The Dean’s Scream

“The conservative screamers who shot down [Harriet] Miers can argue that they were fighting only for a ‘qualified’ nominee. . . . But whatever the rationale, the fact is that they short-circuited the confirmation process by raising hell with Bush. . . . A cabal of outsiders—a lynching squad of right-wing journalists, self-sanctified religious and moral organizations, and other frustrated power-brokers—[rolled] over the president they all ostensibly support.”
—David Broder, Washington Post, Nov. 2

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Nothing like the calming tones of The Dean to bring context and a needed sense of perspective to the proceedings. In his comments on Sunday’s “Meet the Press” and in his post-Miers Meaning of It All column yesterday, Mr. Broder was like someone who sat down at a table hungry, got served only Democratic talking points, swallowed them whole and quick, and is now burping them out in all directions.

I write of it because he is important, and because I think his imagery is a bit—maybe the polite word is “heightened”—not because he misunderstands the Miers drama, though he does, but perhaps for other reasons.

Briefly: Mr. Broder says Bush got “rolled” by his own supporters in the Miers fiasco. But he did not. He got defeated by them. He made a bad choice, and they resisted. The White House fought back; conservative thinkers fought back even harder; Republican senators did not back the White House; the White House retreated, rethought and renominated.

This is not a scandal; it’s a story—and a surprising one in ways Mr. Broder doesn’t understand. The story is that the president didn’t dig in. He was, for once, supple. He rolled with the punches. That’s the “rolling” that occurred. And it’s not a disaster, it’s promising.

Conservatives like the Bush who’s tough, flinty and determined. They don’t like the Bush who’s like Paul Newman in “Hud,” the T-shirt-wearin’, longneck-suckin’ package-store cynic who wants what he wants when he wants it. Tough Bush won. You have to be tough to take it on the chin and keep walking.

Mr. Broder seems to suggest the conservative beast is sated and they’ve settled down because they’ve proved Mr. Bush can be easily defeated. Actually conservatives have quieted down in spite of the myriad issues on which they disagree with the president—spending, the growth of the federal government, immigration—for reasons having to do with a certain maturity and seriousness. They are pre-eminently aware that there are three years to go in this presidency, and it does no one any good, at such a time as this, to have America led that long by a weak and wounded president.

And so they are trying to rally to him. They pronounced Sam Alito good. They have declared all wounds healed. This is hopeful. “The wish is father to the thought.” They want all wounds healed. But my view is that, Ernest Hemingway notwithstanding, very few things are stronger at the broken places. The break is being reset. Walking will at first be tentative, and perhaps full of hops. Strutting will be out of the question. New progress is quite possible but if it happens it will be because the president was not brittle but supple, and absorbed what happened to him.

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As for Judge Alito, he appears to be a serious man with a nice mother from a good place (Trenton, N.J.). It is good to see nominees who come from America and who are not creatures of Washington. His record is now being aired; soon he will be questioned in public. Everyone seems to agree that both sides, right and left, are now forced by the media environment to respond within 24 hours to a nominee to the high court—”He’s the end of the world as we know it!” “He’s a brilliant man and an incredibly wise choice!” Halos and devil’s forks must be put in place quickly. But I’ll wait and keep reading. I wonder if we all shouldn’t. The men and women on the high court have way too much power and way too much impact on daily American life. When we can wait, when the nomination is legitimately debatable, why not wait to support and denounce when we have the information to do so?

I end with a small observation that touches back on David Broder. We have all talked the past year or so about blogs and the Internet and how both change the politico-media environment. But I think part of the story has not been noted. At least I haven’t seen it noted.

With most of the thinking people in America—most of those who respond to and have thoughts on what is happening politically—on the Internet, there is a great deal of discussion on all issues. The barbaric yawp is all over the place and it’s colorful, sharp and funny, sometimes dumb and sometimes rather dark and disturbed. The Internet is quick as mercury and anonymous if you want it to be. People post things they wouldn’t necessarily want their names on; they say things they wouldn’t necessarily want to defend to their colleagues, friends and neighbors.

That people sometimes do this on impulse, after perhaps the third Grey Goose, leads to and I think encourages a certain polarity in our discourse. It leads to heightened drama, heightened language and extreme thinking. Unpondered thoughts are put forward in unmediated language. Fine—this is all part of the fun—but it is not without implications.

I have noticed that our pundits—our columnists and speakers on TV, our known voices on the Internet, our bloggers and compulsive thought-sharers—have begun to heighten their own tones, express their thoughts more extremely and dramatically, just to break through the clutter. And make an impression. And compete. They have to compete—the Net isn’t going away and the Net is free. If you’re paid for opinions, they’d better break through. The Internet ups the ante on everything.

At any rate this might explain some of the recent language, imagery and poses of writers and pundits of previously august institutions, and previously august editorial pages, and of even so measured a voice as that of David Broder, who has been called The Dean for good reason.

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A good woman was honored this week and I want to add to it. I watched the funeral of Rosa Parks all afternoon Wednesday, and it was so beautiful, so moving and rich with feeling, that at points it filled my eyes with tears. What preaching. It was old school, with the Holy Spirit. I wish I could have been there and touched her small coffin.

Rosa ParksThe Rev. Bernice King, daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was ringing: “It was the Christ in her that was sitting in that seat.” Bill Clinton’s remarks were brief, true and tender. What was said of Teddy Roosevelt is usually true of Mr. Clinton: He thinks himself the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral. But yesterday he did not think so. He just talked about that crucial moment when a young black woman refused to give her seat on a bus to a white man. And what that moment meant. (The only jarring note was Gov. Jennifer Granholm of Michigan, who spoke with strange intensity and was dressed in an odd black getup with dramatic neck scarf. She was like a Wicca priestess in search of a coven. My imagery has perhaps become heightened.)

It was a wonderful moment in my life a dozen years ago when I met Rosa Parks, a small, old woman. I got to tell her of my admiration. She was patient, nodded; she’d heard it all before but understood people want to say it. She was gracious and nice.

Once, 30 years ago next spring, I was introduced to an old man who kindly rose from his seat in the office in which he was visiting a friend. I put out my hand and we shook and smiled and the friend said, “Peggy, this is Jesse Owens.” I was so taken aback to walk into a room and suddenly meet greatness that I said, “Oh my gosh!” and we started to laugh.

He was used to it; he knew who he was. He ran in front of Hitler and showed him what’s what. She wouldn’t move to the colored section and showed ‘em what’s what. They were great Americans who helped their country. I am lucky to have touched their hands.