Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Impressions (opinionated ones) on the New York Times Book Review roundtable featuring Katrina vanden Heuvel

Okay, we're dealing with this past Sunday's New York Times Book Review. Specifically, pages fourteen through fifteen which is a roundtable made up of Katrina vanden Heuvel and two others.

We know Katrina vanden Heuvel (for anyone new here, she's the editor of The Nation and a voice community members trust), we've discussed Peter Beinart at least once but he is editor of The New Republic. (The New Republic's "institutional problems" can rival those at the Times.) And then we have Michael Tomasky "executive editor of The American Prospect."

It's an interesting roundtable for a number of reasons. To deal with the text on the page, note who comes off as listening and engaging and who just wants to push their own talking points.

Katrina vanden Heuvel seems committed to having a discussion. I'm not seeing that interest in Tomasky's comments and of course Beinhart's doing his usual nod-quickly-now-act-as-though-my-next-remark-has-something-to-do-with-what-was-just-said.

You can see that in the roundtable (note the Tipper Gore and Joe Lieberman comment Beinart makes which, my guess, he's sat on for about three minutes and just tosses it out when it's finally his turn with no attempt to shape it so that it fits into the conversation -- though again, this may be editing). (And no, the comment doesn't reflect known reality. But that's par for the course in discussions with Beinart.)

[For anyone interested in listening to the roundtable, the address is and I have no idea why they didn't video it as they did when John Kerry met with the editorial staff.]

Best (and truest) moment?

Katrina vanden Heuvel comments (to Beinart):

I think you are ignoring the legitimate grievances in the Middle East. You cannot ignore the role of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. And I think that is a very difficult one for the Democratic Party to address.

KvH is exactly right. And Beinart does ignore it (as does his magazine). What of Tomasky?

It's not an issue the Democratic Party is addressing currently (as KvH notes) and so Tomasky has to find a tactful way to say a million things without really saying anything. (And probably rush to phone a think-tank and say, "We really need a paper on this so we can have a stronger position!")

There'a reason we don't link to The New Republic or The American Prospect. And a reason we'll never link to them short of some drastic change in them (or, God forbid, us).

Stanley Kauffman is a sound film critic. I'm sure there are others at The New Republic who are worth reading. (And hopefully, they --like most worthy writers at the magazine before --will quickly move on to other magazines.) The New Republic is not a brave magazine. When Rebecca did her entry at Sex and Politics and Screeds and Attitude about The New Republic, a few of you were shocked. And two wanted to disagree and spoke of the "brave face" that The New Republic demonstrated during McCarthyism.

But think about it on your own (no spoonfeeding today) and you'll probably be able to figure out why The New Republic assumed the position they did re: McCarthyism.

It's not a brave magazine. It's got an agenda to push that doesn't have to do with liberalism. (Which shouldn't be a controversial assessment. That's not at odds with the public remarks of the owner of the rag.) As for The American Prospect, it's about the Democratic Party. That's all it's about, that's all it will ever be about (barring some change). It will twist and turn to keep up with whatever surface changes occur. (And there's nothing wrong with being a partisan periodical supporting one party. There's not even anything wrong with talking points. We just try to stay away from them here.)

We have third party members. We don't need something written by the in-house wonks for the Democratic Party. (If a Green Party house organ exists,we would link to that if someone pointed it out. Why? They don't have the visibility that The American Prospect or others have.)

I think you can see threads from each person's magazine in the roundtable. Katrina vanden Heuvel is the one who brings up labor (and it's doubtful it would be brought up if she wasn't on the round table). Tomasky notes it and moves on (the subtext here can be read as "We remember who labor endorsed during the primaries and who they didn't") and Beinart, a New Democrat in outlook, tries to work his own agenda by bringing up New Democrats and acting as though he's offering a detached observation. (Beinart is passionate about what he believes which can be a good thing, he just doesn't tend to own up to it being something he's passionate about.)

(Labor's been less and less important to the Democratic Party for some time. Instead of "reaching out" to groups who do not stand for the core prinicpals of the Democratic Party, the party would be smart to reach out to labor and other groups that have historically supported the Democrats. Instead, more and more, they show up at the doorstep at midnight wanting to know "Do you want to do something?" And then they want to whine if you're not really enthused about being their fourth choice for the evening when the evening's already ended and they're just wanting you to put out.)

On the question "Can the Democrats become the majority Party in America again?" you see the workings involved.

KvH is talking about the spirt that swept through the country. Tomasky, who speaks prior to KvH, seems to suggest what can be seen as the top needs to 'poll' the "rank and file" (his term) more. (Basically, "We really love our pep squad and hope they continue to root for us!") Beinart's off on his own New Democrat tactic promoting myths as opposed to reality. And to underscore his point, he feels the need to note "the central fact that the Democratic party has lost every election since the 9/11 era." Every election!

"This is an enormous, enormous problem."

For anyone rushing through this, Beinart is speaking of two election cycles. Only one of which was a presidential one. Historical basis isn't a big thing with Beinart and he has to be selective with facts and push a sense of urgency because otherwise his arguments will look weak. (Which they are.)

Beinart's answer is to work on engaging swing voters. Implied, not stated, is the move to the center-right. To make his case, he has to push myths as opposed to reality. And he has to equate both as being equally important to send floral arrangements to on Valentine's Day. Beinart is fully aware that you shore up your base and you peel off selected swing voters (a formula that does not push 'joint-listening tours') but if he doesn't make this a fifty-fifty split, he's got nothing to push. Republicans currently know it's shore up the base, shore up the base, shore up the base, quick wink to the swing voter, shore up the base, shore up the base, shore up the base, "Hey, swing voter, want to play?" Beinart knows that formula. And knows that it works. But he doesn't want to go with the core. He wants to go to the center-right (which is where he stands) and to do that, you have to offer the myth that sucessful party building is based upon the two being equivalent when they're not.

That's why the party's in so much turmoil now. They're not feeding the base.

Okay, we're Adventurous Geriatics, a magazine. And we have 6 million subscribers of ederly people interested in non-traditional topics. We need nine million subscribers (no, these aren't realistic figures for an election or a magazine) to trump all other magazines. Beinart wants to start running stories on how to get into the college of your choice because he just knows we can pick up three million from the "youth" market. In the process of doing that, we're seeing our subscription base drop and drop. Beinart gets his three million and proudly announces it in a staff meeting where . . . we note that our repeat subscribers has fallen from six million to two million. We're now in worse shape than we were before we started chasing down new subscribers.

You feed the base. Over and over. That's successful campaign strategy. You make nods to the swing voters, maybe serve them a drink, but the catering was done to serve the base.

Beinart knows that. But he's not interested in the base because the base is too left for him.

Now we can talk about the weaknesses of the Kerry campaign (campaign -- I'm deleting a whole section on specific individuals because it's too out-of-school and I'm not in the mood for it tonight) but we need to discuss it honestly.

We also need to realize the strength provided by factors outside the campaign and the fact that even if people do not see the Ohio vote as an issue, the fact remains that Kerry got an amazing number of votes and the Bully Boy did not receive a mandate. Beinart or Tomasky might shoot back, "All that matters is who won!" (For differning reasons. Tomasky because he's a team player, Beinhart because he's got a beef.) If they or anyone else made that argument,
they're sadly mistaken.

People who want to focus on what-do-we-now need to note what worked and what didn't. (With or without Ohio.) When Simon Rosenberg puts out a myth (that he should have known was a myth but possibly he accepted the early media "reporting" -- he's also yet to note that he was mistaken or to detract his "period" as far as I know) that pushes his own agenda, that's not reality.

Let's put it cooking terms. We just baked an apple pie. Beinart just baked sugar cookies. Beinart won the bake off. (Oh, let's give him a win -- at least an analogical one, he doesn't get many.) Our apple pie was good. People loved it. We didn't win the bake off.

Now what?

By the logic of some, we should trash our apple pie, not try to build on what was good about it.
It came in second so we obviously need to start baking sugar cookies like Beinart! (As Beinart will be quick to tell us.)

We should ape him and do just what he does!

Do you see the problem with that? People ate our pie, people liked our pie. We can continue baking our pies and get better at it, note which ingredients worked and beef up on them. Or we can say, "We lost! We have to bake sugar cookies from now on!"

That's what the push to the center-right is doing if they dismiss the huge gains made in organization and grass roots. Tomasky wants to include them (because he's smart enough to realize there's no winning a future bake off if you piss them off), he just wants to make sure that it's a top-down sort of thing. Beinart has no interest in them at all. He wants to go center-right and to do so now, if not yesterday.

You can see how badly the copy-cat idea fails in music, TV and film. (Yes, Friends was a hit but every copy-cat version crashed and burned.) Beinart wants to water down the party to make it more like the Republican party and to reach out to those swing voters. (I'll make a point of giving the press credit for one thing in 2004, they finally stopped using "independent" improperly and started applying "swing voter" when it was applicable. Now if that can only trickle down to the public.)

So what you see in the roundtable is KvH who realizes the importance of democracy (little "d") and Tomasky who pushes whatever the Democratic party (power players, not base) is pushing.
Then you see Beinart on the sidelines (let's face it, circulation wise, The New Republic is marginalized and I doubt those ad buys on Air America will do much to change that) saying, "We've got to woo swing voters! The base be damned."

KvH is recogninizing the importance of the people. You don't see that from the other two. Tomasky's more straight forward than Beinart (and more progressive). But he's focusing, as wonks do, on the inner workings of the power circles. Beinart's not even doing think-tanking.
He's pushing myths and selective facts to push his own agenda. (Truly, Beinart knows that two election cycles are not the end of the world and reason for the Democratic Party to get an Extreme Makeover.)

For all the talk of the importance of people, only KvH has listened to the people. Only KvH sees them as diverse and multi-faceted. Tomasky thinks in terms of the good of the Democratic party. (Which is why he can, and has, piled on when there's been attacks on some Democratic elected officials who were seen as a liability.) He's someone committed to a body or a system. That comes across in his remarks.

You might wonder about the three chosen for this. You'd be right to wonder.

Tomasky probably argues that he and his kind are treated the most hostile by the paper. He would be correct. KvH is just usually ignored. (As is The Nation.) Beinart and The New Republic are pushed by the paper. We could do a historical overview (other than CBS is harder to come up with any non-government outlet that's had closer ties to the paper than The New Republic) but you can just flip to the two page essay that precedes this roundtable and note that it's written by a New Republic staffer. One who often appears in the paper.

Regardless, The New Republic, as a periodical, is neoliberal. That's why the Times loves it.
That's why they push it even though the rag's gone from "the magazine that even Republicans read" to the magazine that only Republicans and a few diehards read. That's why it's reach at the Times goes beyond The Nation's when the reality is that The Nation dances circulation circles around The New Republic.

The Nation gets a little too caught up in social justice causes for the Grey Lady's tastes. It makes noises about economic markets that go beyond profit and loss in a cash sense and actually addresses things like the people who are effected by the markets which is something that causes the Times to blush.

It's a testament to the popularity/reach of The Nation (and KvH's own popularity/reach) that she was even included in the roundtable.

I really wish Folding Star had written about this (at A Winding Road) because I think you'd have a better entry. (Though I've edited and rewritten severely in the draft stage to avoid asides -- which in my mind has stripped away a great deal of history.) (I point out -- in an aside.)

But let's short hand the whole thing. Tomasky can be thought of as the boy in high school who would have gladly given ten to twenty years off his life to be a natural talent. He wasn't. He had to work harder than anyone else. He had to prove that dedication to the team and instill every generic bumper sticker slogan Coach spat out. If you dropped off the team mid-season, always Coach's good boy, Tomasky excommunicated you. It was all (and always) about the team. Coach might change the team's goals or the playbook but Tomasky would gladly rush to embrace any shift without questioning. He is a team player.

Katrina vanden Heuvel is the girl in high school who was intelligent and mixed in all circles but was famous for her reach-outs. Whomever the person was, regardless of social strata, if they were in pain or trouble, KvH was there. Though she exists more in movies (see John Hughes especially) than in life, she does exist. And that's KvH. Wise and compassionate and not about to sell out or go along because she wouldn't if she had to and, quite frankly, she doesn't have to.

Peter Bienhart was the boy in high school who was a reporter on the newspaper but couldn't make it to editor. (Ass kissing helps in high school but there's also still an attitude that reporting has to be reality based. Beinhart's type succeeds at the first task but fails at the second.) That type of boy will go on carrying a grudge for sometime (possibly his entire life) and, in the process, he will end up less and less devoted to facts because he was wronged, by God, so he's got a right to skew reality!

In an earlier entry on PB, I got an angry e-mail for not denoucing him as a person. (I'm not quite sure what the person was reading or exactly how far I have to go to in order for it to appear that I was denouncing PB. I'm sure many will see it as being done then and again tonight.)

Regardless, maybe the reality is that maybe you want a PB? Maybe you want a MT? Maybe you don't want a KvH?

Let's say you just blew most of your check on some dress you think makes you looks great.
The truth is, it makes you look cheap, tacky and well beyond your years. You show it to Tomasky and he'll tell you to wear it -- provided the slut-look is in. If it's not in, he'll suggest you wear something else and never explain the problem with the dress. KvH will pull you aside and explain nicely why you should not only not wear it tonight but pass it on to Goodwill immediately. PB will look you up and down and not really notice what you're wearing as he snaps, "You look fine. Do you realize how hard it is to rent a tux these days? The city's not doing enough to cater to the tux rental businesses!"

Hey, if you want to get back all the money you spent on that dress, PB may be the one you want around. And you might not want to risk the odds on MT. (Though if he thinks it's in fashion, it probably is.) KvH may be the last person you want to see because the shop has a no return policy and you've made no back up plans for anything else to wear.

That's the subtext of the roundtable. Me, I prefer the honesty of KvH.

[Note: This was a very, very long entry. As noted, I took out historical asides and I also deleted a huge section on the Kerry campaign. I personally love the asides -- look I'm in the middle of one now! -- but the four hours I've worked on this draft have been out trying to keep the focus on the roundtable. Last aside: they certainly weren't spent on spell checking.]

[This post has been corrected. Incorrect spellings were pointed out by Ben, Rob, Kara, Keesha and Shirley. Keesha: "This one isn't just a summary of the Times. This is a manefesto and I think it deserves the extra time to catch any typos." Shirley also pointed out two parts that were unclear. That resulted in one sentence having words added to it -- the one about showing up after midnight -- and the inclusion of the last sentence in text above. Shirley: "It's obvious where you stand with regard to KVH from anyone reading closely but I think you need a sentence at the end that makes it clear to all."]

[Note: Had I seen the editors' note for the Book Review that contained the panel, I would've commented on that. The note goes into great detail about Peter Beinart, it's silent on Tomasky and vanden Heuvel. To read comments on the editor's note click here. 6-17-05]