Rotten Elites

I was reading Gary Hart's op-ed yesterday morning, when I was reminded of this post on A Tiny Revolution to which I've been meaning to link.

Hart's article is a well written, straighforward call for Democrats to step up on the Iraq issue. He is convinced, as I and others are as well, that the crucible of the McGovern campaign (which he chaired) scarred the current leadership class of the Democratic party. He says:

Like the cat that jumped on a hot stove and thereafter wouldn't jump on any stove, hot or cold, today's Democratic leaders didn't want to make that mistake again. Many supported the Iraq war resolution and -- as the Big Muddy is rising yet again -- now find themselves tongue-tied or trying to trump a war president by calling for deployment of more troops. Thus does good money follow bad and bad politics get even worse.

I think it scarred them to such an extent that they avoid feeling political passion about anything. The Democratic leadership is desperately afraid of making the mistake of 1972 ever again --- which they see as wild, peacenik utopianism. As a result are determined to be as colorless and lackluster as possible. They never want to be in the position again of being called "unserious."

Considering our current political situation, I can't help but be reminded of the old joke:

"Howard and Joe are facing the firing squad. The executioner comes forward to place the blindfold on them. Howard disdainfully and proudly refuses, tearing the thing from his face. Joe turns to him and pleads: "Please Howard, don't make trouble!"

So Hart says what we are all thinking and yet it sounds odd and discordant coming from the pages of the Washington Post. And I think the reason is that he isn't speaking in beltway parlance. And apparently, he never has.

According to the post I linked at A Tiny Revolution, the beltway crowd has always thought of him a a flake and a weirdo --- just as they think of people like me and probably most of you who are reading this as weirdos. Jon says:

I grew up in the Washington area and went to school with lots of children of government and media types. Then I went to Yale, which is also full of such offspring. What I saw was that the corporate media—places like the New York Times, Washington Post, the networks, etc.—and government figures are blatantly, brazenly in bed with each other. And not just metaphorically; it's often literally true. There's Andrea Mitchell & Alan Greenspan; James Rubin & Christiane Amanpour; Judith Miller & a cast of thousands; and so on.

In any case, whoever they're shtupping, they share a mindset: they self-consciously see themselves as a governing elite that runs things hand in hand. That's why Nicholas Kristof is anxious that calling George Bush a liar may make America "increasingly difficult to govern."

He shares an anecdote of his years at Yale when Richard Cohen came to speak:

Cohen told all us fresh-faced, ambitious, grotty youths this:

The Washington press corps had specifically tried to push Hart out of the race. It wasn't that he'd had extramarital affairs—everyone knew this was the norm rather than the exception among politicians. Hart wasn't at all unusual in this respect. Instead, Cohen said, it was because the press corps felt that Hart was "weird" and "flaky" and shouldn't be president. And when the Donna Rice stuff happened, they saw their opening and went after him.

(I wish I remembered more about what Cohen said about the specific gripe of the press corps with Hart, but I don't think he revealed many details.)

At the time, I remember thinking this:

1. How interesting that the DC press corps knows grimy details about lots of politicians but only chooses to tell the great unwashed when they decide it's appropriate.

2. How interesting that the DC press corps feels it's their place to make decisions for the rest of America; ie, rather than laying out the evidence that Hart was weird, flaky, etc., and letting Americans decide whether they cared, they decided run-of-the-mill citizens couldn't be trusted to make the correct evaluation.

I'm not a naive person and I know that centers of power always feature this sort of thing to one extent or another. Elites tend to gather. But the thing about democracy is that it's supposed to keep a lid on the worst impulses of the ruling class by allowing the hoi polloi to be involved in the process. I think that things have gotten seriously out of balance in recent years.

It was clear that Bill Clinton was offensive to the Washington establishment from the beginning, mainly because although he had all the proper elite credentials, he clearly wasn't a real member of the club. I remember at the time that this surpised me. Georgetown, Yale, Oxford, DLC, Governors association --- I thought that made up for the fact that he was a bit of an earthy, good old boy. But it seemed to inflame them even more.

Bob Somerby discusses the WaPo writer John Harris' book on this very subject:

... finally we get to the real explanation—to some sort of “cultural clash” between Clinton and the press corps. Why did the press corps have such disdain? Why was Clinton covered in the way that he was? Readers, prepare to be grossly underwhelmed. Clinton wasn’t cool, the way JFK was, Harris finally tells us:

HARRIS (continuing directly): There is a certain kind of politician for whom journalists tend to fall. John F. Kennedy, with his cool detachment, humor and irony, was the supreme example. Journalists of that era recall that JFK was breathlessly candid about his political strategies, and even the contradictions between his public statements and private views. Clinton was not a man of detachment. He was immersed in his performance, utterly earnest, offended by suggestions that his private motives were any different from his public pronouncements. At times the antagonism between president and press corps had a high school dimension. Clinton, working hard on his grades, saw the reporters as slackers and bullies—more interested in gossip and carping than anything constructive. The reporters, shooting spitballs from the back of the class, regarded Clinton as a preening apple-polisher.

Clinton wasn’t cool, Harris says. He wasn’t cool, like JFK was! Indeed, Harris has already explored this notion at an earlier point in his book. “Clinton by no means lacked humor,” he writes on page 35, “but his natural bent was toward cheerful patter and oft-told yarns. Washington humor is different—ironic and knowing, the sort of detached wit that John F. Kennedy used to beguile a generation of journalists.”

That's why the late, great Mediawhores Online dubbed them the Kewl Kidz. And for all their alleged ironic detachment and urbane wit, they never got the joke.

I spent the 90's in LA, working closely with people who know a thing or two about cool and Clinton was considered the coolest president ever. He was obviously incredibly smart, good humored, catnip to women and had the common touch. It was clear to me from the earliest days of his presidency that his problem with the Washington press corps most assuredly was not that he wasn't cool enough --- it was that he was too cool.I suspect that Clinton always had this problem when dealing with the elites whom he was more than smart enough to hob-nob with --- he was too earthy, too sexual, too down and dirty. Like the timorous Dems of the class of '72, the establishment (of which they are now a part) thinks being overtly human is to be a little bit too close to the beast.

They hated Al Gore for the opposite reason. He reminded them of their own geeky selves. They hated Hart because he emits a whiff of McGovernite hippie -- a fate worse than death. In other words, the elite "liberal" media --- and the Democatic establishment --- all seem to be battling personal demons that they are taking out on Democratic politicans. And they live in this little DC bubble that resembles nothing so much as a royal court where palace intrigue is beamed out into the rest of the world and called "politics." It's infected how we all interpret political matters --- I have only recently realized just how much it infected me.

I have never been much of a revolutionary. Even when I was young I tended to cringe at any kind of earnest, "to the barricades" kind of thinking. I tend to think in smaller strategic and tactical terms rather than large sweeping movements. However, I have come to realize that this is one of those times when something has to happen from the ground up. Washington has become a kind of aristocrisy, with all the attendant inbred, insular, corruption that eventually befalls a ruling elite.

The biggest sickness in our politics is this top down, elitist mentality in which people are fed a diet of information, entertainment, products and ideas that are focus grouped, soulless and commercial --- and which are then filtered through a ruling media class that is so psychologically cramped, so emotionally sterile, so stuck in their own feedback loop that they are presenting a totally distorted version of reality. It's important that we look elsewhere for wisdom and leadership.