Thursday, September 06, 2007

Back to the bus: Crouse revisited

Reading journalistic reveal-it-alls can be draining, as most youthful vices are. One furtive weekend at the public library you pick up, say, David Halberstam's "War in a Time of Peace" and proceed to knock off a couple'o'hundred pages while trying not to elbow your latest empty can of ginger ale off that natty old sofa's armrest. What a wealth of information! What dazzling portraits!-- What ACCESS the man has! --Now flash forward a few years: Halberstam bites the empty ginger ale can, you hear him honored with a rebroadcast of an old Terry Gross interview on Radio IQ. You notice how Halberstam starts rolling into his answer before Terry ever gets to finish a single damn question. You pick up his book from the discount bin at Barnes & Noble (ok, you picked it up several months before he died, but we want to hone a dramatic anecdote here, right?) and reread it. You notice how suspiciously admirable so many public servants are-- are these his sources? How does he know Bush wanted Powell to be his running-mate in '92-- did Colin write this stupid book? Who is he to play Proust with a cast of 200 real people, and who could ever figure out Yugoslavia's mess or give a hoot about it? I read this book twice, plus Warren Christopher's memoirs, and I couldn't explain Yugoslavia if you put a gun to my head.

Timothy Crouse's "The Boys on the Bus" can be excused on several of the above counts. Its prose-style far excels that found in Halberstam. It's protagonists are not Eagleburgers and Sandy Bergers weary of carrying the world's weight on their shoulders (or their undisclosed documents disguised under clothes) but journalists, many of whom still ply their weary trade. You may not come away from Crouse with a clear idea of how the 1972 Presidential election was so monumentally lop-sided, but you may score some insight into why David Broder is so anxious to salvage the honor of Karl Rove. And finally Crouse (dare I tip my hat to wikipedia?) apparently never struck any Faustian bargain to become the next Bob Woodward, contenting himself instead with the humble anonymity of success on Broadway. The only thing left to complain of is the suspicion that some anecdotes may have received the tightening that felicitous forgetfulnes, or judicious editing, might impose; but then, when did journalism ever sound at all like real life?

The first anecdote in "The Boys on the Bus" to make me grit my teeth comes when Broder and Marty Nolan rake Ed Muskie over an unreasonable set of coals after his underwhelming (only 46$ of the vote!) returns in the New Hampshire primary. Muskie lashes out with his famous temper, but that's hardly what's interesting here. Even Crouse seems careful not to show indignation over what, to me at least, seems a revealing display of unreasonable expectations on the part of the press. Here they want to know what his returns mean for the forthcoming primaries. Well, what kind of a question is that? And what kind of answer could satisfy it? Muskie's snappy reply sounds to me quite satisfactory: "I can't tell you that"; "You'll tell me and you'll tell the rest of the country because you interpret this victory . . . " (45). At which point Nolan loses it, shortly afterwards berating the Muskie crew with "I've taken three and a half years of this kind of shit from Nixon and those people, and I'm not gonna take it from you pricks" (46).

This saucily moralistic outburst vividly illustrates one of Crouse's key insights in his book: with friends like these, liberals don't need enemies. Though Crouse lays out the case on his own later, this vivid anecdote clearly shows how a press, raging impotently against its servile condition under a conservative administration, can then lash out with undue vehemence against 'friendly' liberals. That Nolan "takes" crap from the Nixon people shows that, in three and a half-years he hasn't found a way to roughen them up-- a dispiriting show from the supposedly free press. By what right can he demand something different from Muskie, especially since the entire question he insists upon receiving a satisfactory answer to is essentially vague and undefinable, only an invitation for the candidate to draw rope with which to hang himself? Whyever should Muskie take the bait?

This rancor against the Nixon administration lies at the heart of one of Crouse's most relevant ideas-- an idea upon which the media has since pivoted. He clearly is steamed at the Nixon White House for what he views, with his peers, as stonewalling with regard to campaign information. But the, what exactly is the 'information' they're looking for? While Watergate and Vietnam steadily churn somewhwere in the backwaters of public awareness, the White House press corps wants to know: is Richard Nixon a candidate in 1972?!? Now, one might think the question utterly scholastic, but the press seems hell-bent on forcing Ron Ziegler to admit that the President is also such an unpresidential thing as a candidate. Disturbingly, I couldn't help but admire the skill of Nixon and his people in keeping the message focused and framed according to their desires. More disturbingly, the press today feels so too-- for what constitutes the vaunted "discipline" and "professionalism" of Hillary's campaign if not the very same skills for which the Nixon team is here condemned? In '72 the assumed liberalism of the press made them privately steam over their servility to Nixon; today, any leader who can't instill in them that same servility is thereby, in their own reckoning, not fit for high command! Indeed, instilling servility must be the ONLY requisite today, since George W.'s administration has shown facility in no other department, and Hillary has been unforthcoming with any concrete agenda besides Framing the Message.

But frankly, Nixon's '72 campaign appeals to me: the brooding RN, snug within the walls of his Forbidden City in an august display of composure and authority, hand-outs and Danishes meticulously bestowed upon the waiting press. I laughed with glee over his little New York rally, the token war-protestors stealthily admitted so he could wheel the cameras away from them to the thronging masses of children cheering. And why not?: grimace however we may, his Middle America was real; and if the hippies themselves debarred Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey from office (for godssakes, LBJ wasn't "toppled"! [88]), it was Middle America that asserted its control with Nixon's victories, especially in '72. The one thing I really miss in Crouse's account is any real acknowledgment of the madness and folly of the McGovern campaign; yes, it's there briefly at the Convention, but then Crouse considers Miami well-behaved. Well, if the standard is set by the riots of Chicago in '68, then sure; but can a convention be considered a success that pushes the acceptance speech "out of the prime-time hours" (164)? If I remember correctly from VH-1, McGovern aired during prime time IN HAWAII . . . .

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