Memo to deans of journalism schools:
Please add to your curriculum freshman courses in Psychology, Philosophy, and Literature.
This is from an otherwise refreshingly critical article by Newsweek's Evan Thomas:
President George W. Bush has always trusted his gut. He prides himself in ignoring the distracting chatter, the caterwauling of the media elites, the Washington political buzz machine. He has boasted that he doesn't read the papers. His doggedness is often admirable. It is easy for presidents to overreact to the noise around them.
I realize that they just can't help themselves. Journalists often feel they can't write an entirely negative article, even when there's nothing positive to say, which there isn't when you're writing, as Thomas is, about Bush's handling of Katrina's aftermath. They are trained to believe that there are always two sides to every story so that they don't just accept as gospel whatever a source tells them.
That there are often 5 or more sides to a story and that all 5 can be wrong or---even more frustrating---all 5 can be right is another problem that has the same effect on the way they construct their stories. If almost anything you write can and will be contradicted, the prudent approach is to build the contradictions right into the story as you go.
So whenever you write the sky is blue, you automatically follow it up with "Critics of the President (or Supporters of the President) point out that on rainy days the sky is gray, at night it is black, and on Mars it is kind of reddish."
And journalists working Inside the Beltway flatter and fawn by habit because they are often writing about friends, friends of friends, friends of their bosses, and people they hope will invite them to parties or offer them high-paying jobs when they get sick of living with their noses pressed up against the windows of the houses and offices of the rich and powerful and famous.
And they flatter and fawn because they are dependent for stories upon sources who are often petty, small-minded, vindictive, egomaniacal, and as vain as Snow White's Step-mother the Evil Queen before her mirror, and if you don't flatter and fawn they will stop taking your calls, give scoops to your rivals, and devote their energies to finding other ways of punishing you and ruining your life and career.
"His doggedness is often admirable?"
When he doggedly pursues a course of failure and death in Iraq?
When he doggedly refuses to read memos that might tell him that terrorists planning on using hijacked airliners for kamikazee attacks on tall buildings like the World Trade Center are in the country and hard at work on their mission?
When he doggedly ignores Karl Rove's smear campaigns against political opponents?
When he doggedly persists in cutting taxes for his rich friends and relations and financial backers while the Federal budget implodes and deficits balloon and then, to protect those tax cuts, doggedly supports cutting benefits and programs for the middle class and the poor?
When he doggedly enjoys his vacation while a bereaved mother of a fallen soldier bakes in the Texas sun outside his toy ranch or when he doggedly attempts to finish it out while a Category 5 hurricane bears down on the Gulf Coast?
But suppose that like a stopped clock that's right twice a day Bush's doggedness is every now and then a good thing.
A temperamental tic is not a virtue.
There are times when getting angry is the right thing to do, but a person who is always angry makes life miserable for himself and everybody around him.
There are times when self-doubt can save you from making horrible mistakes, but a person who always doubts himself is as helpless in a crisis as a person who never doubts himself is dangerous in moments when self-doubt is called for, even if confidence is otherwise a virtue.
He who hesitates is lost, but he who never hestitates is impulsive, reckless, childish, volatile, imprudent, self-centered, foolhardy, and at the end of the day dead, in jail, riding in an ambulance, or watching the other team walk off the field with the trophy.
Doggedness is a virtue when giving up is the wrong course of action. Doggedness that is not a virtue but only another word for stubbornness, lack of imagination, mulishness, and a foolish and unsupported overconfidence may be a useful quality in a police detective or a research scientist or in rescue workers determined to reach a little girl trapped at the bottom of a well, provided such doggedness is tempered by other less self-blinding qualities or actual virtues.
Doggedness in a President who is determined to win a just and winnable war or who has set out to rescue a drowning city is admirable, but beside the fact that Bush is doggedly doing neither---he is doggedly refusing to face up to his mistakes in both Iraq and New Orleans---the kind of doggedness Evan Thomas is describing is not a virtue in a President.
Thomas chooses his words to paint a negative picture of the political realities a President has to deal with daily. The distracting chatter he has Bush doggedly ignoring includes advice from aides and experts, lawyers and scientists, foreign leaders, Congressmen, Senators, Governors, and his father.
The caterwauling of the Media Elites---which has been for the most part flattering and complimentary and supportive of him and therefore easy to doggedly ignore or seem to ignore while doggedly eating it up with a spoon---includes bad news and just criticism resulting from decisions he's made and needs to reconsider and it includes information he apparently isn't getting from his aides, like the fact that the levees in New Orleans would not hold in a big storm.
And the Washington political buzz machine, by which Thomas means the Conventional Wisdom, cocktail party gossip, and self-congratulatory and self-aggrandizing "If I Were President" bloviating of pundits, legislators, bureaucrats, careerists, and the many and various hangers-on who fill out the population of official Washington, also includes reports from pollsters, the latest writings from the very best journalists, historians, political scientists, and other experts, and plain, common sensical descriptions derived from daily observation of how the world is working---in other words it includes the news of what the American people are doing and thinking and putting up with and what they are mad as hell about and what they would like to see done about it.
I'm going to put aside for now the fact that this Administration is driven by poll numbers in a way and to an intense degree that no other Administration has ever been, that the Bush Leaguers' self-proclaimed indifference to polls is a lie---it's just that they don't react to polls, they set out to manipulate them ahead of time.
At a certain point, a President has to stop listening to advice, ignore criticism, damn the consequences at the voting booths, and do what he knows to be right. Sometimes he can't know. He can only feel it and then he has to go with his gut.
But a President who doesn't listen to advice, who never heeds criticism, who doesn't give a damn what the American people think, want, or need, who never knows what it is right because he never bothers to do the hard intellectual work required to know and who goes with his gut because he has nothing else to go with, who would go with his gut even if he did know because he is stubborn, vain, egotistical, and self-absorbed, that President is a dogged menace.
So, all you deans of journalism school---and the deans of all the finest schools of journalism read the Lance Mannion Chronicle of Higher Education daily---a simple requirement that all journalism majors take courses in Psychology, Philosophy, and Literature would help them see the difference between a person who is dogged in a particular situation because in that situation doggedness is called for and a person who is dogged because that is how his genes, parents, personal experience, vanities, and God collaborated to put him together.
Problem with my recommendation is that I'm sure someone like Evan Thomas took all those courses and earned excellent grades in them too. Thomas has written a biography of Bobby Kennedy that is psychologically insightful and persuasive.
But all that he learned in his liberal arts classes has often failed Thomas when he's written about Bush in the past and, as assistant managing editor at Newsweek, he hasn't been able to impress it upon the reporters and editors who work with him.
And when you go back to that paragraph and re-read the bits about the buzz machine and the caterwauling of the media elites the irony of it would be laughable if it wasn't so dishearteningly familiar.
Because that paragraph is a perfect expression of the buzz and the caterwauling. It is a retailing of the Conventional Wisdom, a quick summary of the story the Media Elites have been telling since 1992.
The subject of that paragraph is not George Bush. It is Bill Clinton.
Thomas is recapping allusively the Media Elite's ur-myth of the Clinton years. The myth of Lawyer Bill, the smarty pants policy wonk and intellectual show-off, who talked all his decisions to death, who over-thought everything, who refused to make a decision because he was enamored of the decision-making process and his own brainy part in it, who could debate what is is; the myth of Slick Willy the shady-dealing back-country pol who never went with his gut, who didn't make a move without consulting the polls, who needed a media advisor to tell him where to go on vacation. Clinton the scoundrel who needed to be replaced by an honest, down to earth, man of the people who knew his own mind and went with his gut.
George Bush's doggedness is often admirable in Evan Thomas's world because it's usually discussed not as Bush's virtue but Bill Clinton's failure.
(I found the link to Thomas' article at Steve Gilliard's News Blog. Steve and Jen continue to blog Katrina with admirable doggedness.)
Related: John at Pre$$titutes links to stories by the Washington Post and USA Today that also include reflexive genuflecting before the Media-created image of George Bush the decisive leader and great communicator while criticizing him for being neither decisive nor great at communicating in the wake of Katrina.
Update because I couldn't find the link when I wrote the post: Couple of other things Evan Thomas hasn't been able to impress upon his colleagues at Newsweek, besides basic lessons in Psychology---have more than one source for a story and people in this White House lie with every breath. Josh Marshall reported that the Washington Post and Newsweek swallowed this whopper hook, line, and sinker from somebody in the Bush Administration determined that the blame game finishes with local officials taking all of the heat, that Louisiana Governor Blanco hadn't yet declared a State of Emergency days after Katrina hit when in fact she had declared one on August 26, the Friday before. Following up: Atrios discovers that editors at the Post probably knew they were lied to and don't much care.