Who Do They Think They Are?
In his attempt to dismiss us, Mr. Rove turned to head toward his table, but as soon as he did so, Sheryl reached out to touch his arm. Karl swung around and spat, "Don't touch me." ... Unphased, Sheryl abruptly responded, "You can't speak to us like that, you work for us." Karl then quipped, "I don't work for you, I work for the American people." To which Sheryl promptly reminded him, "We are the American people..."
Yesterday, Glenn Greenwald thoroughly dispatched the absurd notion of David Broder being hailed as "the voice of the people." This should be completely uncontroversial. The "Dean" of the Washington press corps cannot, by definition, be the voice of the people. It's ridiculous on its face. Yet Greenwald gets this response from Joe Klein:
I don't understand this. Is he saying that people like Broder and Ron Brownstein and me shouldn't talk to people outside the Beltway?
Look, the blogospheric media critics have served a valuable function at times, and at other times it's just vitriol for vitriol's sake. I thought an essential part of the critique was that some of us are out of touch with reality...but now Greenwald is saying that any efforts to actually report what's going on outside the Beltway are bad, too?
It ought to go without saying that I argued nothing of the kind. My point was that Beltway pundits are far too insulated and detached from the people whom they baselessly claim to represent, not that leaving the Beltway is bad. The fact that it is supposed to be some sort of commendable or distinguishing attribute that Broder goes on field trips to America in order to study how the "ordinary people" think -- much the way a zoologist travels to the jungle to observe the behavior of different species -- illustrates that point.
I would actually take the argument another step and point out that Broder and others also venture out into the American landscape with a sort of pre-conceived notion of what defines "the people" that appears to have been formed by TV sit-coms in 1955. They seem to see extraordinary value in sitting in some diner with middle aged and older white men (sometimes a few women are included) to "ask them what they think." And invariably these middle-aged white men say the country is going to hell in a handbasket and they want the government to do more and they hate paying taxes. There may be a little frisson of disagreement among these otherwise similar people on certain issues of the day because of their affiliation with a union or because of the war or certain social issues, but for the most part they all sit together and politely talk politics with this anthropologist/reporter, usually agreeing that this president or another one is a bum or a hero. The reporter takes careful notes of everything these "real Americans" have to say and take them back to DC and report them as the opinions of "the people."
Meanwhile, someone like me, who lives in a big city on the west coast and who doesn't hang out in diners with middle aged white men are used as an example of the "fringe" even though I too am one of "the people" as are many others --- like hispanic youths or single urban mothers or dot-com millionaires or elderly southern black granddads or Korean entrepreneurs (or even Sheryl Crow.) We are not Real Americans.
This fetishization of that other mythical "Real American" seems to stem from a public epiphany that the previous "Dean" of the DC press corps, Joseph Kraft, had almost 40 years ago when confronted with the disconcerting sight of violence in the streets perpetrated by nice white boys and girls:
"Are we merely neutral observers, seekers after truth in the public interest? Or do we, as the supporters of Mayor Daley and his Chicago police have charged, have a prejudice of our own?
"The answer, I think is that Mayor Daley and his supporters have a point. Most of us in what is called the communications field are not rooted in the great mass of ordinary Americans--in Middle America. And the results show up not merely in occasional episodes such as the Chicago violence but more importantly in the systematic bias toward young people, minority groups, and the of presidential candidates who appeal to them.
"To get a feel of this bias it is first necessary to understand the antagonism that divides the middle class of this country. On the one hand there are highly educated upper-income whites sure of and brimming with ideas for doing things differently. On the other hand, there is Middle America, the large majority of low-income whites, traditional in their values and on the defensive against innovation.
"The most important organs of and television are, beyond much doubt, dominated by the outlook of the upper-income whites.
"In these circumstances, it seems to me that those of us in the media need to make a special effort to understand Middle America. Equally it seems wise to exercise a certain caution, a prudent restraint, in pressing a claim for a plenary indulgence to be in all places at all times the agent of the sovereign public."
Joseph Kraft defined "Middle America" as a blue collar or rural white male, "traditional in his values and defensive against innovation." Ever since then, the denizens of the beltway have deluded themselves into thinking they speak for that "silent majority." (And what a serendipitous coincidence it was that this happened at the moment of a right wing political ascension that also made a fetish out of the same blue collar white male.) The converse of this, of course, is that they also assume that the "fringe" liberals from the coasts are way out of the mainstream, even to the extent that editors of Time simply make up data to conform to Kraft's outdated observations.
It reached the zenith of synergistic absurdity during the Lewinsky scandal when the cosmopolitan beltway courtiers finally went all in and portrayed themselves as as the salt-of-the-earth provincial town folk who were appalled by the misbehavior 'o them out-a-towners from thuh big city:
When Establishment Washingtonians of all persuasions gather to support their own, they are not unlike any other small community in the country.
On this evening, the roster included Cabinet members Madeleine Albright and Donna Shalala, Republicans Sen. John McCain and Rep. Bob Livingston, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, PBS's Jim Lehrer and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, all behaving like the pals that they are. On display was a side of Washington that most people in this country never see. For all their apparent public differences, the people in the room that night were coming together with genuine affection and emotion to support their friends -- the Wall Street Journal's Al Hunt and his wife, CNN's Judy Woodruff, whose son Jeffrey has spina bifida.
But this particular community happens to be in the nation's capital. And the people in it are the so-called Beltway Insiders -- the high-level members of Congress, policymakers, lawyers, military brass, diplomats and journalists who have a proprietary interest in Washington and identify with it.
They call the capital city their "town."
And their town has been turned upside down.
Here you had the most powerful people in the world identifying themselves with Bedford Falls from "It's A Wonderful Life" when the court of Versailles or Augustan Rome would be far more more apt. The lack of self-awareness is breathtaking. Thirty years after Kraft's epiphany, this decadent world capital that had recently seen the likes of Richard Nixon's crimes and John F. Kennedy's philandering (and corruption of all types, both moral and legal at the highest levels for years), were now telling the nation that they themselves were small town burghers and factory workers upholding traditional American values. And even more amazing, the rest of America was now morally suspect and needed to be led by these purveyors of Real American values:
With some exceptions, the Washington Establishment is outraged by the president's behavior in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The polls show that a majority of Americans do not share that outrage. Around the nation, people are disgusted but want to move on; in Washington, despite Clinton's gains with the budget and the Mideast peace talks, people want some formal acknowledgment that the president's behavior has been unacceptable. They want this, they say, not just for the sake of the community, but for the sake of the country and the presidency as well.
They were just defending their lonely little outpost against the interlopers:
This is where they spend their lives, raise their families, participate in community activities, take pride in their surroundings. They feel Washington has been brought into disrepute by the actions of the president.
"It's much more personal here," says pollster Geoff Garin. "This is an affront to their world. It affects the dignity of the place where they live and work. . . . Clinton's behavior is unacceptable. If they did this at the local Elks Club hall in some other community it would be a big cause for concern."
"He came in here and he trashed the place," says Washington Post columnist David Broder, "and it's not his place."
"This is a company town," says retired senator Howard Baker, once Ronald Reagan's chief of staff. "We're up close and personal. The White House is the center around which our city revolves."
Bill Galston, former deputy domestic policy adviser to Clinton and now a professor at the University of Maryland, says of the scandal that "most people in Washington believe that most people in Washington are honorable and are trying to do the right thing. The basic thought is that to concede that this is normal and that everybody does it is to undermine a lifetime commitment to honorable public service."
"Everybody doesn't do it," says Jerry Rafshoon, Jimmy Carter's former communications director. "The president himself has said it was wrong."
Pollster Garin, president of Peter Hart Research Associates, says that the disconnect is not unlike the difference between the way men and women view the scandal. Just as many men are angry that Clinton's actions inspire the reaction "All men are like that," Washingtonians can't abide it that the rest of the country might think everyone here cheats and lies and abuses his subordinates the way the president has.
"This is a community in all kinds of ways," says ABC correspondent Cokie Roberts, whose parents both served in Congress. She is concerned that people outside Washington have a distorted view of those who live here. "The notion that we are some rarefied beings who breathe toxic air is ridiculous. . . . When something happens everybody gathers around. . . . It's a community of good people involved in a worthwhile pursuit. We think being a worthwhile public servant or journalist matters."
"This is our town," says Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the first Democrat to forcefully condemn the president's behavior. "We spend our lives involved in talking about, dealing with, working in government. It has reminded everybody what matters to them. You are embarrassed about what Bill Clinton's behavior says about the White House, the presidency, the government in general."
And many are offended that the principles that brought them to Washington in the first place are now seen to be unfashionable or illegitimate.
Muffie Cabot, who as Muffie Brandon served as social secretary to President and Nancy Reagan, regards the scene with despair. "This is a demoralized little village," she says. "People have come from all over the country to serve a higher calling and look what happened. They're so disillusioned. The emperor has no clothes. Watergate was pretty scary, but it wasn't quite as sordid as this."
"People felt a reverent attitude toward 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," says Tish Baldrige, who once worked there as Jacqueline Kennedy's social secretary and has been a frequent visitor since. "Now it's gone, now it's sleaze and dirt. We all feel terribly let down. It's very emotional. We want there to be standards. We're used to standards. When you think back to other presidents, they all had a lot of class. That's nonexistent now. It's sad for people in the White House. . . . I've never seen such bad morale in my life. They're not proud of their chief."
That "demoralized little village" was all a-twitter, wasn't it? You'd never know that they were running the most powerful nation the world has ever known, would you?
Yet, even while they ostentatiously ranted and wailed hysterically with anachronistic notions of bourgeois American values, they still carried on as if the White House and the nation's capital belonged to them instead of the American people, which is the very definition of elitism. What an achievement! The very rich and powerful (but we won't talk about that) "bourgeoisie" now had to save degenerate "Middle America" from itself.
When the equally phony George W. Bush came to town it was love at first sight, and why wouldn't it be? Here you had a man whom these people could truly admire --- a rich man of the bluest blood, born into one of the most powerful families in America who nonetheless pretended to be some hick from Midland Texas. He took great pride in his phoniness, just as they did, and they all danced this absurd kabuki in perfect step for years each pretending to the other that they were all "just regular guys."
You can see then why some of us have concluded that the Dean and his cadre of establishment courtiers don't actually care much about what "the people" think about anything. And it should also be obvious why we are so skeptical of their reporting skills when they venture out on their anthropological expeditions to find only examples of Americans who strangely hew to their own Hollywood casting of themselves -- an America of Sally Quinns warmly played by plucky Donna Reed and David Broder himself, brought to life by loveable Wilfred Brimleys. ("They came in and they trashed the place. And it's not their place." Can't you just hear it?)
Of course political reporters should go out and interview Americans and write stories about what those Americans have to say about the issues of the day. But those interviews are not any more representative of what "the people" as a whole think than are the liberal blogs or Sally Quinn's fictitious "small town" or the fans at a NASCAR race. This is especially true when it's filtered through the phony bourgeois posturings of a bunch of highly paid reporters and insiders who have contrived a self-serving little passion play in which they are regular blue collar guys from Buffalo and corn fed farmers from the Midwest (Real Americans!) who just happen to summer on Nantucket and get invitations to white tie state dinners with the Queen of England. Pardon us fringe dwellers for being just a tad skeptical that these forays out into "America" are informing us about anything more the embarrassing neuroses of some very spoiled elites.