Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Parsing Political Punditry: Dowd and Brooks

I've had a fun morning thinking about the codewords in Maureen Dowd's and David Brooks' columns. By codewords I mean those sometimes sneaky, sometimes shouting insertions and word selections which affect the general argument the same way an inappropriate picture added to it might: they make your mind wander off a little and open up that gap which allows someone else's values to be inserted in your very own brain.

Though Maureen Dowd's codewords are not especially sneaky, as shown by this opening of her most recent column:

Even newly armored by the spirit of Camelot, Barack Obama is still distressed by the sight of a certain damsel.

It's already famous as The Snub, the moment before the State of the Union when Obama turned away to talk to Claire McCaskill instead of trying to join Teddy Kennedy in shaking hands with Hillary.

Nobody cared about W., whose presidency had crumpled into a belated concern about earmarks.

The only union that fascinated was Obama and Hillary, once more creeping around each other.

It would have been the natural thing for the Illinois senator, only hours after his emotional embrace by the Kennedys and an arena full of deliriously shrieking students, to follow the lead of Uncle Teddy and greet the rebuffed Hillary.

She was impossible to miss in the sea of dark suits and Supreme Court dark robes. Like Scarlett O'Hara after a public humiliation, Hillary showed up at the gathering wearing a defiant shade of red.

Calling Hillary Clinton "queen Hillary" and her acts "brazen" (as Dowd does later in the same column) tells us more than we want to know about Dowd's own developmental stage, which appears to be about thirteen except that she suffers from gender confusion and so plays with the guys against the gals. But it's not only that Clinton the "damsel" "distresses" Obama. Later Dowd argues that Obama is the more emotionally delicate candidate, the one who would govern with the feminine consensus style. Everything is about gender stereotypes for Dowd (men are not called brazen), and based on those stereotypes Hillary Clinton should not be running at all.

But then a man who is emotionally delicate would never win the general elections. What Dowd is really trying to achieve is the total destruction of both Democratic candidates. This, and the lack of similar vitriol when it comes to her columns on the Republicans suggests to me that Dowd is a mole or at least a social conservative.

What makes parsing both the Dowd and Brooks columns hard is the Clinton Derangement Syndrome which almost all pundits appear to have caught. I'm not going to call it "inexplicable" the way many described the so-called Bush Derangement Syndrome, because I'm the polite blogger, but I do note with some wonder that destroying the Constitution, starting unnecessary wars and seeding the Civil Service with incompetent ideologues is perfectly ok from the pundits' point of view, but running the Clinton political machinery with ruthlessness and ambition causes a blood-red haze to cover all those inquiring eyes. It is the Clintons in their self-centered and rude approach to politics who appear to be destroying this country, and this is what the pundits on their perches squawk about.

We were given few columns as juicy about George Bush and his Real Character. The actual attempts to destroy this country were treated with politely interested analysis. Even that rectangular bump under George's jacket in the 2004 debates was courteously ignored. A manufactured war with a real advertising campaign full of lies raised few angry voices among the political commentators. But the Clintons!

David Brooks also has the Clinton Derangement Syndrome, though that is more expected in a conservative pundit. His latest column begins with a description of the Clintons as the political mafia of this country:

Last week there was the widespread revulsion at the Clintons' toxic attempts to ghettoize Barack Obama. In private and occasionally in public, leading Democrats lost patience with the hyperpartisan style of politics — the distortion of facts, the demonizing of foes, the secret admiration for brass-knuckle brawling and the ever-present assumption that it's necessary to pollute the public sphere to win. All the suppressed suspicions of Clintonian narcissism came back to the fore. Are these people really serving the larger cause of the Democratic Party, or are they using the party as a vehicle for themselves?

Note the selection of words in that paragraph: "toxic", "demonizing", "pollute", "narcissism". Note also how glibly Brooks talks about the demonizing of foes and the distortion of facts, as if the Republicans have not done exactly this for the last two decades at least. Dirty politics can be openly discussed, it seems, but only if it is in the context of that monster couple from hell: the Clintons.

Isn't this fun? I bet some of you are running all around your brains preparing the comments about how I'm ignoring all the real criticisms of Clintons' perfidies. But it's possible to write about those without bringing up links to the Scarlet Letter, say, or without making subtle anti-environmental connections with the name "Clinton." It's that other stuff I'm discussing here.

Brooks is quite a master of the sneaky aside in emotional writing, by the way. He often comes up with columns which look quite reasonable for even a fervent middle-of-the-road goddess, until she looks at them much more carefully. In this column, for instance, Brooks mainly talks about the Kennedys endorsing Obama and about all the good feelings that raised in the country. But then he puts in this:

After his callow youth, Kennedy came to realize that life would not give him the chance to be president. But life did ask him to be a senator, and he has embraced that role and served that institution with more distinction than anyone else now living — as any of his colleagues, Republican or Democrat, will tell you. And he could do it because culture really does have rhythms. The respect for institutions that was prevalent during the early '60s is prevalent with the young again today. The earnest industriousness that was common then is back today. The awareness that we are not self-made individualists, free to be you and me, but emerge as parts of networks, webs and communities; that awareness is back again today.

Sept. 11th really did leave a residue — an unconsummated desire for sacrifice and service. The old Clintonian style of politics clashes with that desire. When Sidney Blumenthal expresses the Clinton creed by telling George Packer of The New Yorker, "It's not a question of transcending partisanship. It's a question of fulfilling it," that clashes with the desire as well

See how he snuck in that bit (bolded by me) about fairly conservative values as something that everybody knows as prevalent once again? He does this a lot, and almost always without any actual evidence, in the form of "we" statements which encompass all of us, even those who don't believe a word of Brooks' arguments. Clever, that. This might be the reason why Brooks is regarded as the bridge-guy: the conservative who can calmly talk to the raving hippies.