Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (Elisabeth Bumiller/Robert Dallek/New York Times Edition)
More low comedy from the New York Times this morning, picked up by Scott Lemieux and Matthew Yglesias, who give their snark muscles a power workout by mocking Elisabeth Bumiller and Robert Dallek.
Here is Yglesias:
Fun With Antecedents: By the same token, if earth's yellow sun gave me the powers of a kryptonian, I'd be a super hero. If my blog had Engadget's traffic, I'd be the most popular political blogger. If George Bush could breath underwater, he'd be a fish...
Here is Lemieux:
And If The Devil Rays Win the Next 18 World Series, Their Reputation as an Organization Will Be Greatly Enhanced: Uh, yeah. And if I discover a way of powering cars entirely with oxygen, emitting a vapor that would result in the immediate killing of cockroaches and paralysis in the hands of every Hollywood producer about to sign a contract with Joel Schumacher and Uwe Boll, my reputation as a world-class scientist would be greatly enhanced. I'm reminded of nothing so much as David Adesnik's suggestion that Bush signal his commitment to a rational foreign policy by appointing Dick Lugar...
They are talking about this, from Robert Dallek's review of Elisabeth Bumiller's Condi Rice biography:
Condoleezza Rice: An American Life - Elisabeth Bumiller: Ms. Bumiller understands that Ms. Rice’s place in history will rest... on her record in the Bush administration. And “with 18 months left in office,” Ms. Bumiller wrote as she finished her book, “it was still too early to come to definite conclusions.”... Ms. Bumiller says that if President Bush and Ms. Rice can produce a settlement in the Middle East between Israelis and Palestinians and an end to North Korea’s nuclear program, it would give them claims on success that would significantly improve their historical reputations...
Lemieux says more:
Lawyers, Guns and Money: And If The Devil Rays Win the Next 18 World Series, Their Reputation as an Organization Will Be Greatly Enhanced: [N]othing signals a Must To Avoid more than a positive book review that describes an unreadable book. Such is the case with Robert Dallek's review of a new book about Condi Rice by official Bush administration mash note writer Elisabeth Bumiller. Apparently, we're meant to think that the fact that the book makes no judgments and contains no interesting analysis of Rice's tenure as Secretary of State is a feature, not a bug...
I by contrast, was struck by the striking disjunction between what happens when you start reading Dallek's review from the beginning:
Condoleezza Rice: An American Life - Elisabeth Bumiller: The writer of contemporary history is like the man with his nose pressed against the mirror trying to see his whole body, Arnold Toynbee cautioned. Yet whatever their limitations, books about prominent sitting officials are irresistible, partly driven by an insatiable public appetite for gossip about public figures and an interest in understanding and judging them.... More important, these first drafts of history are indispensable assets... capture... the tone and mood of the day.... Elisabeth Bumiller’s biography of Condoleezza Rice is an excellent case... 10 interviews with Ms. Rice and 150 with other people... a compelling portrait of the country’s first black female secretary of state... its absence of finger pointing or polemics... scrupulously fair.... In Ms. Bumiller’s rendering Ms. Rice is neither hero nor villain but an ambitious woman whose achievements and shortcomings speak for themselves.... Ms. Bumiller refuses to offer any decisive judgments on Ms. Rice’s performance...
and what happens when you start reading Dallek's review backward, from the end:
Condoleezza Rice: An American Life - Elisabeth Bumiller: Ultimately Ms. Bumiller’s book will be seen not just as a discussion of Ms. Rice’s role in shaping one administration’s missteps in foreign affairs but also as a cautionary tale about the gap between ambitious presidential appointees and their unwillingness to speak truth to power.
Inevitably Ms. Rice will be compared to previous national security advisers and secretaries of state, notably Henry Kissinger. Judging from Ms. Bumiller’s account, Ms. Rice, like Mr. Kissinger, was driven more by ambition for high station than fidelity to international realities. Mr. Kissinger’s loyalty to President Richard M. Nixon and Ms. Rice’s to President Bush made them as much political operatives ingratiating themselves with their respective presidents as detached foreign policy analysts serving the national well-being.
“Some of Rice’s friends,” Ms. Bumiller writes, “were stunned that she actually seemed to believe Bush’s argument in the final days of the war buildup that a liberated Iraq could spread freedom across the Middle East.” Ms. Rice also believed that “the postwar phase would be like the successful occupation of Germany after World War II, and that it would be possible to plant democracy in a shattered Iraq.” Either Ms. Rice knew less than she should have about pre- and post-1945 German history, or she was carried away by false optimism.
By the start of the invasion in March 2003, the Rice of early 2000, who had published an article in Foreign Affairs decrying the Clinton administration’s “moral impulse to spread American democracy,” had morphed into a forceful public advocate of bringing down Saddam Hussein, whom she pictured as intent on acquiring nuclear weapons that could lead to “a mushroom cloud” over the United States...
It is still unclear to me--and I have talked to her about this--whether Elisabeth Bumiller that that her mash notes to the Bush administration were what she was supposed to do as a White House correspondent, or understood that she was not doing the job the New York Times's readers had hired her to do but was too much of a coward to do it.
It is clear to me that Robert Dallek understands what the job the readers of the New York Times have hired him to do is--read backwards, the review is pretty good and informative. But that's not the review Dallek writes. Instead, he puts what he thinks are the most important things he has to say at the end of the newspaper story, where they are least likely to be read, and stuffs the most-read beginning with fluff: "indispensable asset... excellent case... a compelling portrait... scrupulously fair.... In Ms. Bumiller’s rendering Ms. Rice is neither hero nor villain but an ambitious woman whose achievements and shortcomings speak for themselves..."
Robert Dallek is simply a coward.