It's worth recalling that H.L. Mencken, the most popular U.S. political journalist of his time, shunned Washington. For 73 years, until he died in 1956, the "Sage of Baltimore" made his home at 1524 Hollis Street in the Union Square district of that city, and his professional roost for 42 years was the Baltimore Sun. He was a grossly imperfect man, anti-Semetic with an almost psychotic hatred of FDR and his New Deal. But with his unsparing observations about endemic political venality, Mencken taught a generation of Americans that Republic's officialdom, too often "refugees from the sewers," were more often than not prisoners of monied interests in conflict with the public interest, or, in the case of William Jennings Bryan and the Scopes trial, of that legendary populist's own pig-headed ignorance.
The counterpoints to Mencken include Bob Woodward, long a fixture of the Washington Post, the club newsletter of a company town. The Post often is mistaken for a great newspaper, having bravely published the Pentagon Papers and broken the Watergate scandal. Only in the third of volume of his trilogy on the Bush administration, when it was clear for all the world to see, including natives of the Seychelles, that George W. Bush was in competition with James Buchanan for the distinction of worst U.S. president in history, did Woodward finally come round to the possibility that the values of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al, were at sharp variance with the founding principles of the Republic.
Then there's David Broder, "dean" of Washington pundits, who has never met a conventional wisdom he has not zealously embraced, imparted to him by the company town's permanent establishment of groupthink bureaucrats, centre-right think tanks, lobbyists and socialites (the doyenne of which, for decades, was Kay Graham, publisher of the Post). Broder never could understand how Bill Clinton, who "came in and trashed this town, and it's not his town," could leave office more popular with Americans than Reagan had been on retirement. George Will, another D.C. fixture, was so thoroughly captured by the Pentagon and State Department orthodoxy on the permenance of the Soviet Union that on the very day the Berlin Wall fell his Post column pronounced on lastKing durability of East Bloc communism.
Thomas Ricks, the Post reporter whose Fiasco expertly documents the failures of strategy and execution in Iraq, and an apparent exception to the C.W. rule, now shills for "coin," the counter-insurgency strategy of David Petraeus in Afghanistan that has so far yielded only thousands of deaths of innocent Afghans without advancing the strategy's advertised goal of political and social stability in that misbegotten precinct. The problems for Ricks derive, as a recent Columbia Journalism Review profile revealed, when Ricks began spending entirely too much time with Petraeus, and the line between reporter and reported-upon became blurred and then erased altogether.
For generations, the best writing about U.S. national affairs has been done by outsiders to Washington.
The Knight Ridder newspaper chain, based in Miami and later San Jose, Calif., and sadly a break-up victim of the financial crisis in newspapers, was earlier than the Post in exposing the futility of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, a war the Post continues to endorse as a just cause. And the New York Times, which truth be told did most of the later heavy lifting on Watergate, is home to no fewer than three of the most clear-sighted observers of the unseemly dealings that predominate in the national capital, to which the likes of Broder are wilfully blind.
Paul Krugman, lately a Nobel laureate in economics, for eight years was relentless in exposing the fiscal debauchery and geopolitical daftness of the Bush crowd. Gail Collins, once the Times reversed its mistake in consigning her to an editing post, has re-emerged as one of the most illuminating and gently acerbic chroniclers of the complacency and folly to which the national political and media establishment is given. And Frank Rich, the former theatre critic so loathed by impresarios for his brutally honest reviews he was known as the "Sodom and Gomorrah of Broadway," has, like Krugman, consistently detailed the absurdities and moral bankruptcy of national political practitioners, elected and otherwise, who are, to be charitable, not gifted with irony. Thus Rich reminds us last Sunday that Tom Daschle, the erstwhile Democratic majority leader in the U.S. senate more recently disqualified as Obama's pick for health secretary after kickback disclosures, is both a champion of the "public option" of a new government health insurer as part of the debated healthcare reforms, and also is a paid consultant to UnitedHealth, one of the trio of America's largest private health insurers lobbying with all their might to kill the public option. So, for that matter, is former U.S. House speaker Dick Gephardt, one of the most populist presidential candidates in recent memory. Again, the irony of such matters is lost on Washington insiders.
This phenomenon in journalism is as old as reporting itself. It has to do with human nature. Just as "regulatory capture" finds the Federal Aviation Administration doing the airline industry's bidding with more vigour than enforcing safety and maintenance regulations, "beat reporters" of longstanding at City Hall or Bay Street after years of acquaintanceship with those whose activities they cover grow sympathetic and even protective of the actors on whom they "report." That George Will was an intimate of Nancy Reagan, whose control over high-ranking administration appointments put Hillary Clinton in the shadows, tells much of why Will found so little to fault in that administration's conduct.
It is commonly said that to witness Labour politicians and left-wing scribes in Britain shed their republican instincts after an invitation to a Palace gala is both predictable and yet still a marvel to behold. Is that all it takes to dispense with a long-held contempt for undemocratic monarchial rule, to shake hands with a prince and be complimented by him on your service to the realm and your scribblings in the press? The answer is yes. It's why Orwell, for one, kept his distance from politicians and royals.
I mention this only if you're still wondering why farm reporters have so little criticism to offer of egregious and enormously expensive farm-support payments to farmers to plow their crops under and sustain artificially high consumer prices for dairy products. Why those covering the Supreme Court or the Fed (including Woodward, whose fawning Greenspan biography dubbed him "Maestro" - indeed, that was the title of the book about the most over-rated central banker in history), don't reveal the scant wardrobe of the emperors. Why banking reporters seldom make the connection between staggering write-offs resulting from corner-office credulity and a leap in credit-card interest rates to for Main Street to cover the CEO's fecklessness. (Or to "socialize" the losses, in the case of government bailouts of the insolvent banks and a bailed out General Motors that had been mismanaged for decades.)
Apart from losing access to sources in writing something that offends them, there is the additional disease of self-censure by reporters and editors who spend so much of their social life in the company of those upon whom they report. In towns like Toronto and New York, this quandary is somewhat mitigated by an abundance of distractions. In company towns like Ottawa and Washington, however, there is very little to do by way of off-hours activity than to make the social rounds of the mandarins, think-tankers, politicians and their staffers, and fellow beat reporters. Indeed, one wants to be see and be seen in these precincts. It's a cloistered environment in which, should you dare to give offense to someone in your writing, you're likely to find yourself breaking bread with that individual at a soiree in a few days' or weeks' time - or, worse yet, become disinvited from a social whirl whose gossip is indispensible feedstock for your reporting.
All to say you won't see emerge from the D.C. press such observations as these, starting with Collins' column yesterday. As we know from the experience of almost every industrial nation on Earth, public health insurance is not an impossibility. But that is not Washington's understanding of the issue. The creation of a government health insurer apparently is challenge tantamount to filling in the Grand Canyon or redirecting the Mississippi so that it empties into the Atlantic rather than the Gulf of Mexico:
"One of my personal dreams is that we should have a public health insurance option. To tell you the truth, this was not on my list at the beginning of 2009. But so many really irritating people have been announcing that a public option is impossible/wrong/possibly treasonous that now I year for it night and day."
Rich was in fine form yesterday as well. Rich since early last year has not disguised his admiration of Obama. But in power, Obama, of whose fan club I too am a charter member, seems more and more ordinary as time goes on:
"You have to wonder what some of the Obama era's most moneyed and White House-connected lobbyists were thinking as they preened before a Washington Post reporter recently for two lengthy articles. We're not even nine months into the new administration, yet these swaggering, utterly unself-aware influence peddlers seem determined to prove that nothing except party affiliations has changed in the Beltway's pay-for-play culture since Tom DeLay...
"Barack Obama promised a change from this revolving-door, behind-closed-doors collaboration between special interests and government. He vowed to 'do our business in the light of day' - with health care negotiations broadcast on C-Span - and to 'restore the vital trust between people and their government.' He said, 'I intend to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over.' That those lobbyists would so extravagantly flaunt their undiminished role shows just how little they believe that a new sheriff has arrived in Dodge."
Of course, there have been no gavel-to-gavel C-Span broadcasts. Instead, much earlier this year, Obama cut a dubious deal behind doors with Big Pharma by which it would "forfeit" $80 billion (U.S.) in profits over the next decade in the form of lower drug prices and not fight reform as it did in 1993-94 with its notorious "Harry and Louise ads" (indeed, the couple has returned to airwaves promoting healthcare reform), in return for an Obama promise that the healthcare reforms will not see discount volume buying of drugs (reducing healthcare costs is an Obama mantra, but never mind) and he would forbid the further importation of cheaper Canadian drugs into the U.S.
On financial regulatory reform, it is similarly evident that nothing substantial is to come of deliberations underway, given the proliferation of Wall Street lobbyists and their success to date in eviscerating proposed legislation of any consequence. On the evidence, the Obama government takeover of citizens' lives is a chimera, but the Beltway's takeover of the Obama administration is well underway.
This, too, is the nature of things, of course. Obama is one man, dealing with 535 members of Congress, turf wars among his own agencies, and the fear of change, no matter how beneficial, overdue, urgently needed, among millions of everyday Americans. Actually, the lobbyists are not yet setting the agenda - if they were, heathcare and financial-markets reform would not even be on the table. But they're doing their best to gut "reform." And a company town media that has supped with Daschle, Gephardt and their former staffers now toiling for special interests are doing their best to help sow confusion about reforms of such obvious necessity that they likely won't come about.
I heard on NPR's "On Point" Friday morning a woman who reports for a hollowed-out Knight Ridder news service assert as a matter of irrefutable fact that Americans don't want a new government health insurer. They see it as a Big Government intrusion in their lives, she said - an almost verbatim recitation of the insurance lobby's main talking point. Veteran journalist and author Jack Beatty, a regular of that weekly political round-up show, interrupted to say a poll that very week showed 70% of Americans want a new government health insurer. He could have added that this latest poll was no different than public-opinion surveys all year consistently showing majority popular desire for a government insurer "to keep the private insurers honest," as Obama has put it.
The KR reporter is based in Washington. Beatty, who has only the same tourist's familiarity with D.C. that I do, was calling into the NPR show, as usual, from his home in Hanover, N.H.