I’ve written in the past that Jacob Weisberg’s attack on Ned Lamont’s supporters is one of the worst things I’ve ever read, in the sense that it demonstrates so many of the worst instincts and presumptions of our political class. Well, Weisberg has really been covering himself with glory again, and for precisely the same reason.
First, he goes after @blippoblappo and @crushingbort for their “silly” plagiarism charges against Fareed Zakaria. As I’ve mentioned, I’m much more inclined to see plagiarism as inadvertent than many others are, but as with Benny Johnson, @blippoblappo and @crushingbort’s evidence against Zakaria is comprehensive and damning. Weisberg’s defense, such as it is, is pretty weak tea. The muscle of his defense comes simply from the imperious attitude and dismissiveness that are the stock-in-trade of big timey, Very Serious political types. Zakaria is a paid up guy, and Twitter users with funny names don’t have license to go after paid up guys in the Very Serious world.
As a political history, The Invisible Bridge suffers from more serious deficiencies: a lack of interest in character, and a failure to engage seriously with ideas. Both Nixon and Reagan appear here as flat figures, for whom the author musters no human sympathy and about whom he offers no fresh understanding. At various points Perlstein calls Reagan a “divider” and accuses him of telling lies. Every politician surely divides and misleads to some extent, but these loaded terms fit his subject badly. They jar because they’re in conflict with Reagan’s fogginess, his lack of cynicism, and with what he accomplished politically, which was to unify divided strands in his party, win over an entire class of Democratic voters, and achieve more bipartisan consensus in Congress than any politician has in the 34 years since he was first elected. The lack of any apparent inner life, about which Edmund Morris expressed his frustration in his Reagan biography, Dutch, makes the fortieth President a confounding biographical subject. But unlike Morris, Perlstein doesn’t wonder about what made Reagan tick. He doesn’t find him an enigmatic figure at all.
There’s a lot going on in this passage after Weisberg dings Perlstein for calling Reagan a liar. In fact, there’s so much rhetorical jiu-jitsu and playful obfuscation going on here, I’m almost charmed, bullshitter that I am. But I’m afraid I need to focus on what’s not there: an argument that Perlstein’s characterization of Reagan is wrong. “Divider” is something of a nebulous term, and as Weisberg notes, Reagan did indeed bring a lot of angry white dudes from the Democratic coalition to the Republican side. But it’s also the case that no politician did more to set the stage for the current culture war and politics of mutual distaste than Reagan, a man who never failed to make politics a matter of character and thus personal. I imagine members of the unions that Reagan took such delight in crushing would not see him as much of a uniter.
But OK — let’s give Weisberg the “divider” question, which is a question of interest to Beltway opiners and literally no one else. The liar question, now, that’s interesting to all of us, and there, Weisberg has no leg to stand on. Ronald Reagan was a liar. He was a habitual, constant, unrelenting liar. His lies have been documented again and again, including by Rick Perlstein. And not little white lies, either, but lies like “I was present for the liberation of a Nazi death camp.” So how on earth is it wrong for Perlstein to accurately reflect that history in a historical treatise? Why does calling a liar a liar “jar” Weisberg? His defenses are so weak they seem almost comic– lots of politicians lie, and plus Reagan had that “fogginess,” which I would note should have excluded him from the office in the first place. The simpler, more honest answer is that to congenital Beltway types like Weisberg, criticizing Reagan is a mark of being crass, of being unserious, of being an outsider. Never mind if the criticisms are true.
These three things — his hatred for Lamont voters, his wrist-slapping of plagiarism whistle blowers, his anger at an accurate accusation of dishonesty against a congenitally dishonest man — may seem disconnected. But in fact they are part of the same condition, the pinched, useless, unjustified-because-unjustifiable attitude of the Big Media poobahs. It’s a habit of thinking that is obsessed with visions of what properly adult, important people think about politics and decorum, and which holds those visions as more important than actual, fact-based argument and sense. I’ve written a little about being a Connecticut Democratic liberal during the Lamont primary in 2006. Nothing stands out more than the vicious anger of a lot of establishment Democrats in the state. That anger wasn’t built on disagreements of policy, though they were very wrong on policy, so much as disagreements of aesthetics, of optics. You didn’t push out a made guy like Joe Lieberman, no matter how wrong he was or how much his instincts cut directly against the beliefs of the liberal Democratic voters of Connecticut. Lieberman may have been a staunch Bush ally, cynical opportunist, and committed militarist. But he was a made guy.
Same with Zakaria. Same with Reagan. You show deference to power. You treat moving to the right as inherently more mature and serious than moving to the left. You swat away criticism like flies if it comes from those you see as beneath you. You worship at the alter of The Way Things Are Done, which always seems to redound to the benefit of the same dudes who are already successful.
We may, finally, slowly, incrementally, be seeing a loosening of the grip these guys have on power, because enough people are finally fed up with their selective blindness, with the way they carry water for each other, with the way they treat facts like inconveniences to their very advanced, very serious minds. People are finally standing up and saying, “actually, the fact that you slithered up from the mailroom at the Post in 1982 doesn’t make you worth listening to, especially when you have such a loose grasp on the facts.” It’s been a long time coming and I’m afraid we’ve got a long way to go.