Newsweek's Howard Fineman wrote this column going on ten days ago and I thought I'd managed to shrug it off, but I guess it's been working away slowly on my mental immune system. Stupidity is a persistent little microbe.
Here's Fineman's opening:
You knew Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in high school. At least I did. They were candidates in the student senate election. She was the worthy but puffed-up Miss Perfect, all poodle skirts and multicolored binders clutched to her chest. He was the lanky, mysterious transfer student—from Hawaii by way of Indonesia no less—who Knew Things and was way too cool to carry more than one book at a time. Who would be leader of the pack?
Presidential elections are high school writ large...
Yep. Exactly as I remember it. Our high school student government had a multi-trillion dollar budget to play around with, a stockpile of nuclear weapons, thousands and thousands of miles of roads to repair and bridges to inspect, and trade treaties with Japan, China, and Great Britain all set to expire.
My junior year the big issue in the class elections was whether or not the incoming student president would continue the war in the Middle East the previous administration had started. There was a lot of angry debate about redeployment and whether or not what one of the candidates was proposing should be called a surge or escalation.
My God, there is so much stupidity packed into Fineman's paragraph that I have no idea where to start shoveling.
Guess I'll start with the very easiest.
Howard, who are you writing to? Poodle skirts? I'm old, Howard, but you must be ancient. My mother wore poodle skirts.
And guess what, Howard. Your column was written as a "web exclusive." Most of the people who read "web exclusives" are younger than my mother. Think about this. People born the year Hillary Clinton started high school, 1961, will turn 46 years old this year. They graduated from high school in 1979! How many poodle skirts flounced through American high schools in 1979? And people who graduated high school in 1979 are among the senior citizens of Internet users.
By the way, guess what year Barack Obama was born.
So, I ask again, who are you writing to, Howard?
An audience of narcissistic old men and women who haven't gotten around to admitting they're old and the world is now being run by their middle-aged children? (See note below.)
Ok, moving on to the next easiest.
Whatever kinds of skirts Hillary wore in high school, she is now 60 years old. I don't know what Chelsea Clinton is up to romantically these days, but it isn't beyond the realm of possibility that she could make her mother a grandmother within the next couple of years. She meets someone nice, they have a whirlwind courtship...it happens.
In other words, Hillary Clinton is not a kid. She is not even middle-aged anymore. She is a 60 year old United States Senator who may be the next President of the United States and writing about her as if she is a girl is very strange.
There's a whole post in this, but an awful lot of Beltway Media Insiders don't seem to have realized that time has passed since 1992, and it seemed to me back then that back then they didn't seem to realize that time had passed since 1972. They treated Bill and Hillary Clinton, a youthful and handsome middle-aged couple approaching 50, as if they were a young and beautiful couple approaching 30.
I think that goes a long way toward explaining the obsession with their sex lives, then and now. The Media didn't look at the Clintons and see the President of the United States and his accomplished wife. They saw a Baby Boomer Ideal of Their Generation, and this is a generation that collectively has taken an unconscionably long time to get their heads around the fact that they are not Forever Young.
They covered the Clintons like movie stars and what use are movie stars if they can't fuel our erotic daydreams?
The hysteria that overwhelmed the Beltway Media during the Impeachment Crisis, when as one an entire industry of mostly middle-aged mostly men who previously prided themselves on their cynicism and worldliness gasped, reeled, reached for the smelling salts, and started scolding like a gaggle of spinster aunts in a story by PG Wodehouse, only makes sense as the acting out of a pack of hypocrites who had suddenly seen their own sexual fantasies revealed on the nightly news.
The Broderites have announced that they plan to revisit the Impeachment Crisis for as long as Hillary is in the race. By the Impeachment Crisis they do not mean the Republican Right's attempt to use the Constitution to overthrow the legitimate government. They mean Monica dancing with her cigar.
They mean they are going to cover Hillary as if she and Bill are what the Media treated them as 15 years ago!
Which means they are going to continue to write about Hillary Clinton as if she was young enough to be played by Hilary Swank in the movie version. They are going to write about her as if she is Hillary Swank in the movie version.
There's junk in Fineman's column about the girls all flocking around Barack Obama so I guess he'll be played by Terrence Howard in the Media coverage of his Presidential campaign.
Now, to the more complicated stuff, the thing that makes my head swim.
Fineman is no Joe Klein but he is still one of the more insider-y of the Beltway Insider types and, as TBogg shows, prone to drivelling like this.
Beltway Insiders prefer to see politics as high school, which is to say as a constant struggle for status and popularity among the cool kids.
The questions of who will be the next President, which political party will run Congress, what direction the country will head, questions those of us living outside Washington think of as being about matters life and death, they see as purely personal, social matters---who gets invited to what parties, who gets to join which clubs, who's in and who's out, who's up and who's down.
Fineman's column internalizes and exemplifies that trivial and self-serving and self-aggrandizing---if the question of who is in the White House is merely a matter of who gets invited where, then the people like Sally Quinn who run the social scene in DC are more important than the people who actually run the country---and useful---it makes your job so much easier if you can cover a debate over policy as if it's a football game or a movie or a high school musical---mindset.
But there's more going on.
Fineman is making Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama responsible for Fineman's own literary conceit. He's the one calling the Democratic campaign for President a replay of high school but he's writing as if this is the Democrats' fault, as if they're the ones who don't take what they do seriously.
This is something Somerby, Atrios, digby, Alterman, Boehlert, and many others have written about again and again. Members of the Media Elite write about what they do as if they aren't doing it. They cover politics as if the Media aren't part of the process and as if reporters, pundits, editors, publishers, producers, and anchors have no influence on anything---not on the way stories are covered, not on what stories are covered, not on what people think about the stories.
They court the access and want the influence that comes with the access, but they refuse to accept any responsibility for their influence.
They refuse to look at the ways their desire and need for access affect the ways they do their jobs.
A bunch of Insider journalists get together for drinks, somebody makes a joke about how Hillary reminds him of a girl he knew in high school, this leads to a bull session about how life is just high school all over again, how politicians they don't like are just like the kids they didn't like in high school---Fineman is using his high school election conceit to insult as well as diminish Clinton and Obama---and then a few days later, lazily casting around for something to write about or to say on TV, they repeat their dumb conversation as if it's a profound insight.
There is a truth in the observation that adult life often seems to be a constant repeat of high school, because people's characters are, to a near final degree, formed in high school and too many of us stop right there, never growing mentally, emotionally, or spiritually beyond the age of 18, and the rest of us who manage to fake our way to a kind of maturity are all too likely to revert when we let our guards down.
Character is destiny, and it can be useful to try to understand what's going on in the world by looking at the characters of the characters involved. Biography is an important part of history.
This is one of the points Robert D.Kaplan was making in his Atlantic article, A Historian for Our Times. You can learn something about what a politician is up to by looking at his past.
George W. Bush is a fascinating case study because of the way he was given a pass on his own past by the Media Insiders. Somehow the Media, who love to play amateur psychologists when the subject on the couch is a Democrat, were persuaded that the story of Bush's life up until the day he decided to run for President not only didn't matter, it practically hadn't even happened. Recently, they've taken some tentative steps towards discovering what a destructive role Bush's twisted, love-hate relationship with his father has had on his Presidency.
But biography is a precision tool. It requires not just insight into the subject but insight into the biographer. To understand someone else's motives, you first have to understand your own. A good biographer is a demanding self-critic.
The ability to criticize themselves is not common among DC journalists. And one of my points here is that Fineman's column is a product of his profession's rejection of self-examination.
But even if it wasn't, there's a big difference between comparing a public figure to what she was like when she was a young woman and writing about her as if she still is that young woman, which isn't even what Fineman's done, blockheaded as that would be. He's written about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as if they are kids that Fineman claims he used to know in high school. But he didn't know such kids. Nobody did, because he's describing stereotypes, caricatures of types he might have encountered in high school, but which he more likely knows from the same places we all know those stereotypes from, TV and movies.
But even if he had written with more wit and insight about Clinton and Obama as character types, even if he had them pegged, he would still be missing the point.
A person might be so immature and unformed that at 50 or 60 they are emotionally and intellectually indistinguishable from high school students, but the fact that their votes in the Senate may provide the difference between whether soldiers will live or die, old men and women will be able to buy their medicines, and children will get to go to good schools or even get to eat tonight makes them creatures an entire universe away from the prom queens, football heroes, geeks, freaks, hoods, goths, stoners, slackers, teachers' pets, or rebels without a cause they might have been 35 and 45 years ago.
To those of us outside DC who have managed some degree of an adult's appreciation of how the world works, what Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and George Bush, were like when they were 16 is interesting only because what they do every day in the here and now affects the world in life and death ways.
Inside the Beltway, apparently, what they do every day is interesting only to the degree that it allows journalists and pundits to write about them as if they are characters on Saved by the Bell.
Couple weeks back I wrote about some new piece of nitwittery perpetrated by Joe Klein. One of my regular readers dropped a comment dismissing Klein as not worth attention. Klein's a jerk and a dope, he more or less agreed, but the real problem is the foolishness of the American people who keep buying the obvious garbage that Klein and his ilk are peddling.
Now, I've felt that way myself, but the evidence is that the American people aren't buying it anymore, not in bulk anyway. But if they are, or---I should say---when they do, why wouldn't they? It's what's on TV. It's what's in the newspapers and magazines. We want and depend upon an informed citizenry and it's from the likes of Joe Klein and Howard Fineman that the people get their information.
(Blogs and the Internet in general are wonderful, but most people who read blogs read them at work, and those most people are not most people. Most people do not work at jobs that plant them at computers out of sight of their bosses for hours on end. Nobody reads a blog while standing at a cash register or wielding a blow torch or driving a delivery truck or pushing a broom. And nobody who does those things all day has a lot of energy, mental or physical, left to boot up the computer and start following all Atrios' and Avedon's links when they get home. Newsweek and TIME, NBC and ABC, traditional outlets that write guys like Fineman and Klein their paychecks, are what most people have to depend on.)
Joe Klein is the devil, and he's the devil because he's a celebrity. His stupid book set the tone and made him famous. It put him on the Sunday talk shows where he's become the standard. Lots of people have contributed, but Klein led the way.
Without the influence of Joe Klein, I doubt Howard Fineman would be writing about two people who might be the President who has to deal with the hell George Bush has made out of Iraq---the hell he seems intent on making out of the entire Middle East---as if the most important outcome of the next election is who gets on the decorating committee for the Senior Ball.
My post on Kaplan's Atlantic essay on Herodotus with the same offer repeated: drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org if you're not an Atlantic subscriber and would like me to email you the article.
I don't know exactly how old Fineman is himself. From his Newsweek biography I'm guessing he graduated from college in the early 1970s, which would put him in high school in the late 1960s when I'm betting he knew a lot more girls who wore miniskirts and granny dresses than he did Miss Perfects in poodle skirts. Why Fineman thought he needed to make himself out to be older than he is, I can't imagine, unless he was just afraid he couldn't bring up the fashions of his high school days without dragging the whole counterculture movement into it. But it's probably more likely that the reason is that Fineman was confusing his high school days with Wally Cleaver's.