Not a Bad Time to Take Stock

I don’t think Democrats understand that the Alito hearings were, for them, not a defeat but an actual disaster. The snarly tone the senators took with a man most Americans could look at and think, “He’s like me,” and the charges they made—You oppose women and minorities, you only like corporations and not the little guy—went nowhere. Once those charges would have taken flight, would have launched, found their target and knocked down any incoming Republican. Not any more. It’s over.

Eleven years ago the Democrats lost control of Congress. Then they lost the presidency. But just as important, maybe more enduringly important, they lost their monopoly on the means of information in America. They lost control of the pipeline. Or rather there are now many pipelines, and many ways to use the information they carry. The other day, Dana Milbank, an important reporter for the Washington Post, the most important newspaper in the capital, wrote a piece deriding Judge Alito. Once such a piece would have been important. Men in the White House would have fretted over its implications. But within hours of filing, Mr. Milbank found his thinking analyzed and dismissed on the Internet; National Review Online called him a “policy bimbo.”

Could Democratic senators today torture Clarence Thomas with tales of Coke cans and porn films? Not likely. Could Ted Kennedy have gotten away with his “Robert Bork’s America” speech unanswered? No.

And the end of the monopoly of course isn’t only in the news, it’s in all media. The other night George Clooney, that beautiful airhead, made a Golden Globe speech in which he made an off-color reference to Jack Abramoff. The audience seemed confused, as people apparently often are when George Clooney speaks. Once, his remark would have been news. Once, Marlon Brando stopped the country in its tracks when he sent Sacheen Littlefeather to make his speech at the Academy Awards. Once, Vanessa Redgrave did the same when she gave a speech about Palestinians, receiving in turn a rebuke from Frank Sinatra, who didn’t want some British broad telling us how to do our thing. Now, actors make their comments and it’s just another airhead involved in an oral helium release. “You don’t like it, change the channel,” network executives used to say. But that, as they knew, meant nothing: There were only three channels. Now there are 500. And more coming.

*   *   *

You know who else experienced, up close and personal, the end of the information monopoly this week? Walter Cronkite. Once, he said America should leave Vietnam and the president of the United States said if we’ve lost him we’ve lost middle America. Now, Walter calls for withdrawal from Iraq and it occasions only one thing: stories about how once such a thing mattered. I saw Mr. Cronkite the other night. Frail, distinguished—big white eyebrows; soft, folded pink face—he looked like Dean Acheson grown very old. It was at a New York screening he hosted for a documentary called “Why We Fight,” a piece of antiwar propaganda that will likely soon be followed by a piece of pro-war propaganda. It was like ducking a Propaganda Punch that will be answered by another Propaganda Punch you’ll have to duck. Featured in the documentary is a former voice of God, Dan Rather, there to lend support to the enterprise.
What was sad about the documentary is that it did not explore what it asserted, that a military-industrial complex within the United States has more power and influence than is helpful or good. A lot of sophisticated Americans worry about this. “The military-industrial complex” is something we were warned of almost half a century ago by Dwight Eisenhower, a man who knew a few things about war and weaponry. We want our makers of weapons to be the best in the world; we do not want them to own congressmen who have an electoral stake in the pieces of weapons made in their districts. When every congressman has a piece of a project, we should worry. War should not be the health of the state.

We are in a time when the very diminution of the importance of network news leaves some old news hands to drop their guard and announce what they are: liberal Democrats. Nothing wrong with that, but they might have told us when they were in power. The very existence of conservative media—of Rush Limbaugh, of Fox, of the Internet sites—has become an excuse by previously “I call ‘em as I see ‘em/I try to be impartial” journalists to advance their biases. Actually, it’s more Fox than anything. The existence of a respected cable network that is nonliberal and non-Democratic (or that is conservative, or Republican, or neoconservative—people on the right have polite disagreements about this) is more and more freeing news outlets, encouraging them actually, as a potential business model, to be more and more what they are. Is this good? Well, it’s clearer. Then again Time magazine this week illustrated a story about Republicans in Congress with a drawing of a merry circus elephant surrounded by the Republican leadership. They were covered, I’m not kidding, in the elephant’s fecal matter. (It’s on page 23. Time will no doubt call it chocolate.)

*   *   *

But where does this leave us? With our mass media busy with reluctant reformation . . . with the old network monopoly over and done . . . with something new, we know not what, about to take its place . . . with the Democratic Party adjusting to the loss of its megaphone . . . Where does that leave us? I think it leaves us knowing that, more than ever, the Republican Party—the party ultimately helped by the end of the old monopoly and the reformation of news media—must be a good party, a decent one, and help our country.

That it regain a sense of its historic mission. That it stop seeming the friend of the wired and return to being the great friend of Main Street, for Main Street still, in its own way, exists. That it return to basic principles on spending, regulation and state authority. That it question a foreign policy that often seems at once dreamy and aggressive, and question, too, an overreaching on immigration policy that seems composed in equal parts of naiveté and cynicism. That its representatives admit that lunching with lobbyists is not the problem; failing to oppose the growth of government—so huge that no one, really no one, knows what is in its budget—is. That they reduce the size and power of government. That they help our country.

Is that a sissy thing to say? Sorry. But today is the 25th anniversary of the coming to Washington of modern conservatism, and the rise to power of a Main Street romantic who was also a skeptic and an appreciator of human nature. Not a bad time to take stock.

Republicans in Washington struggle with scandal and speak of reform, and reformation. They would better think of words like regain, refresh, rebuild. If they don’t, if Republicans don’t choose to lead well, and seriously, and with principle, they should ask themselves: Who will? Seriously: Who will?