A Real Energy Policy
Dealing with the Housing Bubble

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (New Republic Edition)

Kevin Drum's jaw drops as he contemplates http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2005_09/007211.php The New Republic's Michael Crowley. Bill Clinton, you see, likes public policy and likes to talk about it. Michael Crowley doesn't like public policy--which makes one wonder why he doesn't go and write about things that do interest him. Crowley is, I think, one example of a larger trend:

The New Republic Online: Second Coming: Bill Clinton was briefing Elvis Costello on the future of New Orleans.... Clinton was really enjoying himself.... Clinton talked on.... Costello had looked starstruck himself. But now, his enthusiasm seemed to be waning.... [T]he Bill Clinton show--a chance for the ex-president to talk an endless number of hapless (though often rich and famous) souls like Costello blue in the face.

Clinton's pathological need for adulation is well-documented. (When a friend of mine--who is not famous and had never spoken with Clinton before--ran into the ex-president at a hotel gym recently, he had to fabricate an excuse to escape his long-winded ruminations.).... The conference's specific topics were suitably grandiose: poverty, climate change, religious strife, and Third World governance.... Poverty, of course, was an unfamiliar condition to those present, many of whom had paid a $15,000 registration fee to attend. At one point, one attendee whispered to an associate, "She has her own helicopter."

A little cognitive dissonance didn't preclude some genuinely noble results.... The pledges, written documents that Clinton required donors literally to sign "on the dotted line," ranged from $1 million (to improve the justice systems of Bolivia and Peru) to a promise by Michael Jordan's mother (for a hospital in Nairobi) to $1.5 million for "cheap sustainable mobility"--translation: free bicycles--for Sri Lankan tsunami survivors....

[O]ne reporter to call her editor in a mild panic. "It's just, like, so incredibly boring...."

And--as seems to be typical among our elite media--Crowley sneers most at Clinton's concern for the developing world:

For Clinton, it was just the opposite. Partly, it was a chance to show off his astounding grasp of global affairs, whether it was the 15,000 job losses in "the little mountain kingdom of Lesotho" due to an expired trade pact; or grain production in Argentina and Brazil ("because they have topsoil, in some places as deep as 22 feet"); or the promise of solar energy ("There are a million homes in Latin America today where the light and cooking heat come from solar generators ... at a cost of about a month's worth of candles"). This, in sum, was a man who wanted to demonstrate total understanding of the planet Earth....

We've seen this before, last year. People who wanted to trash Clinton's book did so by complaining that it talked about details of policy:

The second example is the Weston Kosova and Michael Isikoff review of Bill Clinton's My Life. Kosova and Isikoff lament how Clinton "forces [them] on a joyless march through... arid policy debate[s]" that they must slog through before finding a "raw, confessional moment that almost makes the book seem worth the $35 price of admission." But to politicians like Clinton (and to those who have ever worked for one, whether full-time, part-time, or volunteering just out of citizenship) the "arid policy debates" are of the essence: one runs for office--one works for or supports people who run for office--because one has strong beliefs about what policies will make America a better place. It is only to a reporter like Isikoff that debates about policies are "arid". To ask Isikoff to review Clinton is like asking someone tone-deaf to review a performance of Beethoven's "Eroica". The element of self-parody--unintentional self-parody--is there, especially as Isikoff and his editors repeatedly fail to grasp that they are tone-deaf, and are thus not hearing and incompetent to review the symphony. Where others see the real business of government--real policies with complicated and uncertain effects on millions of real people's lives--they see only the Gedrosian Desert.

The third example is another review of Clinton's My Life: Michiko Kakutani's. She sneers at Clinton's "messy pastiche of everything that [he] ever remembered and wanted to set down in print; he even describes the time he got up at 4 a.m. to watch the inaugural ceremonies for Nigeria's new president on TV." That, to her, is the low point: Clinton actually interested in a place like Nigeria! And--Kakutani is clearly thinking--could there be anything more a total boring and uninteresting waste of time than getting up at 4 A.M. to watch a broadcast from Lagos?

Well, here's the sum total of what Clinton has to say about Nigeria (that I could find, at least) in his book. It's two paragraphs:

p. 856: I got up at four in the morning to watch the inaugural ceremonies for Nigeria's new president, former general Olusegun Obasanjo, on TV. Ever since gaining independence, Nigeria had been riddled by corruption, regional and religious strife, and deteriorating social conditions. Despite its large oil production, the country suffered periodic power outages and fuel shortages. Obasanjo had taken power briefly in a military coup in the 1970s, then had kept his promise to step aside as soon as new elections could be held. Later, he had been imprisoned for his political views and, while incarcerated, had become a devout Christian and had written books about his faith. It was hard to imagine a bright future for sub-Saharan Africa wihtout a more successful Nigeria, by far its most populous nation. After listening to his compelling inaugural address, I hoped Obasanjo would be able to succeed where others had failed.

pp. 920-921: I flew to Nigeria to see President Olusegun Obasanjo. I wanted to support his efforts to curb AIDS before Nigeria's infection rate reached the levels of southern African nations, and to highlight the recent passage of the African trade bill, which I hoped would help Africa's struggling economy. Obasanjo and I attended a gathering on AIDS at which a young girl spoke of her efforts to educate her schoolmates about the disease, and a man named John Ibekwe told the gripping story of his marriage to a woman who was HIV-positive, his becoming infected, and his frantic search to get the medicine for his wife that would enable their child to be born without the virus. Eventually John succeeded, and little Maria was born HIV-free. President Obasanjo asked Mrs. Ibekwe to come up onstage, where he embraced her. It was a touching gesture and sent a clear signal that Nigeria would not fall into the trap of denial that had contributed so much to the spread of AIDS in other countries.

Plague, coups, famine, revolution, and--we hope--steps toward development and democracy. For Nigerians, the stuff of life and death. For President Clinton, the potentially most important country in Africa that he needs to know about as he tries to use his policy levers to make a better world. For an elite journalist like Michiko Kakutani, it's boring--and it is a gross violation of etiquette for Clinton to use two paragraphs in his book to try to teach Americans a little about Nigeria and give them a President's eye view of this piece of Africa.

Kakutani, Kosova and Isikoff, and Crowley. Their complaints that an ex-president is interested in governance and issues--and is actually curious about places like Lesotho and Nigeria--are self-parody. "How dare an ex-president bore me!" they say. "I know nothing about global development or foreign affairs. How dare he find them interesting!"

I have not yet figured out why so much of our elite press--the Crowleys, the Kakutanis, the Isikoffs, and the Kosovas--is so... what should I call it? Feckless. Corrupt (in the sense of well-rotted). Decadent. Why does Michael Crowley react with contempt to Clinton's interest in Lesotho, or New Orleans? Why do Weston Kosova and Michael Isikoff cover the government--rather than, say, cover something like advances in bartending--if they find debates over policy the equivalent of crossing the Gedrosian Desert? Why does Michiko Kakutani think it pointless and boring to wake up early to watch the inauguration of the first democratically-elected president in sixteen years in a country of 130 million people?

It is a mystery to me.

It is, however, one reason that we are saddled with an incompetent president like George W. Bush. As David Frum writes, it has long been clear to insiders that Bush is not a "diligent manager of the office of the presidency, [or] a close student of public policy, [or] a careful balancer of risks and benefits"--that, in short, George W. Bush is totally unqualified to be president, totally unprepared to make the decisions a president has to make. But by and large the elite press has simply not cared about the necessary qualifications to be a good president, and fears a president who is qualified to be president. For, after all, strikes them as bizarre and weird for somebody to actually know where Lesotho is.