Meg Greenfield got it right.
“The analogy I favor (to Washington) is high school,” wrote the late Pulitzer Prize-winning Editorial Page Editor of the Washington Post and Newsweek columnist in her classic insider’s memoir, Washington. This is pretty tough stuff coming from one of the Capital’s premiere insiders, but not to worry. Ms. Greenfield was careful enough to write her memoirs in secrecy, with strict instructions that they not be published until after her death. No sense riling up the 10th graders, not to mention spoiling the prom, then having to stick around to get the indignant complaints from classmates.
Ms. Greenfield died in 1999. Her recollections, published in 2001, come to mind as one reads the latest edition of Vanity Fair. You know, the magazine that thinks glossy pages and photos of half-naked Hollywood-types of either, both or undecided genders somehow will disguise its taste for sophomoric left-wing political analysis. This month’s issue, with actress Nicole Kidman in an unbuttoned blouse on the cover (take THAT Katie Holmes!), is a hilarious classic of the genre.
Leading the usual pack of stories reassuring its readers that yes, they really are smarter than George Bush (like, duh!) is “Inside Bush’s Bunker,” by former New York Timesman Todd Purdum. Mr. Purdum, who, it is noted, reported for the Times for 23 years before joining VF, is presumably a nice guy. He is also married to former Clinton White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers (not, as Seinfeld might say, that there’s anything wrong with that). Yet one has only to read the breathless headline leading his equally breathless prose to realize instantly why Ms. Greenfield, after decades in Washington, could only compare the town to high school. Exclusively on the pages of Vanity Fair Mr. Purdum, doubtless unconsciously, which makes it all the more amusing, plays out the role of the high school paper’s aspiring-to-coolness-with-the-in-crowd cub reporter to perfection. There is not much in the way of typical high school traits that escapes his purview.
ALMOST ANYONE WHO ATTENDED an American high school — public or private — knows the drill. There’s always The Rumor, some tasty little morsel that just sounds so really cool in the telling, that it becomes a really BIG DEAL even if, alas, it bears no resemblance to the truth whatsoever. Then there’s the Stuff Everybody Knows. Don’t bother checking the facts, the context or any history because, like, EVERYBODY KNOWS! What else could possibly be said? Then there’s the Loyal But Disappointed Best Friend. The boy or girl who just sticks with the person who is the subject of The Rumor even though they JUST KNOW what everybody is saying about their friend is SO true. Everybody in the Know pretentiously if not patronizingly suddenly pretends to admire The Best Friend where once he/she was despised. And who could forget Class? High school is the eternal redoubt of social stratification. In short, it’s everything Karl Marx could ever have fantasized. You’re either part of the “in-crowd” or you’re not, and your role-playing possibilities are limited. Ms. Greenfield selected The Good Child, the Head Kid, the Prodigy and the Protege. I would broaden it a bit to include The Jock, the Student Council Type, the Prom King and Queen and his and her Court, the Geek, and the Nobodies, not to be confused with what was known in my high school as the Shop Kids, the kids that were No Way going to college but knew how to fix a car. The rules here are strict. No dating across Class lines, only make fun of someone not in your own Class, and never, EVER sit at the same lunch table with members of another Class. Unless, of course, you are in a lower Class and get invited — and it is definitely invited — to sit with members of a better Class. And by all means, remember that if you are asked to leave — LEAVE!!!!
His venue selected, Purdum’s article is written in the Vanity Fair style that wins just lovely plaudits for editor Graydon Carter from everyone inhabiting that vast intellectual range between Al Gore and George Clooney in geographical and political regions as diverse as Manhattan and Hollywood. With a reliability not seen since Cindy Sheehan called a press conference to bay yet again at the moon, Purdum manages to spotlight a considerable number of the Washington-as-high school characteristics in his thumb sucker.
Purdum begins with The Rumor. Pssssst! Did you hear the latest? George Bush is soooooooo suffering from “disconnect.” How do we know this? An administration insider said so! Guess what else?! You won’t BELIEVE it!!!! There are “lurid tales [of] binge drinking and marital estrangement…” No Way!!!!!!!!!! Oh My God!!!!! Quickly, his audience hooked, Purdum moves on to the business of reassuring his readers of their moral superiority by telling them Stuff Everybody Knows. “By any measure, the failure of George Bush’s second term has been spectacular….Hanging over everything has been the debacle of Iraq, a failure acknowledged everywhere in Washington except the Oval Office.” Can you believe it? Like, EVERYBODY KNOWS Bush is a failure!!!! Everybody! Except Bush! WHAT an IDIOT!!! Smirk, smirk.
But wait! ALL the President’s closest friends, not counting, of course, the “desertions from Bush’s innermost circle,” like Matthew Dowd and Nicole Devenish Wallace (she is so, like, such a “canny, candid communications aide”) KNOW! They KNOW! Seriously! They’ve finally admitted that Bush is, well — he’s “even more extreme” than anybody realized. Wait…wait! You won’t believe this next one! Here’s proof positive what a little jerk he is! All the TV’s….ALL the TV’s on Air Force One and everywhere else in “the Bush presidential orbit” are “routinely fixed on Fox.” Eeeeeeewwwwwwwwww!!!!!
So, like, White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and those other guys at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (can we talk “third- and fourth-tier”??) still are SO loyal! They stick with him even though, you know, Bush really “never had advisers whom he regarded as true equals.” And what Bush’s few remaining friends put up with! They’re so loyal, but, like, you know, “getting in touch is almost never a one-step process.” But still, isn’t that, like, so SWEET! They do all this even when “the recognition of failure is so pervasive.”
What’s really sad, I mean, just, like, you know, yuck….Bush still hangs out with DICK CHENEY! Gross!!!!!!!!!!!!! You just KNEW Cheney should NEVER have been invited to sit at the lunch table. He just hangs on and on and on, “squirrels away even the most routine office documents in man-sized Mosler safes” while reaching “down into the tiniest capillaries of the federal bureaucracy to assert his will.” That is SO not cool!
GREAT JOURNALISM, NO? If only it were atypical of Vanity Fair, or for that matter a lot of journalism coming out of Washington.
What’s disturbing about this kind of article is that it has zero sense of history and even less genuine understanding about Washington and how it works. Washington, D.C., as the nation’s capital, has inevitably morphed right from its very beginning into what most national capitals — and for that matter state capitals — always become: a hotbed of gossip and conventional wisdom. The latter demands that if you know anything about the former that differs substantially from the latter — and you still want to be accepted by the Big Boys and Girls of the in crowd- you will just shut up and play the game.
Mr. Purdum, and quite notoriously Vanity Fair, play this endlessly predictable Washington game. Editor Carter, at least, has an excuse. He is clearly too much of a Washington political naif whose career as it reflects any Washington-focus depends on being surmised as otherwise by those knowing even less then he does about how the town works. But Purdum, he of the 23 years as a Times reporter combined with a marriage to a former presidential press secretary, he in fact should know better — and much more — about how Washington operates.
After logging a couple professional decades there myself, I can say that yes it is a great place, in many different senses of that word “great.” But Washington is notoriously unable to resist the crack cocaine of the conventional wisdom and the accompanying side drug of politics as horse race. In my time alone it has been completely wrong about everything from the Soviet Union and the future of Communism to the results of abolishing welfare-as-we-knew-it, the credibility of the CIA, the electability of Ronald Reagan, the inevitability of a President Michael Dukakis and the ability of Bill Clinton to hold on to his presidency. Long before I arrived the town was busy scorning Harry Truman for the certainty of a Dewey presidency, insisted the most qualified man in America for the White House was Herbert Hoover and that isolationism was the sure-fire answer to America’s problems after World War I. It thought Lincoln was a failure, Harding was a saint and that buying Alaska was a folly. To this day it believes the mass murder of millions of Southeast Asians after the Democratic Congress forced an end to American financial backing of Vietnam is some sort of triumph and that Democrats really are the party of Civil Rights instead of the perpetrators of a 150 years of slavery and segregation.
None of this kind of Washington reality — the serious reality that underlies the real battles in Washington — ever shows up in Vanity Fair. Mr. Purdum’s “story,” which purports to be a serious discussion of the “bunker” that is supposedly George Bush’s White House, is nothing more than a potpourri of Vanity Fair‘s standard and deeply unimaginative left-wing cant of Bush Derangement Syndrome presented in the style of the high school paper. For a little buzz to titillate the unknowing masses it is served up against an over-dramatized background of the physical surroundings that are a reality for any modern president and have been, more or less, for decades.
One is not even sure that Mr. Purdum and Vanity Fair get the irony of their own presentation. Labeling Bush as “the Captain of a ship that even many of his once loyal crew think of as the U.S.S. Delusional” is a sentiment that is utterly unremarkable in terms of how Washington talked during past presidencies. To think that it is would make one, well, delusional. I read such stories about Ronald Reagan when I sat in the Reagan White House. You remember Reagan, don’t you? All those breathless stories revealing positively, according to some saddened ex-aide, that he was just a dummy who didn’t read books, who had this bizarre sense of optimism about what he insisted was the forthcoming collapse of the Soviet Union, who believed low taxes increased revenue and would ignite the economy? NOBODY in Washington believed this, or at least that’s what the journalists of the day were saying. Staff members were supposedly clucking behind his back about the “Old Man” and whether he even had the tiniest grip on reality. When it was known to the press that Reagan closeted himself for chunks of time every day writing handwritten notes to friends and average Americans who had written him, he was castigated as a sentimental old fool making a colossal waste of his allotted time as president.
ONE OF THE OLDEST Washington tricks going, a trick Purdum shamelessly employs, is to bring forth some recent presidential predecessor of the incumbent, especially if he is of the same party, to cast the current occupant of the job in an unfavorable light. Thus those carping criticisms I heard of Reagan using his time to handwrite those now-famous notes are lovingly recast as the actions of a wise president doing everything he could to remind himself “of the utter vastness of life outside.” Something, but of course, that George W. Bush simply can’t do. Just as the disgraced Nixon was resurrected to discredit Reagan (Nixon was so much smarter, we Reaganites were loftily assured), as the once dopey and dull Eisenhower was suddenly praised as a wise man to discredit Nixon and Reagan later praised to skewer George H.W.Bush, now it is both Reagan and Bush the father being used to do in Bush the son. Bush Sr.’s dependence on then-Secretary of State James Baker and national security adviser Brent Scowcroft is held up as the wisdom to consult “genuine peers” whose “unvarnished advice” Bush 41 trusted. Purdum stops there, without pondering that the advice of these two “genuine peers” both set up Iraq as a problem for the son over a full decade later — and also failed to re-elect the father.
Then there is the tired sleight-of-hand routine, a careless rehash of some event in the life of the administration that supposedly illustrates perfectly some perceived annoying trait of the incumbent. The trait Purdum picked is Bush’s supposed cockiness, the idea to illustrate exactly how such a trait got us all in deep doo-doo to begin with. Exhibit A here is the supposedly startling news that Bush received a briefing in August 2001 from a CIA analyst “about indications of an imminent threat from al-Qaeda” to which Bush responds by saying in his trademark cocky fashion: “All right. You’ve covered your ass now.” Implication? Smart-aleck, cocky Bush could have stopped 9/11 if he just wasn’t so cocky. Reality: the briefing, discussed in the 9/11 hearings, was utterly worthless, telling Bush nothing that neither he nor anybody who had seen Osama bin Ladin on CNN in the late 1990s didn’t already know. There was no date of attack mentioned, no target mentioned. Zip. It was a briefing designed to do exactly what Bush said — and of course, when made public, journalists like Purdum are around to take the bait. Needless to say, Bush’s tone (joking? stern? casual?) is conveniently left out altogether. But woven into the story thread of “WHAT an IDIOT!” it sounds, just, like, SO cool.
And what would a reference to Fox News be without appending “right-wing” in front of it? The logical — and as it happens correct response in the view of one heck of a lot of Americans is that if Fox News is “right-wing” that must mean Fox’s competitors like CNN and MSNBC are left-wing. Purdum, of course, wouldn’t dream of acknowledging that — or maybe he just genuinely doesn’t get it.
Like a fish that doesn’t understand the concept of “water,” it is perhaps no surprise that Mr. Purdum may simply not be psychologically equipped to recognize that the real bunker in Washington, D.C. is — Washington D.C. itself. And dominating that bunker is the high school mentality that the late Meg Greenfield so unerringly identified.
Fortunately for both the country and George Bush, the final verdict of history is never decided in high school, much less in the pages of Vanity Fair. But it is still interesting to note that in tiny print just to the reader’s left of Ms. Kidman’s exposed torso on the cover, the magazine has inscribed this proverb:
“A smooth sea never made a good sailor.”
By that token, George W. Bush is well on the way to greatness.
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