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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Cokie's World

By Batocchio

(King Louis XVI and courtiers at Versailles in Ridicule, 1996.)

Has anyone heard yet whether Cokie Roberts approves of the stadium venue for Obama's acceptance speech? Has Colorado been deemed sufficiently "American"? Has she "summered" there? Inquiring minds want to know!

Cokie does have her moments, I suppose. But she deserved all the criticism she received and more over her Hawaii comments. Meanwhile, if you've missed them, you may want to check out Eric Alterman's 2002 piece on Cokie Roberts (via TBogg), and Bob Somerby on Cokie's speaking fees and the television pundit gravy train. (And boy, has Howard Kurtz changed!)

Cokie's world, the Beltway Village, Versailles on the Potomac, can't be fully understood in "reality-based" terms, or notions of what constitutes good journalism. Those are valid forms of criticism, but they don't get to the heart of what ails these supposedly smart and often highly-educated people. Wisdom sadly doesn't always accompany knowledge, but the problem is more one of social customs. It's sometimes really amazing to see, but for many Village pundits, what's right, and sometimes truth itself, is entirely socially determined. They're a pretty anti-empirical, unreflective lot. They often possess a blithe authoritarianism, or at least an obsession with prestige. Social norms can be very good– but the Beltway conventional "wisdom" can be awfully dumb.

Richard Cohen may be too easy an example, but he really is the Village attitude and approach laid bare. He's provided plenty of fodder for the liberal blogosphere (and maybe high school debate classes) with column after column featuring some glaring disconnect or shoddy argument. Before the McCain campaign's POW rollout this month, Cohen may have invoked McCain's POW status even more than McCain himself. Cohen's POW defense of McCain earlier this year was widely ridiculed, and for good reason. He's written several columns where he's basically stated, 'I prefer John McCain because I know him and like him.' That's fine, I guess, but it'd be nice if he came out and said just that, admitting his criteria were fundamentally social in nature, rather than trying to justify his personal preferences with other arguments, and consistently ignoring obvious relevant facts in the process. Cohen doesn't really analyze anything substantially, doesn't learn from his core mistakes, and rarely seems to think things through. Instead, he represents a set of attitudes, and is mostly obsessed with propriety over morality.

Similarly, "centrist" David Broder always seems to come up with novel reasons why you shouldn't vote for a Democrat, such as pushing executive experience as the most meaningful standard. Executive experience is a valid concern, of course, but Broder never seems very concerned about significant policy differences between candidates, has a funny sense of bipartisanship, and somehow seems to believe, despite the past eight years, that policies have no important consequences. Probably, Broder's view of the political game ossified years ago, and he's just never bothered to update his diagnosis nor his prescription to accommodate any pesky new facts (similar to Reagan and Bush the younger, come to think of it). Taken as a whole, the Village makes for one hell of a study in cognitive dissonance. "Surely the Vice President would never lie to us about a matter of such importance!" "Surely the administration must have the nation's best interests at heart!" "Surely having an enjoyable beer with someone is a more important gauge than competency for one of the hardest jobs in the world!" Despite warnings before each and every disaster, the Bush administration has proceeded undeterred, often taking extremely radical steps in secret, and at times lying to their own allies. These are people of neither good faith nor good judgment, and it would be hard to overstate their arrogance. Yet in the world of the Village, George W. Bush has made bad decisions because he simply wasn't counseled, or wasn't counseled politely enough – or he hasn't made bad decisions at all. The commercial angle of Beltway "wisdom" shouldn't be overlooked either – these people all gotta make copy, or fill air time. And a system that rewards bad reporting and disastrous punditry tends to keep reproducing exactly that. Consider what Jonathan Schwarz often says: "Reporters don't have a choice. Repeating stupid right-wing claims is their job."

Years ago in an anthropology class, I read a fascinating essay about kinship ties in Washington, D.C. written by Professor Jack Weatherford of Macalester College. It was a class favorite. Here's an excerpt from what looks like a slightly earlier version, "Tribal Politics in Washington," 1993:

In 1990 when the editors of Spy magazine decided to make a diagram of the American political universe, they did not place the President of the United States at the center, nor the leaders of Congress, nor the richest person in the country, nor the strongest lobbyists. They selected radio and television reporter Cokie Roberts who serves as a political reporter for ABC News as well as for National Public Radio. As a reporter, Cokie Roberts certainly is not the best known personality in the country, but her selection by Spy reveal an inside look of how Washington works. To understand why they named her as the focal point, we need to examine where she fits into the system.

Cokie Roberts is the daughter of Congresswoman Lindy Boggs of Louisiana's second district from 1972 until 1990. Cokie Roberts' father Hale Boggs represented the same New Orleans district until his death in an Alaska plane crash in 1972, and he had served as the House Majority leader. Cokie Roberts' brother is Tom Boggs, a major Washington lobbyist who once ran but lost an election for representative from Maryland. Cokie Roberts' sister is Barbara Boggs Sigmund who ran for the Senate from New Jersey and later became mayor of Princeton, New Jersey.

On her mother's side Cokie Roberts is related to Rhode Island's Senator Claiborne Pell; Cokie's full name is Mary Martha Corinne Morrison Clairborne Boggs Roberts. Senator Pell is the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee and the senator for whom the Pell Grants were named. His father, Representative Herbert Pell, served in the House, representing New York. Other political members of Cokie's family through the Clairborne and Pell connections include former Senators William Clairborne and George Dallas. The ties even stretch back well before the founding of the country to John Pell, who served as a minister in the British Court of Oliver Cromwell in the seventeenth century and whom history credits with introducing the mathematical notation for the division sign to the English-speaking world.

Growing up as a member of the congressional kids club on Capitol Hill, Cokie Roberts knew the other kids in the club such as young Al Gore, Jr., the son of Senator Al Gore, Senior of Tennessee and young Chris Dodd Jr., son of Christopher Dodd, senior of Connecticut. While Cokie Roberts pursued career in broadcasting, these other kids grew up to follow their fathers into political careers.

Cokie Roberts is married to Steven V. Roberts, senior editor of U.S. News & World Report. While Cokie Roberts serves as a commentator on ABC's This Week With David Brinkley, her husband appears on NPR's Washington Week in Review. In her capacity as a reporter for public television, Cokie Roberts worked under Sharon Percy Rockefeller, who chaired the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Sharon Rockefeller, the daughter of former Senator Charles Percy of Illinois, was married to Senator and former West Virginia Governor Jay Rockefeller.

With all of her connections through kinship, marriage and other intimate networks, Cokie Roberts is truly the center of the political universe of Washington, D.C.

Daughter Rebecca Roberts is now a reporter as well. Now granted, the essay is from 1993, but it still gives a useful glimpse into Beltway culture. The Democrats have the Kennedys, of course. Certainly George W. Bush benefited from his kinship ties, and is probably the ultimate example of promoting pedigree over merit. Among the conservative punditry, there's quite the wingnut welfare system, and sometimes it even creeps into more legitimate publications. I guess Gore's ties didn't help him much back in 1999-2000, but perhaps that was because the press was "going to make him jump through the hoops" until he condemned Bill Clinton over Lewinsky, and they didn't see "anything wrong with that." Remember, protocol must be observed, lest you be ridiculed. Trashing the Constitution is fine, especially if you hide most of the violence behind closed doors; just don't try to come in and trash the Village if it's not your place.

I imagine some enterprising anthropologist or student would have a wealth of material for further studying Village mores. But in any case, even if Cokie is no longer the reigning queen, surely she's still a duchess or something. So I say: Move over, Matt Drudge! It's not your world after all! It's Cokie's world, it's her America, and the rest of us just live in it!

Well, unless you're from Hawaii.

(Ridicule, 1996)

(Update: Fixed some typos.)