. Still, sometimes you find yourself with enthusiasms that surprise you -- even trouble you. And, like a lot of respectable center-left types, I get more of a kick from James Baker than I really should.
The myth of Baker's supreme competence died in '92 when the Bush campaign made an ass of itself. (Yes, the economy meant they'd lose anyway, but the dark hints about a Clinton-KGB tie were achingly sad. It was like watching an old heavyweight turn pro wrestler.) But, even if he isn't invincible, there's no doubt Baker usually knows what he's doing. Most people don't. Certainly, the administration doesn't, which is why he's back performing missions again. Josh Marshall and others can debate whether Baker is now the gray eminence for the whole Iraqi operation. The rest of us will settle for the obvious observation that he's doing all right at his official assignment, which is getting international debtors off our captive's back.
Note: "Gray eminence" does not mean "distinguished old guy whom important people listen to." It means the fellow who calls the shots even though doing so is not in his job description. As David Mamet put it in a screenplay, he's "the guy behind the guy behind the guy." You can take out one of those "behind the guys" if you like -- the point still holds. Now, some might argue that either definition suits Baker. And it's true that he looks well in a suit, obviously went to good schools, and spent a fair amount of time at the top of the policy mountain. But a fixer is not distinguished, whether his client is an ambitious ruling-class family or an entire superpower. The realpolitik crew deserve a certain job-well-done respect when they pull things off, but it's hard to really look up to them. They represent enlightened self-interest, which shines only when placed against dumb self-interest, as represented by the President, or against sanctimonious zealotry, as represented by smart-mouth types the President used to pay attention to.
The realpolitik types know that, internationally, being boss and being supreme are two different things, and that to attain the first you have to give up any idea of the second. This is an idea most kids could grasp once they lost interest in heavy metal. Bush II never got it; Baker did long ago. Still, it's not like I'm going to be grateful to him for that.
A lot (to put it mildly) of peaceable middle-class Americans love the Godfather
movies. In my case a big part of the draw is Vito and Michael's cold-eyed calculation. These are men who do not mistakes, who do not flinch from hard facts, who do exactly what is necessary to come out on top. You can see how Baker and his bunch fit into this myth. And Baker at least looks and behaves the part -- unlike Nixon, the king of realpolitik but an excitable neurotic. Still, by their goals thou shalt know them. The Corleones and the realpolitikers only care about Their Thing (the family racket or U.S. coporate and security interests). That shows a small soul.
To make the sort of naive point that is completely futile but quite important: if Baker and his gang were statesman, they wouldn't just have made op-ed noises when Bush II was gearing up this stupid war. Baker would have given a press conference saying that the President was misleading the country and threatening its well-being. After all, the Iraq adventure was a betrayal of American interests, and nothing is supposed to be more important to the realpolitik crew. But Baker put family and party interests ahead of national interest, and so he remained demure. (Yes, he said something in Toronto about getting back in alignment with the allies, and no doubt he put a few other caveats on the record. But that isn't the same as mounting an opposition.)
If you spend your life thinking small, even on a global scale, it's awfully hard to start thinking big. So America has put a bullet in its foot because Baker didn't want to make things difficult for his old ally's idiot son.
From the mind of Dennis Miller (in a Time
"Explain how the war in Iraq makes sense to you as a response to 9/11.
Like there's no chance that the secular state of Iraq and Islamic fundamentalists cohabitate? They both think we're Satan. How about that as a nice point of departure for them car-pooling? I wish there was a country called al-Qaedia that we could have invaded, but there wasn't. [Saddam was] the only one who had a home address."
I call this the Body Shop argument. Every Christmas my mother gets a present from me, of course. And it comes from the Body Shop because I know where to find it in the mall.
Where you have to feel for Miller is his guilessness. Some liberals have claimed that this line of reasoning actually was Bush's unspoken rationale for the war. Just like Christmas means presents, they said, Bush figured an attack like 9-11 means invading somebody someplace. It didn't much matter who or where as long as a name and address were available. Now Miller offers up this justification in all seriousness and thinks he's scored a point.
The retorts to Miller are obvious. Iraq and al-Qaeda certainly might have collaborated against their common enemy, but the evidence showed they didn't and it showed this long before Bush set the troops in motion. And if there wasn't an Al-Qaedia, there was a country where al-Qaeda had its headquarters and we invaded there two years back. This was Afghanistan, and we scored a victory that delighted right-wingers at the time but which now they can't mentally process. As Democrats have been saying for a while, it would make a lot more sense to follow up on that triumph by actually finding Osama bin-Laden rather than invade some other, unconnected country just because we're familiar with its name. Finally, Saudi Arabia did have quite a bit to do with al-Qaeda, which didn't stop us from giving them a pass.
To take a broader perspective, Miller's remark gives us another lesson in human nature. Anyone who's crossed paths with his career (Saturday Night Live
, a talk show or something on HBO) knows he considers himself quite a swordsman with words and logic. This is more evidence that, no matter what the human mind is actually doing, it can convince itself that it is reasoning. I hope this will be called the Miller Effect, but it extends far beyond him. Michael Lewis once said people who make a big deal about being nice usually aren't. I've found that people who consider themselves sharply logical are just devoted to the thrill of feeling incisive. It's a bit like rubbing your hands together when you're freezing -- a sensation is substituted for a condition.
Finally, what does it tell us that I just spent a few hundred words rebutting a comedian? And this is really not atypical of the Web or of our media life in general. After all, Time
wanted Miller's thoughts on national security and served them up as if they made sense. Reading the blogs, looking at news magazines, catching sight of talk shows, I get the feeling that we're happy to jabber ourselves to death while events do with themselves what they will. This probably isn't anything new in human behavior, but we've opened up more ways of indulging the tendency and are pursuing them like a chimp pressing the bar that tickles some lobe of its brain. In the meantime, it would be nice if we could get a bit more serious about finding Osama.
Dean and the Internet analyzed by Everett Ehrlich in a Washington Post
"... he is essentially a third-party candidate using modern technology to achieve a takeover of the Democratic Party. ... He is creating his own party, his own lists, his own money, his own organization. What he wants are the Democratic brand name and legacy, the party's last remaining assets of value, as part of his marketing strategy."
Not bad. Admirably clear and with sweep. I have no idea whether he's right, but neither do you. It sounds good, and that's more than most newspaper attempts at heavy-dutyness have taught us to expect.
Ehrlich gets gutsy for the wind-up:
"Here are some predictions. First, if Dean loses the nomination, he will preserve his organizational advantage and reemerge as a third-party force four years from now. He has done with technology what Ross Perot could not do with money alone. Second, the evangelical right will become a separate political party ... it will usually endorse Republican candidates. But evangelicals will use their inherent party-ness to make the Republican candidate stand in front of them and give a separate acceptance speech. And finally, in the next six or eight presidential elections, a third-party candidate will win the presidency."
Those are predictions worth making and worth tracking.
A classically bad Times
"If Joe Trippi, Howard Dean's campaign manager, had a bumper sticker, it would read, 'The biggest myth in American politics is that Joe Trippi is running the Dean campaign.'"
If Joe Trippi had a bumper sticker like that, he'd also have a car that took up two lanes and part of the surrounding countryside. Any normal person would notice the sentence in question is long and ungraceful and therefore not suited to blasting a point home -- the purpose of bumper stickers and also of pithy newspaper leads. But the people in charge of putting words on newsprint for the New York Times
can't think in those terms. They even load up the paragraph with the uh-duh news that Trippi is Dean's campaign manager, something that could wait for the second paragraph. (If a man says it's a myth that he runs a particular campaign, his title is not exactly crucial. What matters is that, apparently, a lot of people think he runs the campaign and he says he doesn't. The nuts and bolts can wait a few seconds.)
No common sense is at work here, no feel for words, no feel for how a reader's mind works. The reporter should just plod ahead and say something flat-footed but inoffensive ("Joe Trippi says he may be Howard Dean's campaign manager but that the candidate is the one calling the shots." Or, to be more Times
-like, "the one making key day-to-day decisions and those relating to overall strategy.") Instead she comes out with something clubfooted and excruciating.
Why didn't Jodi Wilgoren and her editors take the inglorious but functional route suited to their gifts? Why did they delude themselves they could make the prose "sing" (to borrow a favorite cliche of the periodical trade)? All I can do is guess.
One: people with no sense of style can't tell when it's absent. Therefore, they think anyone can produce stylish prose. In the same way, people with no sense of humor think they can be funny by, say, putting a napkin on their head and jumping up and down.
Two: the Times
and its cadres believe that all good things belong to their organization. That includes originality and wit. Therefore, a Times
-man can produce these things simply by intending to, the way normal people can produce hot water by turning a tap.
Joan Didion once wrote about Doris Lessing's "arrogantly bad" ear. "Arrogantly bad" -- that's Times
prose when the stepping-out urge comes upon them.
A shitty evening isn't as important as the Iraq war and the environment. But it counts for a lot more when you're the one doing the counting.
Which is why a bad date makes me more angry than four years of Bush. Consider that a lesson in human nature.
Noted in Slate
"When told that Germany's chancellor suggested that barring non-coalition countries from contracts violates international law, Bush responded, 'International law? I better call my lawyer. I don't know what you're talking about, about international law.'"
I kind of like that. In my view law is fiction and international law is science fiction. Law is a useful delusion that causes the population to cooperate with armed authority while encouraging authority to pay some attention to the subjects' needs and demands. But take away armed authority and the law is nothing but words waiting to be blown away. And that is indeed international law's situation since, as was demonstrated this spring, its only real source of enforcement muscle is us and we're not all that interested. Also, our muscle isn't quite as efficacious as some of our jokers thought.
International law. I suppose it's useful with trade treaties and so on -- laying out how multinationals and host governments can dot the i's while pursuing their commerce. But it shouldn't get in the way of anything serious. And it doesn't.
Not that the administration aims are serious. International law vs. Paul Wolfowitz's Iraq policy: delusion battles mirage, and that is our public life today.
Sidney Blumenthal in Salon
"... the news media is being overwhelmed by the din of a right-wing echo chamber that masks itself as journalism."
I think that says it. "Echo chamber" is the mot juste, one that occurred to me a while back. Blumenthal also thought of it and
used the phrase in print, so he gets my unhappy congratulations.
This country is talking itself into a nervous breakdown.
Gore for Dean.
Now Dean's in trouble.
Gore does not have a good relationship with the public will. Or put it this way: he has a miserable relationship with success.
He always out-thinks himself. He tries to be too smart and it backfires. Even when he thinks he isn't being cute, he's just trying a new approach and doesn't know it yet. Including this time, when he isn't being Mr. Inside, when he's looking beyond DC and the safe players, making a bet on people power.
Backing Dean is a ploy -- done with greater nerve and distance vision than Gore has usually shown, but still a ploy. You could argue that Gore has missed the real popular groundswell (building out there somewhere) and gone for the Microsoft version, the big-name version. Or you could say Gore's kingmaking will spur the counter-groundswell into existence. New Hampshire voters like their independence, non-Dems can vote in the primary, etc.
But there's going to be a second groundswell and Dean will have a fight on his hands -- from Clark, maybe. Poor old Gore will get the blame.
Remember that the presidential runup has been changing, picking up a quicker rhythm as the press has built NH into a mini-Super Bowl or NBA playoff. In 2000 we reached the point where the underdog (Bradley) did less well than expected. Once that would have been logically impossible: no one expected anything of the underdog precisely because that's what he was, the underdog.
Now the maverick can get to NH with expectations dangling off him. Right now Dean is getting all the good-time stuff (attention, heavy endorsement) that used to come a new face's way after
he won the key primary. The boy's peaking.
In Hew Hampshire he'll take a tumble and the press will be on him. And then the press will be astonished that he keeps going. Which he probably will, having stubborness, core supporters, and proportional rep to keep him alive. He could even get nominated. In fact he might even get elected, if there isn't an attack. But the press is never going to be with him.
But whether or not Dean makes it, who will get the blame for his bad New Hampshire? Old Jonah -- Al Gore. With some people it's a talent.
"Terrific news," Clark said when he heard about the endorsement. Maybe he's on to something.
Expect this: the rise of a second dark horse between now and the vote; a press decision that Dean did less well than expected in NH; a long fight for the nomination; a lasting black eye for Al Gore. In the end, if he wins, Dean may decide he did it despite the guy and stiff him on appointments. They both have to be the smartest man in the room, which is probably a big part of the problems they keep running into.