Published September 30, 2006
In Britain, journalists call August “the silly season” because, with Parliament in recess and its members retired to their constituencies or the grouse moor, political stories tend to be trivial or comical, preferably both. But in America the silly season is every season, at least if there is any story that can be sold, however implausibly, as an exposé of the discreditable truths always to be assumed to lie beneath banal appearances. This year the pre-eminent silly season story was that of the open microphone in St. Petersburg at the G-8 summit when President Bush was overheard saying “shit.” The Washington Post Style section thought that this excremental expletive was worth a whole 1200 word story by Peter Baker. “‘What they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it’s over,’ an irritated Bush said with his mouth full as he buttered a piece of bread,” wrote Mr. Baker, obviously pleased with himself for spotting the twofer: not only was the President’s language vulgar but so were his table manners. “It was the sort of moment that gets technicians fired but offers the world a rare glimpse of a president unplugged.”
Oh please! As if there were anything that the president — or anyone else — says or does out of the public view that remains a mystery or in need of exposure. Both the word and the thing may from time to time be produced in private by those who live in the public eye, but just because they are famous these privacies are thought to be of public interest for no more reason than that they are usually private. It is in the nature of the celebrity culture to treat as news anything that the powerful — who are now celebrities ex officio — would have preferred to remain private. And that preference makes the news at least potentially discreditable to them on account of their guilty reticence. Thus the British take on the St Petersburg gaffe wasn’t that the president says “shit” but that he says “Yo,” at least when he is greeting the British prime minister. His “Yo, Blair!” hadn’t even been mentioned in Mr Baker’s article in the Post, but to the British it seemed to confirm — as pretty much everything these days seems to confirm — the view that, to the outrage of the British élites right across the political spectrum, Mr Blair is (as they characteristically put it) the “poodle” of the Americans.
“Our Prime Minister has been exposed in a posture of abject servility before the American President,” wrote the Conservative MP Boris Johnson in the Daily Telegraph, “summoned with a click of the fingers and the words ‘Yo, Blair’, as if he were Jeeves to Dubya’s Wooster.” Some of Mr Johnson’s outrage seems to have been owing to British unfamiliarity with the idiomatic American “Yo,” which his hostility to British cooperation with America in Iraq made him ready and even eager to believe implied contempt or condescension that were not there to American ears. “Yo,” might have seemed a trifle infra the presidential dig. before Bill Clinton’s redefinition of that particular standard, but even then it was only an ordinary if colloquial greeting between equals. But the British, like the Americans, were only too eager to seize on whatever hint there might have been of bad manners. To address the British prime minister by prefacing his surname with “Yo” may have seemed to want decorum — just as, perhaps, saying “shit” in the prime ministerial presence did. But I suspect that the British media’s professed shock at such lapses was factitious, a product of the media market’s demand for a fresh story to be made out of every discovery of secret or hidden information, however banal.
Or however deserving of its secrecy. The “Bush says shit” story finally drove from the front pages the top story of the previous three weeks, which was The New York Times’s publication of details of a hitherto secret counter-terrorism measure involving the government’s surveillance of banking records. No one suggested that this measure was illegal, and its exposure to the light of publicity could only have harmed the efforts of law enforcement agencies to detect and prevent acts of terrorism. Yet the editor, Bill Keller, answered the paper’s critics in an open letter remarkable even by the Times’s standards for its pomposity that, in essence, “the public interest” amounted to whatever the Times thought it was — and that what the Times thought was in the public interest was also, by the merest coincidence no doubt, also in the interest of the Times. “It’s an unusual and powerful thing, this freedom that our founders gave to the press,” Mr. Keller wrote, begging the question as to whether or not, in fact, the Founders had given it this particular freedom.
Who are the editors of The New York Times (or the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and other publications that also ran the banking story) to disregard the wishes of the President and his appointees? And yet the people who invented this country saw an aggressive, independent press as a protective measure against the abuse of power in a democracy, and an essential ingredient for self-government. They rejected the idea that it is wise, or patriotic, to always take the President at his word, or to surrender to the government important decisions about what to publish.
To always take? How about to sometimes take — or even to just once take — the President at his word? The cheek of such an argument is matched only by Mr Keller’s conclusion that “nobody should think that we made this decision casually, with any animus toward the current Administration, or without fully weighing the issues.”
Of course not! Who could possibly imagine that the Times harbored any animus toward the current Administration? Such contempt for the serious arguments of the Times’s and the media’s critics is evident throughout this farrago of disingenuousness and provides further evidence of the extent to which the media culture of which Mr Keller is a leading light is becoming a closed circuit. If he imagines that this is any kind of answer to his critics, it can only be because he has never listened to his critics. And that can only be because he has never had to listen to his critics. Those for whom he writes routinely ignore or mischaracterize the criticisms of the right, so naturally he does too. I received another forceful reminder of such invincible self-satisfaction when I heard Mr Keller’s boss, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., during a public address in Aspen, Colorado, in August answer a question from the audience as to why the New York Times didn’t devote more attention to coverage of Congress merely by saying that he would order it to do so when Congress started doing its job. Whence came the applause and the cheers of fellow-feeling that arose from the well-heeled Aspen audience at this insinuation, which was never explained or elaborated on? What was the job which Mr Sulzberger could take it for granted his audience would assume Congress wasn’t doing? Not being a member of his claque, I don’t know for sure. Perhaps even the claque doesn’t know for sure but was willing to give its eminent speaker the benefit of the doubt merely on the grounds that the Republican party is in the Congressional majority.
I suspect his idea was that anything the Congress does which is not directed to the investigation and, preferably, prosecution of the high crimes and misdemeanors of the Bush administration is itself a dereliction of duty. Certainly the media triumphalism with which, in the context of present-day politics, the Times’s publisher had playfully claimed in a speech to graduates of the State University of New York at New Paltz in May to have “ended the Vietnam War and ousted President Nixon” — along with his fellow students of the class of 1974 — might have suggested as much. “It wasn’t supposed to be this way,” he said, professing to apologize to the new graduates. “You weren’t supposed to be graduating in an America fighting a misbegotten war in a foreign land. You weren’t supposed to be graduating into a world where we are still fighting for fundamental human rights, be it the rights of immigrants to start a new life, the right of gays to marry or the rights of women to choose.” Not that anyone could have supposed there to have been any animus against the Bush administration at The New York Times!
Both at New Paltz and at Aspen, Mr Sulzberger was appealing to his audience in terms he expected it to understand and appreciate without any tedious explanations or justifications. Certainly at Aspen his expectation was justified. You only had to survey the bumper stickers in the parking lot outside the Paepke Auditorium to see what would appeal to this particular crowd. “Don’t pray in my school and I won’t think in your church,” read one. “No, you can’t have my rights: I’m still using them,” read another. But my favorite was the car that sported the following: “God bless the whole world — no exceptions.” Obviously a gesture of defiance directed at the downmarket, “God bless America” school of bumper-branding, this one seems not to have noticed the irony of its own advocacy of a bland universalism in such a provocatively, not to say belligerently, partisan context. One feels a chill along the spine at such oblivious self-satisfaction, worthy of the New York Times itself. Perhaps it was Mr Sulzberger’s car? It’s as if one were such an insignificant speck of doubt before its massive moral certainty that one couldn’t even hope to rise to the level of an exception.
The whole bumper-sticker mentality is a manifestation of the same sort of tribalism that we see in the genial Sulzbergian confidence that anyone he is speaking to must share his political views. The quality of thought and expression in such automotive aphorisms is not so high that those who indulge in them can expect to make many converts among the unenlightened and uninitiated, even if they were not so often calculated precisely to enrage them. “Doing what I can to piss off the Religious Right,” I remember reading between the tail-lights once some years ago when religious believers first became left-wing bugbears. No, the purpose of thus proclaiming their politics in such an ostensibly apolitical forum as the open road is rather to identify themselves to each other as belonging to the tribe of human beings — who, as human beings, define themselves by their opposition to Republicans, the Bush administration, religious zealots and moralizers and pretty much all American foreign policy since the onset of the Cold War. I noticed on the same western sojourn that marketers have spotted the potential for profit in such tribal totems in a Denver bookstore, where you can buy little tins of mints, displayed for impulse buying at the register as you check out, with cartoons of President Bush and others of his administration looking distressed and names like: “Indictmints”, “Impeachmints” and “National Embarrassmints.”
Obviously, if you’re buying a book you must belong to the same tribe — and you must want to advertise the fact in some way. If we consider that reading The New York Times is itself becoming the same kind of tribal identifier as a bumper strip or an anti-Bush mint, it could explain a lot about the content of its editorial and op-ed pages. The paper’s marketing of Maureen Dowd on its website as the chief attraction of its TimesSelect premium service suggests that it knows what business it is in — and that it’s not the newspaper business, as traditionally understood. Miss Dowd’s practised sneer at all things Bush-believing or even Bush-sympathetic is obviously catnip to the average Times reader. Her take on the St Petersburg open-mike incident, for example, was that it “illustrated once more that W. never made any effort to adapt” to the office he holds by subduing his natural playfulness to an assumed gravity. She too caught in the president’s tone to Mr Blair the note of condescension, writing that “he treated Tony “As It Were” Blair like the servant in The Remains of the Day,” but for her the hidden significance of Mr Bush’s words, unremarkable as they might have seemed to those who aren’t handsomely remunerated, as she is, for finding out such significances, was the same as the hidden significance of everything else he does in her view.
“The president has enshrined his immaturity and insularity,” she wrote, “turning every environment he inhabits — no matter how decorous or serious — into a comfortable frat house.” Hm. Now where have we heard something like that before? Speaking of decorum and seriousness, these were once qualities associated with the New York Times’s editorial pages. They still occasionally are, of course, as when, a few days after Miss Dowd’s umpteenth exposé of the shallowness and immaturity of her country’s leaders, the excellent John Tierney published a column on a book called Honor: A History, which may not be unknown to some of my readers. But she owes her regular position there to the Times’s wish for a touch of levity and — as the Times itself would doubtless characterize it, “irreverence” — in that grand and august space. Thus she went on, warming to her theme, “When he began meandering about how big Russia was, you expected him to yell, ‘Yo, Condi!’ and ask his secretary of state: ‘Hey, what’s the name of that other big country that has more people than any other country in the world? It begins with a ‘C.’ Dad spent some time there.'”
Actually, I didn’t expect him to yell any such thing, and I very much doubt that Maureen Dowd did either. She affects the expectation, however, in order to engage in a bit what she apparently thinks of as “satire” — though it is strictly of the Gary Trudeau school of satirical writing in which you think of something that it would be really stupid for a president to say, then put it in the mouth of your fictional, Aunt Sally of a president, and then imagine that you have said something cogently critical about the actual president. It is one measure of the impoverishment of political discourse in America that so many satirists of the Trudeau school manage to make a very good living — though not, perhaps, as good as his or Miss Dowd’s — out of such footling nonsense. The principle is the same as that by which celebrities can raise a cheer for themselves from a sympathetic audience merely by showing that they share the audience’s political prejudices.
There is a nice symmetry in the fact that the standards required of celebrity pronouncements on politics are no higher than those for the newsworthiness of presidential gaffes. The private words and thoughts of our public men may be of no more intrinsic interest than the words and thoughts of actors, singers and film-makers about public affairs, but both gather significance merely by being out of place, as one may say. The really comical moment comes when the celebrity narcissist with political opinions of which he feels the need to unburden himself confuses his solicitousness for his own treasured opinions with the sacred rights of free speech. Thus Oliver Stone in an interview with the Chicago Tribune given to coincide with the release of his new film, World Trade Center: “People say you’re a celebrity, you can’t talk — that’s censorship.” I wonder who, besides me, these “people” are? Certainly most people don’t seem to be able to get enough of celebrities talking. There are whole magazines and television channels devoted to it.
I don’t know about censorship, but we might at least induce celebrities to think twice before opening their mouths to utter such idiocies as this, from an interview with Mr Stone in the Washington Post. “Nine-eleven was used politically to enhance American isolationism, America-firstism, which I think is unfortunate. . . So it comes with heavy baggage. But let’s go back to the day, celebrate the strength and the people who lit a candle in the darkness. The people who fought back.” Directing movies must take up a lot of his time so it is perhaps not surprising if it has escaped Mr Stone’s notice that the foreign and defense policies of the Bush administration — which we know from others of his public utterances are what he is alluding to here — are neo-Wilsonian and therefore exactly the opposite of the “isolationism” and “America-firstism” he complains about here. We shouldn’t expect him to know this, but we should expect him to know that he doesn’t know it and so refrain from making any more of a fool of himself than necessary to publicize his films — which, as World Trade Center showed, are not themselves invariably foolish.
Except, of course, that no one, not even the president, can really make a fool of himself anymore. Not really. That’s one reason why the Trudeau school of satire is so desperate to find ways of doing the job on his behalf — as well as that of others they hate — that they are reduced to making up and attributing to them things of a stupidity so gross that it could hardly occur in nature. The Post’s interviewer could no more utter a discreet Jeevsian cough and correction than the Tribune’s interviewer could point out to his subject the absurdity of portraying himself as the victim of “censorship.” And not only because neither the interviewers nor their editors knew any better themselves. We allow those in the public eye, politicians and celebrities alike, to say almost anything and, if we are the media, confine our natural critical faculties to noting that “critics say” or “some experts think” that the views just expressed are the most amazingly ill-considered rubbish. That’s only for the politicians, of course. The celebrities are not even submitted to the censure of “critics” or “experts” — unless, like me, they are among those poor and unregarded critics or experts who toil on the fringes of the media culture and utter their anathemata only where they are sure never to be heard by those most in need of them.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.