Tilting at Windmills

November/ December 2013 Fair, balanced, and untrue … A Barry bad legacy … Glamorizing the glamour industry

By Charles Peters

Fair-weather Democrats

You probably read about the two Democratic state senators who lost recall elections in Colorado because they voted to strengthen gun laws in the state. What struck me in the New York Times account that I read is that 21,000 fewer voters turned out than had in 2010. That was the midterm election, when too many Democrats were too busy finding fault with President Barack Obama—why hadn’t he fought for more stimulus spending and for single-payer health care?—to bother going to the polls. Their failure cost us dearly. Not only do Republicans control the House of Representatives, but Republican victories in state legislative and gubernatorial races have made possible the redistricting that seems likely to result in Republican domination of the House through 2020.

If the Colorado election is an omen of 2014, the Democrats could also lose the Senate. So many liberals are busy beating up on Obama—why, they indignantly ask, didn’t he handle Syria better?—even though they can’t seem to agree on exactly what they would have had him do that would have been better. A headline on the cover of the October 7th issue of the New Republic went so far as to assert, “Obama Has No Foreign Policy.”

Let me be clear: Obama is far from perfect; the Democrats are far from perfect. But Obama is considerably better than any of the Republican presidential candidates on the horizon. And the Democrats in Congress are, on the whole, considerably better than the Republicans.

Fair, balanced, and untrue

I have often lamented the mainstream media’s failure to make the GOP’s culpability clearer. Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann managed to do just that in a Washington Post op-ed several months ago. “We have no choice,” they wrote, “but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.” Since then, Ornstein and Mann have not been invited to any of the three main Sunday-morning talk shows—NBC’s Meet the Press, ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, or CBS’s Face the Nation—to discuss their op-ed or their most recent book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, which reached the same conclusion about Republican obstructionism.

Dan Froomkin, reporting for the Huffington Post, was the first to point this out, followed by the Plum Line’s Greg Sargent and others in the liberal media. Still no morning show invitation, despite the fact that Ornstein and Mann have frequently been guests on these shows in the past, and have been considered objective sources for decades. This magazine once even crowned Ornstein as “The King of Quotes.”

Why are the broadcast networks so reluctant to blame the Republicans? One possibility is that the majority of their news audience is composed of older whites, who, of course, tend to be conservative. But I think the main reason is that journalists who want to be considered responsible are convinced that objectivity requires them to blame both parties equally. To me, real objectivity consists in being fair-minded in the pursuit of truth, but telling the truth when you find it.

The politics of cynicism

I have had a couple of months to think about Mark Leibovich’s book This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America’s Gilded Capital, and I remain in awe of his memorable description of the late Tim Russert’s memorial service. Leibovich also nails the extent to which selling out has become acceptable in Washington. He offers one telling example after another, including one of a congressional staffer discussing how best to “monetize his government service.”

But I do find that I have concerns about This Town. One is that the book, as Leibovich himself explained to C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb in a recent interview, can have the effect of making people cynical. Why do I worry about that? Because cynical is exactly what the bad guys want us to be. As the economist and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich pointed out in an interview with Bill Moyers, “What the powerful moneyed interests would like in this country is for us all to get so cynical about politics that we basically give up.”

A clue as to why Leibovich does not seem to see that giving up is the danger of his cynicism came when he told Lamb, “I am not in the solutions game.” If he had thought about it, one solution to the situation he describes in This Town is political action. When I wanted to see change in the 1950s, I worked on campaigns, ran for office, served in the West Virginia legislature, and later came to Washington with the Kennedy administration. You have to participate in the system if you are going to change it. I wish Leibovich had thought about how essential politics and politicians are to fixing Washington. Then, perhaps, he would have given a more balanced picture of Senator Chuck Schumer and Chris Matthews, to take two examples. Sure, their hustling can be embarrassing, but Schumer is not only very bright and hardworking but also performs a largely constructive role in the U.S. Senate. Chris Matthews stands alone among D.C. journalists in his appreciation for the art of politics and his affectionate regard for its practitioners.

And it is a shame that Leibovich fails to mention the good guys, people like Senator Carl Levin, who are not showboaters and who bring wisdom to their job every day and always ask thoughtful questions in hearings, or any of the many civil servants who don’t sell out but work hard to serve the public interest.

I am also disturbed that Leibovich seems to think that Washington stands alone as the cesspool of the country. What about Wall Street, with all its sharks and swindlers? What about the CEOs all over the country who underpay their workers so they can overpay themselves? And those doctors all over the country who have accepted bribes from pharmaceutical companies or medical device makers, and those who prescribe high-radiation CT scans not because patients need them but because they own a CT scanner—what about them? And what about all those voters who choose Republican candidates simply because they don’t want to pay their fair share of taxes yet mightily resist the reduction of any of their government benefits, however undeserved!

The truth is that Washington is no worse and no better than the rest of the country. Our national problem is that too many of our cultural winds are blowing us in the direction of self-absorption, self-promotion, and making a barrel of money.

Taking the right aim

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of a new book on Lyndon B. Johnson published by Times Books.

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