A Column About Nothing – Frank Bruni Goes Postmodern

April 15, 2012   ·   5 Comments

Source: NYTX

Mark Von Holden/WireImage for MTV Networks

By Marie Burns:

It is axiomatic that 24/7 cable news and presidential campaigns produce breathless hyperbole over the most superficial occurrences and remarks. Still, the silliness is easy enough to ignore: just turn off the teevee. But what to do when major print media linger over the nonsense, and get it wrong at that? For example, today we have Frank Bruni of the New York Times superficially commenting on a superficial story. The result is a column full of fury, signifying nothing.

Too lazy to tell the “Rosengate” story himself, Bruni sends his readers via a link to the nation’s official superficial paper, USA Today. Unsurprisingly, the USA Today reporters, Jackie Kucinich and Martha Moore, report the story superficially. On the “what happened,” they write,

The presidential campaign exploded Thursday into a bitter debate over women’s work, a day after a Democratic adviser made a dismissive remark about stay-at-home mom Ann Romney, wife of the GOP candidate Mitt Romney.

Wednesday night on CNN, Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen said Romney, who raised five now-grown sons, had ‘never worked a day in her life.’ Mitt Romney had said earlier that his wife had relayed to him the economic concerns of women around the country….

The din became so deafening that by Thursday afternoon Rosen had gone back on CNN twice and issued a written apology, but was still the focal point of several Republican fundraising pitches. ‘I apologize to Ann Romney and anyone else who was offended,’ Rosen said in a statement Thursday. ‘Let’s declare peace in this phony war and go back to focus on the substance.’

You might think a New York Times columnist, who is also a trained reporter, would do an itty bit of research to try to find out, um, what Hilary Rosen actually said before he wrote a column disagreeing with her. He didn’t bother. Here’s a transcript of the remarks Rosen, a CNN analyst, made last Wednesday:

With respect to economic issues, I think actually that Mitt Romney is right, that ultimately women care more about the economic well-being of their families and the like. But he doesn’t connect on that issue either. What you have is Mitt Romney running around the country saying, ‘Well, you know my wife tells me that what women really care about are economic issues and when I listen to my wife that’s what I’m hearing.’

Guess what? His wife has actually never worked a day in her life. She’s never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing in terms of how do we feed our kids, how do we send them to school and why do we worry about their future.

So I think that, yes, it’s about these positions and yes, I think there will be a war of words about the positions. But there’s something much more fundamental about Mitt Romney. He just seems so old-fashioned when it comes to women and I think that comes across and I think that that’s going to hurt him over the long term. He just doesn’t really see us as equal.

What Rosen was reacting to was this: Mitt “Romney, when asked last week about the gender gap, twice said he wished his wife could take the question. ‘My wife has the occasion, as you know, to campaign on her own and also with me,’ Romney told newspaper editors, ‘and she reports to me regularly that the issue women care about most is the economy.’”

If Rosen were as articulate as Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post, she would have said something similar to what Marcus wrote last Wednesday, the same day Rosen made her remarks on CNN:

Outsourcing the job to his wife isn’t going to solve Mitt Romney’s problem with women voters…. Note to candidate: Women aren’t a foreign country. You don’t need an interpreter to talk to them. Even if you’re not fluent in their language, they might appreciate if you gave it a try.

Frank Bruni never even gets close to the point Marcus made and Rosen tried to make. To borrow his own phrase, Bruni “takes a swipe at Rosen,” then goes on to write a brief essay about how hard his stay-at-home mother worked. It’s a nice remembrance. But it has nothing to do with what Rosen meant. Instead, it is all about a sentence she said but did not mean. It is about a tiny portion of her overall remarks. This is what I mean when I say Bruni has written a column about nothing. He is sniping about a snippet. His outrage is a reaction to teevee talking-head shorthand, a shorthand further abbreviated in a newspaper item. This is enough for Bruni. (We should not be surprised. After all, E. B. White prophesied the Bruni reading style way back in 1938.) Ironically, after Bruni relates how his mother stayed up late doing volunteer work, he concludes his column, “I wish I knew how to work even half that hard.” Yeah, Frank, we wish you did, too.

In high dudgeon, Bruni writes, “What Rosen said was inaccurate, gratuitous and a sad example of the way politics is practiced today.” I’m no fan of Hilary Rosen’s. I don’t think this is the first time she has misspoken for the cameras. I don’t watch CNN, but I seem to recall her irritating me in 2008 when she appeared on MSNBC as a Hillary Clinton surrogate. (Although Sen. Clinton was not my candidate, I didn’t blame the Senator for attracting an obnoxious fan.) I’ll give Bruni “inaccurate and gratuitous” for the ill-chosen words heard ’round the world, but her overall point has plenty of merit. Ann Romney says she works at home, and I believe her. As Linda Hirshman wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, “In Ann Romney’s case, managing the very elaborate Romney establishment – five children,three or four houses and two Cadillacs – probably takes as much labor as most jobs in the market economy.” Even if Mrs. Romney never lifted a finger on the homefront, there would be no reason she couldn’t listen to women (and men) and report their concerns and complaints to her husband. It is not, however, apparent that she did. In his remarks about his wife’s “research” on women, Romney has said only that she told him women’s “number one concern is the economy” and “what they’re talking about is the debt that we’re leaving the next generation and the failure of this economy to put people back to work.” What people? Women people? If this is all Ann Romney has been telling him, she is not a very good reporter. She either cannot distinguish among the different concerns of women, or she cannot convey those differing perspectives to her husband.

In fact, Mrs. Romney demonstrated her inability to connect with working women when she appeared on Fox “News.” She repeated talked about women making the “choice” to work outside the home. Evidently the only women Ann Romney talks to are those who can decide whether or not to take a paying job. Bruni identifies his mother as one of those women, and perhaps that is one reason he too is so tone-deaf. And let’s not lose sight of this: Ann Romney, and apparently Bruni’s mother, belong to a group of women who actually do work outside the home. Mrs. Romney served as First Lady of Massachusetts and has worked as an unpaid volunteer on her husband’s many political campaigns. Bruni says that his mother also worked as an unpaid volunteer. There was and is a certain class of women who thinks that volunteering to do good works is “proper” but taking a paying job is déclassé. That is their “choice.” But as any sensible person knows, millions of American mothers take paying jobs because they have no choice. They must work to provide basic necessities for their children. And as Hirshman wrote in the Post, Rosen’s “comments were uncharacteristically tone-deaf. But her call to focus on those women who are really hurt by job losses was pitch-perfect.” The Romneys don’t seem to have a clue. It is very apparent from the tone and content of his remarks, that Mitt Romney still sees women as just another bloc of voters who agrees with him about economic policy. How convenient.

As for Rosen’s remarks being “a sad example of the way politics is practice today,” I hate to tell Bruni, but Rosen’s commentary was mild by historical standards. She did not accuse the candidate of having a secret love child (Jefferson, Cleveland, Bill Clinton) or of murdering anybody (John C. Calhoun, Bill Clinton), after all. She did not accuse Mrs. Romney of being an adulterer (Andrew Jackson’s wife Rachel) or a murderer (Hillary Clinton). Yet Bruni writes a little spiel about how “facile, reductive…, cheap and gross” political commentary is today as if this were some new phenomenon.

When candidates claim their spouses are campaign operatives, as Romney did, they have to expect the opposition to criticize the spouses’ work, as I am doing here. I would not blame Mitt Romney for being upset about criticism of his wife, but he should be upset with himself for inviting that criticism, not with her critics for speaking truth to the missus. Unfortunately, Romney was not upset by Rosen’s comments. He was delighted to make a martyr of his wife. His campaign staff sent female surrogates in all directions to express shock and outrage; they set up a Twitter account for Ann Romney to make little ladylike tweets; they sent her out to do “a rare interview” on Fox “News”; they used the ginned-up “controversy” in a fundraising appeal.

Rush Limbaugh “spent the bulk of his three-hour afternoon program [Thursday] griping about Rosen’s charge Wednesday that Mitt Romney’s wife has ;never worked a day in her life.” Yet Limbaugh didn’t see anything wrong with making racist and sexist remarks about Michelle Obama. Here’s what Limbaugh said,

This is big because it’s such a teachable moment. It’s such an illustration of who these people are, the left. It’s such an illustration of phonies of feminism. It is an illustration of the absolute hostility that the left has for women who stay at home,

Here’s what Bruni wrote:

What’s most bothersome about Rosen’s comment, though, was its betrayal of what the Democratic Party and feminism at their best are supposed to be about: recognizing the full diversity of human experience and empowering everyone along that spectrum to walk successfully down the path of his or her choosing, so long as it poses no clear harm to anyone else.

It’s kinda hard to tell the difference, isn’t it? Bruni and Limbaugh say the same thing; Bruni just uses longer words. Unlike Rush, Frank Bruni has an audience who knows the meanings of long words. (And notice, again, that Bruni views work outside the home as a choice.)

Bruni writes that “to care about people in economic distress,” you don’t have to be personally familiar with financial hardship.” I was with him until he compared Mitt Romney favorably with “the Roosevelts, the Kennedys and even George Washington.” Oh, please. Romney is a guy who says “I’m not concerned about the poor,” who has endorsed Paul Ryan’s reverse-Robin Hood budget and who thinks “corporations are people, my friend.”

Bruni equates Hilary Rosen, a woman whom most Americans had never heard of until late last week, to the presumptive Republican nominee for president and his wife. That is ridiculous. Rosen is a CNN analyst, for Pete’s sake. CNN does not have very high standards for its political analysts. They have one analyst, Dana Loesch, who thinks U.S. soldiers urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters is “cool.” They hired Erick Erickson as an analyst after he called a Supreme Court justice “a goat-fucking child molester.” While he was working for CNN, Erickson also said he would “pull out a shotgun” on any U.S. Census taker who tried to arrest him for not filing his Census data. The reaction to this remark so irritated Erickson that he “lashed out at ‘people’ who ‘linger on every word I say’ by stating: ‘You people are nuts. Absolute nuts.’” Well, I’m not going to call Frank Bruni nuts, absolutely nuts. But lazy? Uninformed? Unsympathetic to working women? You betcha.

Instead of writing a column about nothing, Bruni would have done well to read what his boss wrote about the Rosen brouhaha. Andrew Rosenthal, the New York Times editorial pages editor, wrote in a blogpost Friday,

Ms. Rosen, a Democratic strategist, said on CNN that Mrs. Romney ‘has actually never worked a day in her life’ and has ‘never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing.’

I don’t think she intended to denigrate mothers who do not earn wages or run their own businesses. I think she meant to say that Mrs. Romney is a rich, privileged woman and from that position is not in touch with the lives of ordinary American women, especially those who are working one or more jobs just to make ends meet and raising children.

Note how Rosenthal includes more of Rosen’s commentary, then correctly (I think) interprets her intent. Rosenthal does not let Rosen off the hook, though. In a post published earlier the same day, he had called her remarks “witless.” In this later post, Rosenthal defends his characterization of Rosen’s remarks:

But ‘never worked a day in her life’ was a poor choice of words, because the phrase dissociates childcare from other forms of labor. A woman who stays home to raise and nurture her children is working just as much as one who goes out into the world to be paid for her work. She is just as vital a part of the economic and emotional fabric of her family as her husband.

Ms. Rosen, who ran the Recording Industry Association of America for 16 years, is supposed to be an expert on public relations and politics, and could surely have anticipated how the Romney campaign, or even just ordinary viewers, might interpret what she said. ‘Witless’ still sounds like a pretty good description to me.

What most distinguishes Rosenthal’s commentary from Bruni’s, though, is Rosenthal’s mastery of the underlying controversy: the Republican “War on Women.” Rosenthal writes,

On rare occasions there actually is a war going on, like the War on Women, by which I mean the increasingly aggressive Republican-led assault on women’s rights, starting with access to abortion and contraceptives…. Basic economic issues are just as important and, guess what, Republicans want to slash every kind of program there is that helps working people house, feed, clothe and educate their children. They have even opposed the re-authorization of the Violence Against Woman Act because it would help non-citizens and people in same-sex relationships.

Mitt Romney has decided to lead the War on Women. Once benign on abortion, Romney has now gone so far as to support “personhood” amendments, which would not only ban abortion, but would also make some forms of contraception illegal. Formerly a supporter of Planned Parenthood, Romney has said he would eliminate government funding for the organization, which provides health services for millions of poor and middle-class women and girls. Romney says he would completely eliminate Title X, the only federal program devoted to family planning. Though Romney has said his wife’s job as stay-at-home mother is “more important than his,” Romney says that if he could, he would send women on welfare back to work the day they give birth. because giving women “the dignity of work” is important. Somehow, providing childcare, funding for which Romney aims to cut, doesn’t figure into the “dignity” equation. Overall, “Family Guy” Romney’s budget proposals and his endorsement of the Ryan/House budget would drastically cut funding for programs that primarily benefit women and children.

The real story, as Rosenthal expressed it, is totally lost on Bruni. In acting as a surrogate for the Romneys, Bruni reveals his fundamental disdain for the rights and needs of American women. He apparently has no idea that working outside the home is not a choice for the majority of mothers who work in paying jobs. Since he doesn’t get it himself, he has no understanding of the Romneys’ ignorance of this reality. He not only misunderstands the controversy, he doesn’t even know what Rosen and they Romneys said about it. Today I have compared Bruni’s column to Jerry’s Seinfeld’s “show about nothing” and to the wisdom of comedian Rush Limbaugh. Perhaps I should have compared Bruni to another comedic character: Gilda Radner’s Emily Litella. Litella appeared on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” to – like Bruni – render long-winded, agitated editorial commentary about some news item or editorial position she completely misunderstood. To Litella’s credit, when the news anchor explained the actual subject matter, Litella thought about it a moment, then said what might best be said about Bruni’s column:

“Never mind.”

Marie Burns blogs at


Readers Comments (5)

  1. nemecll says:

    That did it. I have to find out how to un-subscribe to this website immediately. I pay very little but I am not going to contribute anything to people who support Rush Limbaugh of the left, Ms. Rosen.

    Goodbye and have a nice day.

  2. marieburns says:

    @nemecll. I have no idea what you mean. Perhaps, like Bruni, you are a careless reader.

  3. PD Pepe says:

    nemcecll makes no sense. The use of a comma between “left” and “Ms. Rosen” would indicate that he/she is addressing Ms Rosen who Marie is clearly not, nor was there anything in the column that would indicate a support for Rush and therefore we can conclude that, yes, indeed, the commentator is a careless reader or someone who drinks too early in the day.

  4. Kokuanani says:

    One of the things I love about Mitt Romney & his ilk is how they’re always preaching the value of “jobs,” but not doing anything to create any — or at least any well-paying ones.

    I guess Romeny & Company would prefer to load all “welfare mothers” onto buses and have them pick lettuce & strawberries in those fields in Alabama — the ones left vacant by the state’s harsh anti-immigrant laws.

    The saddest thing about all of this is that the American public is so stupid it will just hear the “slogans” ["women should work if they want welfare;" "Dems don't respect stay-at-home moms"] and vote based on them. Writers like Bruni and others at the Times do little to lift this veil of ignorance.

  5. alphonsegaston says:

    Nowhere does Bruni explore the issue that his father earned enough for his wife to be able to stay at home. My personal belief is that staying home with young children is the ideal, but unfortunately not a possible choice for today’s young wives.

    In one of my composition classes for education seniors, an older student mesmerized the class by her life story–but not her harrowing tales of teaching in Chicago schools. (You’re going to shoot me? Get in line.) Instead, the young women were astonished that she raised five children, staying at home while her husband worked at a shoe store. They owned a home and a car. She went back to teaching when the children were older. Much discussion of the disappearance of such jobs as her husband had, and indeed he did have to take a job in a big shoe warehouse at much less pay later in life. The women, many of them married, never expected to be able to stay home with children given the facts of middle class economic life.

    These facts seem to have escaped Frank Bruni.



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