At one of my wife's business conferences, I found myself seated at dinner across from a nice white-haired old lady who had raised her family in Lexington, Massachusetts. Looking for a topic of conversation, I asked, "Have you kept up with this business about David Parker?"
"Have I!" she exclaimed. "My daughter is a community activist, and she's been telling me all about it. Do you know that that Parker moved to Lexington two years ago and just waited for the right time so the right-wing religious types could push their agenda on Lexington's public schools?"
I hope I didn't drop my jaw.
"But that's not true," I said, starting the discussion (which stayed most polite) along today's familiar path: a story versus the facts. Against stories, I have begun to think, facts scarcely stand a chance anymore.
HERE ARE THE FACTS about David Parker. He went to the office of Estabrook Elementary School principal Joni Jay on April 27 this year to object to his five-year-old son's having been exposed to material that described same-sex couples as one of several normal family groupings. As Wendy McElroy writes on the Fox News website, "By law, Massachusetts's schools must notify parents before discussing sexuality with children." Parker and his wife had not been notified, despite having exchanged many e-mails with the principal on the subject.
Somebody, it is unclear who, probably Lexington superintendent of schools William J. Hurley, called the Lexington police. The police arrested Parker on a trespass charge. Parker spent the night in jail.
A demonstration, with a police permit, was held in support of Parker on September 6. It attracted people from beyond Lexington, the issue having been publicized thoroughly on conservative websites. (The newspapers and TV stations almost completely ignored it at first.) An organized crowd of counter-demonstrators also showed up. When TV trucks appeared, some nasty confrontations developed, apparently started by the counter-demonstrators (many of them also from outside Lexington, and also attracted by Web postings).
By then, the fable had taken hold of Parker as a mole for a right-wing religious juggernaut determined to take over Lexington's public schools. Alternatively, he was a martyr to the "homosexual agenda." In fact, Parker did not object to material about same-sex families being in public school curricula. Personally, he and his wife, though they are Christians who have renewed their faith, do not proselytize, nor even describe their religious views, though invited to do so. He speaks carefully, rationally, in a sophisticated manner.
He just wanted to be notified of same-sex family material in the daily lesson.
Never mind. It all got buried by stories.
STORIES STICK. They catch on in the culture. They share some of the satisfying charm of a popular song's "hook," a joke's key line, or a radio ad jingle. They tell well. They repeat well. They employ imagery and leitmotif ("Scalito," "gravitas"). Anybody can tell them. Everybody does.
At the Squaw Valley Writer's Conference back in the mid-eighties, I said, in a roundtable discussion, that, if I could have a career like any writer's, it would be William Buckley. I had just read Overdrive and had impressed by how happily Buckley charged through his life and career.
When the general pooh-poohing died down, another participant piped up to say that a friend of hers had met Buckley at a conference back East, and "He had the worst case of dandruff of anybody you've ever seen."
Some years later, while Benjamin Netanyahu was Prime Minister of Israel, a friend of ours announced solemnly in conversation that "You'd better watch out for that guy. He's a real serious abuser of women."
I have heard nothing in the decades since about either WFB's scalp or Mr. Netanyahu's relations with the opposite sex. Those stories stuck less well, and proliferated less well, than some others. But they are the same in kind, substance, and technique as...well, as the one Frank Rich of the New York Times wrote in his column and defended on Meet the Press on October 23.
HOST TIM RUSSERT BEGAN the segment this way:
"Frank Rich in New York, let me start with you and read for you and our viewers your column from this very Sunday morning in the New York Times.
"'...For Mr. Rove and Mr. Bush to get what they wanted most, slam-dunk midterm election victories, and for Mr. Libby and Mr. Cheney to get what they wanted most, a war in Iraq for reasons predating 9/11, their real whys for going to war had to be replaced by fictional, more salable ones. We wouldn't be invading Iraq to further Rovian domestic politics or neocon ideology; we'd be doing so instead because there was a direct connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda and because Saddam was on the verge of attacking America with nuclear weapons. The facts and intelligence had to be fixed to create these whys...'"
With this, the "Bush lied" meme, contemporary political storytelling moves into meta-narrative: The Democrats tell a story about Bush supposedly telling a story. And the creators of the "lied" story and its critics openly talk about it as a story and comment on its epistolary virtues or shortcomings.
Indeed, the Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes was on Meet the Press that day, too. Hayes wrote the definite debunk of one leg of the three-legged "Bush lied" story, "Iraq had absolutely no connection with Al Qaeda," in "Case Closed" two years ago. It summarized captured Iraqi intelligence showing a long, involved connection between Saddam's agents and al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden personally. (Hayes has since expanded the article with new material into a book, The Connection: How al Qaeda's Collaboration with Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America, so it's not like this information hasn't been widely available.)
Hayes didn't get a chance to say much. And what he did say sounded more like theater criticism than straight factual counter: "...The Democrats, in order to push the 'Bush lied' narrative, have to almost pretend that they were never on board in the first place." Earlier, he refers to the "'Bush lied' construct.'"
THE SECOND LEG OF "BUSH LIED," "Iraq didn't attack us," is true, but irrelevant. Way back on June 1, 2002, President Bush announced a new doctrine of foreign policy at a speech at West Point, the doctrine of pre-emption. We would no longer wait for an attack to take military action. The speech contained the famous line, "If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long." President Bush followed up this address in various public venues, saying that waiting for a smoking gun would be too late, that we couldn't wait for Chicago to be in flames to justify attacking a potential enemy.
So the Democrats are setting their story against a Bush story that never was told in the first place. And not only in this case, but in the third leg of the "lied" story, too: "Iraq had no WMD/Iraq had no nuclear weapons program."
Sure, it did. Saddam had outsourced his nuclear program to Libya. Iraqi scientists worked there, with materials obtained from North Korea. That was the program Muammar Qaddafi gave up to the U.S. after the Iraqi war. He physically gave the program to us. We keep it at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
YOU CAN PURSUE THE STORY of story in all kinds of directions: To post-modern theory ("There is no truth, only competing personal narratives"), to the disconnect from traditional supports, comforts, and values wrought by modern education and media, and so forth. One thing for sure, Democrats are better at it than Republicans. Republicans keep pointing to eternal verities, while, increasingly, Democrats don't have any. They can just spool it out, as Henry Miller, a famously facile narrator, once wrote.
My older son and I were driving around last Sunday afternoon doing errands, listening to various NPR programs between stops. One of those programs examined the media. The big news of the previous week had been the indictment of Scooter Libby in the so-called "CIA leaks" case. (Who re-named this one? Till just about a month ago, it used to be referred to as "Plame-gate" or something else equally awkward.) A couple of reporters appeared with the two hosts, and together the four of them starting holding an ad-lib and (to them) hilarious story conference about how they'd make a movie out of the case.
Bud is 11, and he hears a lot about media bias. But this was the first time he had actually heard it being created, right in front of him. Yes, it was a joke, deciding what actor would play Scooter Libby or Dick Cheney, and what actress would portray Valerie Plame. But it was also serious, really. The participants were having way too much fun for it to be anything but.
"They're making it up!" Bud exclaimed.
So how far could it go? We should be glad we're a free country, and we should fight to stay that way. Because, as the awful totalitarianisms of the 20th century revealed, storytelling can carry a nation a long, long way indeed.
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