Three Faces of Political Journalism
August 1, 2000
Mark Twain once described a journalist as someone who, given time, writes worse. This certainly remains true of most of the so-called “unbiased” or “non-partisan” reporters who write the “news” for the New York Times and the three major TV networks. But amidst the rabble of ink-stained wretches sweating and swearing on the campaign bus are a few practitioners of the journalistic art who remind us of the edifying possibilities of both journalism and politics. Ashbrook Scholars have the opportunity to see three such journalists this fall, each of whom teaches a different way of approaching the drama of public life.
William Kristol: The Power of Ideas and the Ideas of Power
Blithely we speak of “the power of ideas.” But just as ideas are not self-generating, neither are they self-implementing. Just as important as the power of ideas is the relationship of ideas to power. Bill Kristol teaches that this is not a distinction without a difference. His path in recent years consists of three great Machiavellian deeds, in the highest sense of that much misused term, i.e., understanding that republican greatness often requires a large amount of self-confident assertiveness more than simply new or better ideas.
Kristol’s experience also teaches that it is not impossible for an academic student of politics to make the transition to the real arena of political action. After taking his Ph.D. at Harvard and teaching at Penn and later at the Kennedy School of Government, Kristol came to Washington to be chief of staff to Secretary of Education Bill Bennett during the second Reagan administration. In 1988, Kristol managed the Maryland senatorial campaign of Alan Keyes, an experience that undoubtedly tempered Kristol to the limitations of purely idealistic politics, even as it prompted Keyes subsequently to skip over such minor offices as the U.S. Senate.
Following the 1988 election, Kristol had a wide choice of senior staff positions with various cabinet members, but chose the counterintuitive post of chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle. Just as the Vice Presidency is considered a dead-end street or at least a blind alley for most politicians, so too it is not regarded as a hot spot for aspiring staff. But Kristol knew that amidst the prospective flaccidness of the Bush administration, Quayle would provide a coherent rallying point for conservatives. And sure enough, the single most memorable and significant statement of the Bush years was uttered by Vice President Quayle—the famous “Murphy Brown” speech about the moral decay of American culture.
Kristol didn’t write the speech—Lisa Schiffren deserves the credit for the text—but to hear Kristol tell it, he was on the plane with Quayle en route to San Francisco to deliver the speech to the Commonwealth Club when Quayle wondered whether the Murphy Brown reference should be dropped. No, Kristol, told him, “I’m sure no one will notice.”
Was this a simple error in judgment, or, as political minds might suggest, a great Machiavellian deed? Without the Murphy Brown reference the speech would have been ignored; with the reference, it ignited a firestorm amongst the liberal chattering class, uniformly negative at first, but culminating in Quayle’s vindication. Not only did the Atlantic Monthly carry the cover story “Dan Quayle Was Right,” but by 1996 politicians of both parties were scrambling to climb on the culture vulture bandwagon (usually with feeble results, such as Bob Dole’s perfunctory speech about Hollywood early in the 1996 campaign).
Kristol’s second Machiavellian deed came in the months after the 1992 election debacle, when he founded the Project for the Republican Future. It turned out to be more concerned with the Republican present than the distant future. In the months after Clinton’s inauguration it appeared that some version of Clinton’s health care plan was headed for easy victory in Congress, such that even Republican Senate Leader Bob Dole was ready to help broker a deal with Senator Pat Moynihan to assure passage of some version of the Clinton plan. Two things kept this from happening: the Clintons’ hubris (they weren’t willing to deal with Moynihan, let alone Dole), and Kristol’s maneuvering.
Late in 1993 Kristol started sending out blast faxes to conservatives in Washington with strategic advice about the health care controversy. These faxes were all marked “confidential,” which assured their widest distribution and readership. Kristol directly attacked the fundamental premise of the health care reform effort—the claim that there is a health care crisis requiring a massive expansion of government. Kristol’s attack was of course both true and politically incorrect, a risky instance, as Machiavelli put it, of speaking truth to power. But soon a growing chorus of Republicans, including even Bob Dole, began pointing out that the health care emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes, and the Clinton crusade for sweeping health care legislation began to lose momentum.
Yet underneath the politics of the health care issue Kristol discerned a more fundamental political fact: “that liberalism, though dominant, is hollow.” In the spring of 1994, when passage of some kind of government health care plan still seemed likely, Kristol predicted: “If Clinton loses on health care, it seems to me the effects could be disastrous for the Clinton administration and for liberalism. It is more than a loss of one issue. It will be like the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan. It will have a huge ripple effect on liberalism across the board, and on the Clinton administration across the board… If this attempted seduction fails, I think Americans will turn against liberalism.”
Kristol’s instincts were fully vindicated. The Clinton health plan never even came to a vote in either house of the Democratically controlled Congress, and voters ousted the Democrats from control of Congress for the first time in 40 years, even though the economy was growing and the nation was at peace.
What to do for a third act? Go into the family business: magazine publishing. The Weekly Standard appeared in 1995 and immediately became must reading inside the Beltway and in other precincts where political ideas are taken seriously. Just as the Progressive movement needed The New Republic as a forum in which to think through its governing ideas, so too a conservative movement that is making the transition from opposition to responsible governance needs a forum for its governing ideas. A movement magazine especially needs to engage in self-criticism. Hence, The Weekly Standard has become the primary venue for Kristol’s third great Machiavellian deed, and his most controversial to date: the idea of a “conservatism of national greatness.” This requires more background than is sometimes apparent in the heated discussions over this idea.
The Republican landslide of 1994 has been called “Reagan’s fourth term,” and the younger generation of insurgent Republicans it brought to Washington consider themselves Reagan’s heirs. Few of the would-be Reaganites have paid close attention to Reagan’s substance, and suppose his political success was built on a combination of an infectiously sunny disposition and a hatred of government. And since few conservative politicians have Reagan’s telegenic appeal, most think they are being faithful to Reagan simply by espousing a hatred of government.
This is a hopelessly crabbed view of both Reagan and American politics. A careful reading of Reagan will show that he always balanced his criticism of government with a testament to the greatness of America and the American people. “President Reagan never gave a speech without appealing to American greatness,” Kristol rightly observes. This was the source of his forward-looking optimism, and his appeal to voters. This was a different type of conservatism from Goldwater—and also from Newt Gingrich. Newt’s futuristic appeal—the Tofflers and all that—was much more reminiscent of Nixon than it was of Reagan, the Nixon who said in 1960 that “It’s the millions of people that are buying new cars that have faith in America.” That kind of conservatism won’t stir anyone’s soul.
For Reagan, faith in America transcended its material accomplishments. As David Brooks wrote in The Weekly Standard at the start of this argument, “since Ronald Reagan returned to California conservatism has shrunk.” Or, as Kristol and Brooks put it in the Wall Street Journal: “A conservatism that organizes citizens’ resentments rather than informing their hopes will always fall short of fundamental victory.” More bluntly Kristol and Brooks have spoken of the inadequacy of elevating “leave us alone” sentiment into a conservative principle.
The point of national greatness is not to develop some laundry list of big federal initiatives like going to Mars, but rather to get us in the mode of thinking like Reagan, after which conservatives might start attracting votes like him too. “The particular policies are less important than getting Americans to think differently about politics,“ Kristol and Brooks argue. It might be called the “Field of Rhetorical Dreams” strategy: Get the general rhetoric right, and the ideas—and voters—will come. The influence of the idea can already be seen in the political arena. Kristol thought the general themes of the McCain campaign held promise, but some aspects of national greatness can also be seen in Gov. Bush’s campaign, especially his “prosperity with a purpose” theme. And Bush specifically rejected the “leave us alone” sentiment as a governing philosophy.
Aside from the presidential contest, a clear application of national greatness is in foreign policy, where the Clinton administration has steadily dissipated its inheritance from the Reagan-Bush years, but where conservative opposition to Clinton has clouded their long-term geopolitical judgment. Lately Kristol has teamed up with Donald Kagan to revive the idea that America should pursue a manly foreign policy. “Just as the most successful strategy in the Cold War,” Kristol and Kagan wrote recently in The National Interest, “combined containment of the Soviet Union with an effort to undermine the moral legitimacy of the regime in Moscow, so in the post-Cold War era a principal aim of American foreign policy should be to bring about a change of regime in hostile nations—in Baghdad and Belograde, in Pyongyang and Beijing, and wherever tyrannical governments acquire the military power to threaten their neighbors, our allies, and the
United States itself.”
The lesson of these deeds? “All big human endeavors,” Kristol said in 1997, “depend on a certain excessive self-confidence and a certain belief that providence will help you.” Just as the great Florentine philosopher (or Ronald Reagan) might have put it, if he were a guest on “Hardball.” Which brings us to…
Christopher Matthews: If Aristotle Were Irish, He’d Be Hosting “Hardball”
Books are routinely made into movies and TV series in Hollywood, but few books have been made into a five-nights-a-week talk show. That’s just what Chris Matthews did with his 1988 book Hardball: How Politics is Played, Told by One Who Knows the Game. His hyperkinetic delivery on CNBC threatens to depress retail coffee sales in Washington. Though Matthews would describe politics as an art, he might be also said to practice “shoe leather political science,” and as such Hardball is indispensable reading for anyone who really wants to understand how politics really works on street level.
Matthews approaches politics from an opposite—in every sense of the term—perspective than Kristol. Instead of a graduate education, Matthews served with the Peace Corps in Africa, before ascending from a junior Hill staffer to speechwriter to President Jimmy Carter and senior aide to House Speaker Tip O’Neill and finally becoming a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner. In fact, this chain of experience, Matthews wrote in Hardball, “allowed me the kind of rough-and-tumble view of Washington politics you could never get with a political science Ph.D.” He is a self-professed liberal Democratic Party loyalist, who has said on his TV show that he intends to vote for Al Gore, even though nearly every other remark about the Vice President is highly critical.
Matthews’ frequent criticisms of liberals and liberalism combined with his party loyalty indicates that he is a throwback to an older and nobler kind of honest liberal partisanship, the kind Lionel Trilling had in mind when he wrote in The Liberal Imagination of liberalism’s appreciation of life’s “variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.” Trilling, of course, was trying to warn liberals that modern liberalism was losing this imaginative and tolerant capacity, which is exactly what happened to liberalism starting in the 1960s.
Matthews plainly understands the damage that identity politics and intolerant partisanship have done to liberalism and the Democratic Party. He is especially offended by the Clintons, who ascribe any disagreement with them to a moral defect. Far from resisting the “politics of personal destruction,” the Clintons brought with them to Washington the apotheosis of the 1960s slogan that “the personal is political.” The Clintons seldom take a greater beating than those Matthews dishes out on “Hardball.”
But beyond the personal moral failings of the Clintons, one gets the sense that what dismays Matthews most about Clinton-style liberalism is its palpable elitism. Matthews’ liberalism is the old-fashioned kind, oriented to the needs and wants of the working class. The old liberalism sought legislation to improve the lot of the poor and working class. Modern liberalism seeks legislation chiefly to grant further power to government and the elite “caring” professions. Contrast, for example, Matthews’ careful criticism of Social Security reform with the criticism of Vice President Gore and other liberals. At the root of most liberal criticisms of any change in Social Security is the obvious fear that reform will diminish the government’s control over both the program and individuals. Matthews, on the other hand, worries that reform might not work out well for the working class.
Raising the Social Security retirement age from 65 to 67 works fine for white collar professionals, Matthews observes, but what about the bus driver or the garbage worker, for whom two more years of physical labor in their mid-60s is a formidable burden? It is a challenge conservative reformers should heed. On the other side, Matthews scores the liberal activists from whom gun control has become axiomatic, understanding that in the heartland states, i.e., away from the elite media centers on the two coasts, gun control remains highly unpopular and a potential stumbling block to a national Democratic majority. (And sure enough, before Vice President Gore acquired national ambitions in the late 1980s, he received an A rating from the National Rifle Association for his opposition to gun control.)
Even where Matthews disagrees with others, especially conservatives, he does not transform this disagreement into a moral failing on the part of his opponent. This he learned from Ronald Reagan. While working for Tip O’Neill in the early 1980s, Matthews went up to President Reagan before a State of the Union speech and, as an ice-breaker, said “Mr. President, this is the room where we plot against you.”
“Not after six,” Reagan replied. “The Speaker says that here in Washington we’re all friends after six o’clock.”
Indeed, the central point of Hardball, Matthews’ practical primer on the art of politics, is that success in politics depends first and foremost on personal relationships and an understanding of human character. Ronald Reagan’s genial view that partisanship stops when the sun sets is of course a generous exaggeration, if not a noble lie. The stakes in politics are too high for fundamental differences, not to mention conflicting personal ambitions, to be dissolved by the solvents of friendship (not to mention the other solvents popular in Washington after 6 p.m.). This is the lesson of Matthews’ second book, Nixon and Kennedy: The Rivalry That Shaped Postwar America.
Matthews tells the story of how Nixon and Kennedy entered Congress the same year (1947), and were close friends throughout the 1950s (with Kennedy even contributing to Nixon’s Senate race in 1950, and saying that if he [Kennedy] didn’t get the Democratic nomination in 1960, he’d vote for Nixon). But such camaraderie couldn’t survive the election campaign of 1960 (even if Kennedy hadn’t stolen Illinois), and for the rest of his life Nixon and the Kennedy family eyed each other with jealousy and resentment.
The lessons learned from contemplating this tragic spectacle perhaps explains why the edges have worn off Matthews’ own ideological views, and moreover why everyone on his show seems like a friend, even if they hail from the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. Above all, Matthews plainly thinks politics is fun as well as fascinating, at a time when too many journalists seem to convey that politics is nothing but grim cynicism. In this regard Matthews’ approach to politics might be considered a modern, mass-media version of Aristotle, who taught (among other things) that the object of politics is friendship, because where friendship exists justice is unnecessary. Which prompts the speculation that if Aristotle were Irish, he’d be hosting a rambunctious political talk show on CNBC.
Brit Hume: Restoring Honor to Journalism
The most memorable moment of Brit Hume’s tenure as a White House correspondent occurred on June 14, 1993. President Clinton had just presented Federal circuit court judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg as his first nominee to the Supreme Court, after an erratic process of political calculation and indecisiveness. Already the press corps, and the watching nation, were wondering if the Clinton White House had its act together, so when President Clinton opened up for questions following Judge Ginsberg’s remarks, ABC News White House correspondent Brit Hume asked the first, and, as it turned out, only question of the day:
Mr. President, the withdrawal of the [Lani] Guinier nomination, sir, and your apparent focus on Judge Breyer, and your turn, late it seems, to Judge Ginsberg, may have created the impression, perhaps unfair, of a certain zig-zag quality in the decision-making process here. I wonder, sir, if you could walk us through it, perhaps disabuse us of any notion we might have along those lines. Thank you.
Though he had been in office nearly six months by the time of this question, Clinton still presumed that everyone should swoon over every gesture that hinted at his noble bearing. Instead of taking any of the exits Hume had provided in his politely phrased and carefully hedged question (“the impression, perhaps unfair”), Clinton displayed his legendary temper and blew a gasket:
I have long since given up the thought that I could disabuse some of you of turning any substantive decision into anything but political process. How you could ask a question like that after the statement she just made is beyond me. Goodbye. Thank you.
At which point Clinton turned on his heels and stormed off.
Most of the White House press corps, for whom the same question was prominently in mind, no doubt privately thought of Clinton, “Welcome to the big leagues, kid.” (Clinton patched things up with Hume the next day, likely after his press aides told him he behaved foolishly.) Hume was buried in mail, most of it from Clinton fans deploring his impertinence. “You are an ass and a clod,” one letter said. Another said: “You are worthless and evil, and it’s about time someone told you so.” Letters like these fill a journalist with hope. (When Clinton later complained that “I don’t suppose there’s any public figure that’s ever been subject to any more violent personal attacks than I have, at least in modern times,” Hume succinctly judged, “This is absurd, of course. One would think Clinton, of all people, would remember ‘Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today.’”)
Lately Hume hangs his reporter’s notebook at Fox News, where he is Washington bureau chief, and where he also hosts the nightly Fox show, “Special Report with Brit Hume.” Fox News’ emphasis on balanced reporting has raised a jaundiced eye among its older peers in the news business, because a commitment to balance and objectivity is a tacit reproach to what might be called “media-as-usual” at the three major networks and CNN. The media, of course, stoutly deny that there is any bias in new coverage. In a classic understatement, Walter Cronkite has said, “From what I hear out there among the populace, there is a strong feeling that TV news is biased.” Consistent to the last, Cronkite says this “misperception” began with Nixon’s attacks on the media. “That, I think, began this era of cynicism about our free press.”
With conventional wisdom such as this, no wonder Fox News has been controversial. To dedicate a news organization to balance and objectivity (Fox’s slogan is “We report, you decide”) is regarded in the establishment media as a provocative right-wing act, and, what Fox’s competitors undoubtedly fear, it just might succeed in winning viewers. One might almost think the establishment media were paranoid. Practically every media trade journal interview with Hume asks if Fox isn’t captive to a conservative bias, simply because it has several notable conservative journalists, such as Tony Snow and Fred Barnes, as regular fixtures, whereas the rest of the TV news networks have none. But Fox also has several liberals as regulars, such as Juan Williams, along with certified centrists such as Mara Liasson and Morton Kondrake. Hume described his journalistic philosophy to The American Enterprise in 1997:
“Reporters aren’t activists seeking to consciously advance an agenda, but if you don’t guard against it, politics creeps in insidious ways that you’re not aware of. If you approach a story with the attitude, ‘I have some political views, and I’ve got to screen these out,’ you’ve got a very good chance of doing that. But if you say, ‘I’m not in this to grind a political ax; I’m just going to react to it the way it hits me,’ you run the risk of doing what I’m afraid Washington reporters do all the time, which is allowing their political attitudes to affect their judgment of events.”
Unlike many TV journalists who begin their careers in front of the camera in their 20s, Hume is a throwback to the old style of journalism, where careers began on the print side. Hume worked as a reporter for the Hartford Times, the Baltimore Sun, and United Press International before joining ABC News in 1973 as a low-level consultant for ABC’s documentary unit. He rose quickly to become Capitol Hill correspondent and later White House correspondent before leaving ABC for the startup Fox News Network in 1997. Viewers would be hard pressed to see any discernable bias in Hume’s work at ABC, but careful viewers could detect his inclination to tell both sides of the story. During the congressional Iran-Contra hearings in 1987, Hume prided himself on asking critical questions about the investigators, and not, like most reporters, only about the targets of the investigation.
Unlike most other network reporters in the age of TV celebrities, Hume kept writing stories for the print media. He contributed features to The New Republic while he was ABC Capitol Hill correspondent, and later began writing for The American Spectator, which might be considered his “coming out” as a conservative. But you can’t tell even from the Spectator articles that Hume is necessarily a conservative. These print stories show how balanced journalism is conducted. His 1991 story on President Bush’s embattled chief-of-staff John Sunnunu, for example, shows how the media’s penchant for conflict distorted the facts and trumped up a mini-scandal about his use of government airplanes for personal use, but at the same time how Sununnu’s arrogance and poor handling of the matter brought on and aggravated the situation. Most ideological journalists would have done one side of this story, but not both.
His lengthy analysis in The American Spectator of Bush’s losing 1992 campaign for re-election is similarly a clinic in balanced reporting. The media was against Bush, to be sure, but Bush didn’t help his own cause by his ham-handed repudiation of the infamous “no new taxes” pledge. At the end of the day, Bush deserves most of the blame, and not a hostile media. Hume also reviews current books (I sometimes doubt whether most TV journalists even read books), and writes a computer column for the Washington Post, showing that his interests and expertise aren’t solely confined to the usual Beltway babble.
The world needs more Brit Humes in its newsrooms. The Ashbrook Center is prescient to be hearing from the original.
Steven Hayward is senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, and adjunct fellow with the Ashbrook Center. Special thanks to Ashbrook Scholar Laura Hanna for her research for this article.