September 9, 2012 · 15 Comments
By Marie Burns:
Four of the New York Times‘ five regular Sunday columnists wrote about the Democratic convention in today’s “Sunday Review.” Nicholas Kristof, the fifth, wrote that “milk is tastier and healthier if it comes from a cow with a name.” I didn’t read his column, but there’s a good chance it is more worthwhile than his colleagues’ observations about the convention.
Maureen Dowd takes the prize. During his speech accepting the Democratic nomination, President Obama said, “So you see, the election four years ago wasn’t about me. It was about you. My fellow citizens, you were the change.” Dowd cites this passage in her column.
President Obama went on to say that American citizens are responsible for a number of the good effects of bills Obama signed into law. He concentrated on those which ordinary citizens voiced in convention speeches. For instance, “You’re the reason there’s a little girl with a heart disorder in Phoenix who’ll get the surgery she needs because an insurance company can’t limit her coverage. You did that.” President Obama does then issue a warning:
If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void: lobbyists and special interests; the people with the $10 million checks who are trying to buy this election and those who are making it harder for you to vote; Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry, or control health care choices that women should make for themselves. Only you can make sure that doesn’t happen. Only you have the power to move us forward. (Transcript of the full text, as prepared, is here.)
So the President begins with a tremendously positive message: American citizens, by their votes and their participation in the democratic process, made change possible. Rather than taking credit for his efforts, he gives “citizens” credit for a few of the positive changes Democrats effected during his tenure as president. He then urges Americans to continue to participate lest special interests and “Washington politicians” undo those good works.
Somehow, Dowd turns the President’s uplifting thesis into this: “Because, after all, it’s our fault.” She goes on to list things for which the President has supposedly “blamed” Americans. “We are grateful to the president for deigning to point out our flaws and giving us another chance,” she writes. “We, the People, must do the work. The buck stops with us.” Dowd has taken cynicism to a level that constitutes a running lie. She has turned the President’s speech about shared accomplishments and shared responsibility into a sociopathic effort to transfer his failures to everybody else. There is no truth to her column. I don’t mind snark. I like satire. But these devices work only if they illuminate. Dowd does not light a lamp; she puts it under a basket.
Second place goes to Ross Douthat, whose dramatic thesis is that
the Obama era … ended, to all intents and purposes, last Thursday night in Charlotte, when a weary-seeming incumbent delivered perhaps the fourth-best major address at his own convention – a plodding, hectoring speech that tacitly acknowledged that this White House is out of ideas, out of options and no longer the master of its fate…. Whatever happens in November, the president’s own words have given us fair warning: We face a continuing crisis, and the liberalism of Barack Obama is no longer equal to the task.
Unlike Dowd, Douthat does get a few things right. For instance, he writes, Obama’s “positive agenda was mostly just a laundry list of easy targets – hiring more teachers, increasing natural gas production, modest short-term deficit reduction – rather than anything remotely transformative or new.” It isn’t that “liberalism is not equal to the task”; it is rather that GOP intransigence makes laudable liberal goals unattainable. Douthat obliquely acknowledges his own party’s role in constricting Democratic goals, but weirdly, he holds the moderate Obama and “liberalism” responsible for the “vast right-wing conspiracy” aligned against Obama and – as the President highlighted in his speech – against the rest of us, too.
When a critic can view a work only through the prism of his own prejudice, he is bound to misread the meaning of the original work. Douthat (as does Dowd, for that matter), gives us a good example of how reading with a jaundiced eye results in flawed criticism. Only by ignoring the elephant in the room can Douthat arrive at the conclusion that the President has no big ideas. Worse, playing hide-the-elephant causes Douthat to miss one of the President’s central arguments: that the American people acting in concert have the power to shoo the elephant away and clean up after him.
Third prize goes to Frank Bruni. Bruni ignores the President and other convention luminaries. He thinks the Democratic convention was not about Obama but, instead, was all about Hillary Clinton – “the grand phantom of the 2012 political conventions” who even though she was “half a world away” (in East Timor, doing her day job) remains “a Democratic deity so revered that the 2016 nomination is presumed hers if she wants it.” “Will she run in 2016? I can’t tell you how many times I heard that question and how largely it loomed in Charlotte,” Bruni writes. I’ll have to take his word for it (though perhaps he can’t tell us how many times he heard the Hillary question because he didn’t hear it many times). With the exception of the God and Jerusalem nonsense, I’ve never seen such a disciplined convention – one so laser-focused on getting the presidential ticket re-elected. Even the famously undisciplined Bill Clinton mentioned his wife only as she related to President Obama. (Hillary Clinton did not attend the convention, by the way, because of tradition: a sitting Secretary of State is supposed to be “above” partisan politics.)
I suspect Bruni made up the whole Hillary ghost of 2016 thing because of his long-standing dedication to “bipartisan balance” as well as a desire to work in mention of his favorite POTUS – Dubya. (Bruni even wrote a book about Bush the Younger.) The Republican convention, in contrast to the Democrat’s Obama love-fest, really was a series of auditions for 2016. Nearly every 2016 hopeful was there, telling his story of hardship and heroism, before getting around to uttering a muted, generic endorsement of Whatzizname. Bruni never even mentions the long line of Look-at-Me! speakers at the GOP convention. Instead he zeroes in on a brief-show – Scott Brown – and the big no-show – George W. Bush. Bruni ends his column with a nod to the biggest Little Man Who Wasn’t There: “As surely as the specter of Hillary hovers over 2016, the apparition of the last president stalks 2012. And there’s no telling yet how these two great ghost stories end.”
Finally, it seems only fair to give an honorable mention to Tom Friedman (or perhaps the “Phantom Tom Friedman”), whose column begins today with the best imitation of a Tom Friedman prologue I’ve ever read: “I just arrived in Shanghai, but I’m thinking about Estonia and wondering about something Presidents Clinton and Obama have been saying.” This lede is so perfectly Friedman it seems likely Hackers Anonymous has taken over a portion of the New York Times op-ed page and inserted a computer-generated Friedman parody.
Or maybe, just maybe, the whole page is a parody, a New York Times Sunday Special Tribute to “The Onion.” Indeed, a world-class parodist would have a hard time writing a more pathetic send-up of the Times op-ed page than the columnists themselves have managed today.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com
* Yes, “I cleaned that up,” too.