Washington Prowler

Wlady’s Corner(5/5/03 - 5/15/03)

Bill Bennett, Dave DeBusschere, Blair-Raines

By 5.15.03

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MR. KNICK (posted 5/15/03 12:36 a.m.)
It's all too sad when a Dave DeBusschere dies at 62. Willis Reed or Walt Frazier got the glory when the New York Knicks won the NBA championship in 1970, but everyone knew DeBusschere was their franchise player. Before he joined them they were nothing. Traded from Detroit in late 1968, he immediately turned them into a strong team. Everyone remembers Jerry West's 60-foot shot to tie game three of the championship series in Los Angeles. But it was DeBusschere's outside shot that won that game in overtime.

If teammate Bill Bradley had been half as tough, maybe he'd be president today. As it is, Dollar Bill captured DeBusschere nicely in his books, including this description of visits to DeBusschere's family bar in Detroit across from a Chrysler plant. "Most of the autoworkers knew Dave, the basketball star, who played the game the same way these men approached their jobs: Work hard and get it done. Give a few blows and take a few. No complaints. Dave would consume six cans of beer to my one..."

ONE LAST HAYMAKER (posted 5/15/03 12:37 a.m.)
Bill Bennett and his gambling are no longer anyone's lead story, though no doubt he continues to feel the effects of the recent tempest set off in his name. Spiteful figures such as Michael Kinsley settled twenty odd years of frustration to viciously attack Bennett, as if he'd never repaid them a gambling debt and now suddenly they were free to collect and bludgeon him with a tire iron. One camp that seemed reliably loyal to Bennett was Washington neocondom, which was pretty much part of the same network to which Bennett belonged and even made him the great figure he became.

So it must have come as a shock to hear the stern denunciation of Bennett, if not strong distancing from him, that emerged from a leading voice of Washington neoconservatism, David Brooks, last Friday during his joint weekly appearance with Mark Shields on PBS's "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer." Asked for his "quick thoughts on Bill Bennett's problems this week," he responded:

"Well, it's a failure of character. It's something that he is surrounded by, talk of virtue. He doesn't live up to it. He doesn't show self-discipline. You know, they say that Satan is a deceiver. I'm not quite sure he's hit bottom and faced up to the addiction and the problem that he has...."

Thanks to Jayson Blair, this may be one earthquake that didn't register.

FIRING BACK (posted 5/15/03 12:37 a.m.)
According to USA Today, Howell Raines will not resign nor with the New York Times' publisher permit him to. That's the biggest piece of news to emerge from yesterday's extraordinary gathering of Times brass and staff to hack out matters.

One interesting tidbit in the USA Today report touches on a central aspect of the case: "At one point, according to one staffer, Raines acknowledged that perhaps his growing up in segregated Alabama may have prompted him in his professional life to want to right past wrongs against blacks." In so doing, Raines was merely confirming what he had publicly said all along about why he was championing Blair's career. It has left him vulnerable to charges that he held Blair to lower standards and even promoted him at times when he should have been demoting or firing him.

One effect of his forbearance is that other black journalists now feel that they've been put on the spot. One such reporter is the Washington Post's Terry Neal, who until now was known mainly as the author of the "Talking Points" column on the Post's website whose name bears a striking resemblance to Joshua Marshall's "Talking Points Memo" website. Now he feels compelled to knock down the notion that Blair's case was in any way race-related, a hard case to make given what Raines has already said about Blair. But his effort does drive home how difficult it is to escape the stigma affirmative action attaches to its targets.

Defensiveness is one characteristic -- which in turn gives way to divisiveness. In his column Neal openly criticizes his colleague Howard Kurtz for suggesting Blair's editors gave him breaks on account of his race. "'Look, this was a promising young black reporter,' he said. 'I wonder if a middle-aged hack would have gotten away with 50 mistakes and still be at that job.'"

Neal's response? To criticize the New Republic, which gave plenty of tolerance and room to two white plagiarists and fabricators in the 1990s, one of whom allegedly made at least 40 errors in a piece she did on the Washington Post for her magazine. Well, so what? We're talking about the N.Y. Times. Has it tolerated comparable shoddiness from someone not hired in the name of diversity?

Neal doesn't ask. Instead he suggests that Blair's close relationship with top brass was an aberration. "In my 14 years as a journalist, I have never heard of a young black reporter with such close ties to upper management."

And what about other inexperienced 27-year-old hot shots the Times has championed? One is Jodi Kantor, whom the paper recently hired away from Slate to become editor of its "prestigious" Arts & Letters section. "Kantor may be fabulous and do a remarkable job, but no minority has ever gotten a break like that in the history of American journalism," Neal writes. So that's what he's left with in the wake of Blair, grievance?

A writer for the Wall Street Journal yesterday would probably agree with Neal regarding different reactions to white journalist scandals and those of a Jayson Blair. The former never implicate whites in general the way the latter are more likely to in the case of diversity-labeled blacks. "Race-based policies make black achievement a white allowance and black failure a group stigma," he writes. "Which is why so many black journalists hung their heads at the revelation of Mr. Blair's race."

To Terry Neal's credit, he's not about to hang his head.

******

The Short, Troubled Reign of Raines (posted 5/12/03 2:43 a.m.)
Just the other month the New York Times published an op-ed by a CNN honcho that read like a suicide note from the credibility-challenged cable network. Now it has published a much longer if similar note about itself and the Jayson Blair affair. Or maybe one should say it's just dropped the big one on itself. It'll take days and weeks and longer to assess the fallout. If executive editor Howell Raines were at Enron, his name would be Kenneth Lay.

Sunday's report of its investigation into the Blair scandal simply takes one's breath away. Let's start with what's said. The paper concedes that reporter Blair committed countless acts of plagiarism, misrepresentation, and other deviousness over the course of his meteoric Times career. It admits Blair was appointed and promoted by the paper's top guns, despite warnings from less powerful editors at the paper (which immediately puts the lie to its official claim that what the paper had here was a failure to communicate). It denies any of this had anything to do with its open championing of affirmative action, the elephant in the room it mistakes for a gnat.

NPR's "All Things Considered," of all networks, recently posed this question to Raines, as recorded by the Media Research Center's Times Watch:

"Mr. Raines, you spoke to a convention of the National Association of Black Journalists in 2001, and you specifically mentioned Jayson Blair as an example of the Times spotting and hiring the best and brightest reporters on their way up. You said, 'This campaign has made our staff better and, more importantly, more diverse.' And I wonder now, looking back, if you see this as something of a cautionary tale, that maybe Jayson Blair was given less scrutiny or more of a pass on the corrections to his stories that you had to print because the paper had an interest in cultivating a young, black reporter."

As on the Lehrer "NewsHour" last Friday, Raines will give nothing more than an evasive answer to any such question. On NPR he replied nonsensically, "I don't want to demonize Jayson, but this is a tragedy of failure on his part." What in the world is "tragedy of failure"? Plus, you've got to love that Freudian slip, in which Raines puts a higher premium on diversity than on quality.

As for not wanting to demonize Jayson, that's exactly what the Times has done, but without taking any responsibility for its own actions. If John Ashcroft had compiled Sunday's report, the paper would have squawked that his privacy had been violated at every turn. But with a huge score to settle and even greater embarrassment to escape, the Times gives it hard and good to its once proud project. Among other things we learn that he drank too much scotch, ran up tabs at bars, borrowed company cars and accumulated parking tickets on them (was he moonlighting at the U.N.?), smoked heavily, ate junk food, and was as sloppy in his appearance as he was in his work. On top of that, he had maxed out on his credit card. What a loser!

One has to wonder how much respect Blair had for the earnest liberals who championed his cause -- or was it just resentment? He's reported to have "held [his] nose" when writing one apology to an editor for errors he'd made. In another case he tried to pull rank by threatening he'd go to the top editors who'd hired him. He was always being offered counseling. "We wanted him to succeed," insisted one editor who'd caught him out more than once. The metro editor who warned higher-ups that "there's big trouble [with Blair] I want you to be aware of," was also the same editor who, as Howard Kurtz reported last week, wrote this in a note to Blair early last year during another rough patch: "We'll be watching, cheering and biting our fingernails in the grandstand. We're rooting for you."

Is there anything worse about affirmative action than the extent to which it patronizes its charges (and thus locks them into the condition it was supposed to alleviate)?

Anyway you look at it, Howell Raines is in deep trouble. Just how deep is driven home by his final remarks in Sunday's confessional, at the very end of the piece. In noting that he is appointing a task force "to identify lessons for the newspaper," the report says about Raines: "He repeatedly quoted a lesson he said he learned long ago from A.M. Rosenthal, a former executive editor.

"'When you're wrong in this profession, there is only one ting to do,' he said. 'And that is get right as fast as you can.'"

Raines relying on Abe Rosenthal -- indeed, giving the last word to Rosenthal -- the very man who was so unceremoniously dumped by the new regime that brought Raines to power? It appears that one lesson is already clear: If Rosenthal were still in charge, none of this would have happened.

******

Luck Be a Lady (posted 5/7/03 11:06 p.m.)
You know Bill Bennett's situation is serious when you see the likes of Mario Cuomo coming to his defense -- as a fellow Catholic -- and in turn see a serious Catholic conservative pundit defending Bennett by citing Cuomo's remarks. Both of these defenders wish to knock down the notion that gambling is a sin. But can one have confidence in Cardinal Cuomo's glib view that gambling not only is "not among the seven great sins," but not "even among the 70 small ones"? That's the kind of thinking that leads to the disappearance of sin as a concept altogether, i.e., outside of Republican-orchestrated budget cuts in social programs.

In any event, since when is sin the issue? The question isn't whether Bennett committed a moral offense. It's whether he's irreparably hurt himself politically. The pundit defended Bennett out of understandable political loyalty. Cuomo perhaps did so out of sense of easy magnanimity toward a soul who'd already been politically compromised.

Or maybe there was something else going on as well. The New York Times story in which Cuomo's comments appeared refers to Bennett as "one of the nation's pre-eminent moral crusaders," which pretty much corresponds to the role Cuomo saw himself fulfilling for his liberal causes. It's no accident he remains best known for his San Francisco Democrat and Notre Dame speeches of 1984. In the former he expressed high moral dudgeon to make a case for permanent class warfare against Republicans; in the latter, he made an outright moral case for coming to terms with immorality, if not championing it completely.

Besides, ever since those speeches Cuomo has been a political celebrity, the very same status Bennett has enjoyed for more than a decade, if for other reasons. It was nice of Cuomo to show solidarity with Bennett, albeit at an opportune time. Since leaving office, and especially after his son's fiasco of a gubernatorial run last year, Cuomo must be finding it harder to remain in the spotlight.

In many respects, celebrity, status, and wealth are interchangeable, even if they bring with them the risk of insularity. Consummate Washington entrepreneur Jim Glassman's defense of Bennett begins on a revealing note: "I have known for years that Bill Bennett gambles" -- at least since 1996 when Glassman's daughter reported on Bennett's high-rolling for the Las Vegas Sun. So what's the problem? If it wasn't a big deal with someone like Glassman, why should it be with anyone else? Glassman's confidence as a player is reflected in how easily he survived coauthorship of a book entitled, Dow 36,000. Maybe he's the real Sky Masterson.

Yet the most revealing comments in Glassman's column are the paragraph in which he makes a kind of libertarian Calvinist case for Bennett: "Bennett is a smart man and knows how to get his ideas across. That gift has made him rich, and he deserves his success. Anyone who knows him recognizes that, unlike many on the religious right, he is not a scold and a prig. He enjoys life. What he does with his money is his own business. He can buy a house in Aspen or a private jet or collect Impressionist paintings or travel to the Antarctic or dine out with family and friends at expensive restaurants every night. It's up to him." I wonder how such do-your-own-thing thinking would measure up in Catholic teaching, not to mention The Book of Virtues.

A final tribute to Bennett was paid by America Online, which on Tuesday polled users: "Was it hypocritical of Bennett to gamble?" Fifty-seven percent said, "Yes, he doesn't practice the virtue he preaches." Forty-three percent said, "No, it's legal entertainment and he seems to be OK financially." However tendentious, the wording didn't have to resort to labeling Bennett any sort of conservative or member of the religious right. It was taken for granted that he's a prominent American, caught in an embarrassing bind, famous enough to be the center of attention. No matter how unscientific, the AOL poll provided a fresh perspective.

For no matter how much he may deserve his success, Bennett also deserves to hear from people who can put two and two together. It'll be they who largely determine the extent of his future success.

******

The New Judgmentalism (posted 5/5/03 2:00 a.m.)
In a final blow to the Clinton legacy, the quaint tolerance its namesake enjoyed at every dicey turn no longer trickles down. How else to explain the demise of bad-old-boy behaving coaches at the University of Alabama and Iowa State University? Next think you know it'll seem we're back in the 1950s.

In the Alabama case, a newly hired football coach is out for cavorting with a topless floozy in neighboring Florida. He was there to play at a pro-am golf tournament, and presumably was practicing his putting while she ran up a $1,000 room service tab and charged it to his hotel bill.

The Iowa State case is more troubling, if only because its 47-year-old basketball coach did his fooling around with students from a school that had just defeated his team. Isn't it rather ignoble for a losing general to request aid and comfort from the enemy? To his credit, he was acting as perhaps less dangerous mentor to young students than many a more seriously minded professor who in my day at least felt called upon to smoke dope with his charges and then went on to become honored and eternally tenured faculty. Iowa State's man may ultimately be done in for the simple crime of infantilism, i.e. for reminding the world that a sports coach is at heart an adolescent jock who never will grow up. Youth is fleeting when you're nearing 50.

One thing's for sure: the Alabama and Iowa State guys would be in much less trouble if they had learned to pursue what passes for virtue in the college sports world. The New York Times recently highlighted one such example, retired North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith, whom it praised for speaking out against the death penalty. Truth be told, your more typical jock coach would worry advocating Smith's view would weaken his team's killer instinct.

Bill Bennett, of course, is a different kind of coach altogether, and so the trouble he's in is of a different magnitude as well. But for all the emphasis on his Smith-like virtue side, people forget that Bennett remains an ex-all conference footballer from his days at Gonzaga High School in Washington who has never lost his competitive streak. I once saw him play a pickup game of basketball in which he moved and rebounded like someone who loved to play to win. In his public appearances he is especially good in competitive settings in which he has to take on often hostile representatives of opposing views. Against their vituperation he can come across as impressively as Colin Powell.

Success didn't so much spoil Bennett as unrealistically alter his image. As he became best known for the Virtue books compiled under his name, his reputation changed from political sharpie to goody-goody. Anyone who knew him knew he was more interesting than that, but apparently who was he to argue with market success and public demand? Now thanks to political enemies we know more about him. Suddenly he's in a whole new competitive situation, needing to salvage his political stature even as his synonymity with virtue becomes untenable.

That will hardly be an impossible task. Since when has conservative politics required its players to come across as straitjacketed saints?

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About the Author
Wlady Pleszczynski is editorial director of The American Spectator and the editor of AmSpec Online.