The Great Pretender

You could call this the tone issue.

The celebratory approach – new faces, new jobs, new beginnings, etc. – that greets most incoming administrations is generally out: Few reporters are that tone-deaf (although the inaugural stuff may change this). But resentment – for instance, the kind that greeted Richard Nixon upon his first inauguration, and snowballed into Watergate upon his second – seems also under wraps, regarded as too obvious or in bad taste.

Nobody, except Maureen Dowd, is suggesting that there’s something unspeakable in the middle of the table, and her mutterings, with their obsessive, crazy-lady quality, make reporters shrink even farther from the horrible thing.

“Get over it” is what everyone is saying.

The tone, lacking celebration or contempt, has fallen into some limbo. It has a flat affect. The playing field has been leveled. Everyone is treated the same: the competent and incompetent, the legitimately elected and questionably elected. There’s an effort, possibly even a well-meaning one, to pretend nothing exceptional or out of the ordinary has taken place. It’s politics as usual.

The conventional view (the media view of the Washington media) that makes political reporters out to be outsiders and cynical types is almost entirely false; it’s the view of another era (a Nixonian era). Political reporters, especially the day-to-day recorders of official Washington developments and events, are protective of Washington.

You would not, for instance, get much buy-in to the notion that this – the inauguration of a usurper – is a really wigged-out, psychically destabilizing situation.

The newer, and surely more interesting story, which is Who are these people and by what right are they here?, is a long way from being told.

The New York Times Magazine assembles its Bush Years issue just as it would have its Gore Years package.

Even if the election was usurped, which many people in Washington accept, that does not mean you change the way you think about Washington and the way you cover the government. Nobody would take you too seriously if you proposed that an electoral crisis has now led to a perceptual crisis.

Alison Mitchell, who lately has been commuting between Austin and Washington, is one of the senior people in the Times Washington bureau. She has an old-fashioned reporter’s bearing and seems to be highly thought of at the Times and in Washington circles. She’s all nerves, all concentration, waiting for the details – phone, computer, news releases. She vibrates impatience. No time to think. No time to analyze. Those are indulgences.

Mitchell recently got the job of writing the Times’ principal appraisal of the Bush Cabinet selection, a story I have been puzzling over for the past week.

Most people, I figured as I tried to deconstruct her analysis, at least most people outside of Washington, might assume the challenge in a story like this would be to portray the oddness of the new Cabinet, its time-warp quality – how retro it seems. Or even, depending on how far you want to push it, that Bush’s picks represented some purposeful misreading of national sentiment (indeed, if you were so inclined, you could call it the second stage of the usurpation). In other words, instead of using the Cabinet selection to acknowledge that his election is problematic (i.e., let’s not pretend we don’t have a very messy situation on our hands), he rounds up a country-club crew of right-wingers, as though he were a true landslide Republican. Indeed, his choices suggest that he sees the Clintons as the usurpers and now it’s time to put it all back again just as it was before the Clintons wrongfully took it.

Anyway, whatever your perspective, I’d think that if you drew this assignment you’d clearly want to deal with the sense that there’s weird, disjointed stuff going on.

Mitchell, however, seemed to regard her challenge as how to transcend the weirdness. She seemed to be looking for some sort of literal basis on which to take these people in this new government at their word. I suppose you could almost understand it as an ordinary kind of office or social situation: the need to treat these people with respect, together with the great difficulty of doing just that. It’s a dinner-party dilemma.

What is, of course, most evident to the naked eye about the new Bush people, before you even get to the ideological bent, is that many are of retirement age, several have not worked in a generation, and virtually all are attached, professionally and, one might assume, emotionally, to other, rather long-ago political eras. Indeed, while they have a definite corporate cast, few would be viable candidates in any competitive CEO search. Even Colin Powell, a man of past accomplishments, has not had a job in almost ten years. Donald Rumsfeld – “Rummy” – once a fire-eating hotshot, has not held a big job in 25 years. They appear to be a group of men and women determined to pick up where they left off without much regard for any changes that might have happened in the interim to society or to their own biorhythms.

Mitchell leads, however, in her news analysis, with a description of their ethnic diversity (of course, they might be technically diverse while still being startlingly homogenized). She describes these relative cookie-cutter types as showcasing “the breadth of the conservative movement.” She proposes that the Bush choices answer “one of the most tantalizing questions of the campaign: Just what will ‘compassionate conservatism’ be in practice?,” quoting Bush advisers as saying the Cabinet selection demonstrates that it means “Republican synthesis.” Indeed, the words that creep up in Mitchell’s story – diversity, inclusion, balance – begin to defy definition. Then there is Gale A. Norton, the nominee for Interior secretary, who, while “a staunch advocate of property rights” and “a protégée of James G. Watt,” certainly the most antagonistic figure ever to head the Interior Department, may, according to Mitchell, “prove less doctrinaire than some expect.”

It oddly follows from this affect-lessness, or willful obtuseness, that Linda Chavez gets the boot (“I can read the tea leaves”). One side, aided by a resolutely literal, procedural press (okay … an immigrant in the attic … bingo!), attacks the low-hanging fruit of the other side. It helps, too, that this story has already been written once before.

Whereas the newer and surely more interesting story, which is Who are these people and by what right are they here?, is a long way from being told.

I am even starting to think of John Ashcroft with some pity. He will become the issue instead of the other, rawer thing. The elephant in the room isn’t a set of unreconstructed southern views but that we have a disputed government.

For stalwarts and would-be players in the Washington business, however, that is not an acceptable topic of conversation. “The healing process” (whatever that is) is what you have to talk about. (Even in private, people talk about the healing process – only the rude and obsessed talk about the illegitimacy thing.)

Gore himself seems to feel he has to make manful, self-deprecating jokes about having his election stolen. (It’s Clinton who’s making the pointed digs.)

Obviously, there are reasons Alison Mitchell does not want to appear to be snarky. Everyone in Washington has to work with everyone else – they are all collaborators (in either sense of the word). That means following your mother’s advice and trying to find reasons to like them. I would wager, too, there’s an unstated policy at the Times and many other serious papers that goes something like “Let’s not go out of our way to cast doubt on the legitimacy of this inauguration.” Then I think there is also a strong sense in Washington that polls will shortly confirm a relative degree of sanguineness in the nation. (Last week, USA Today found 60-some-odd percent of the nation feeling good about the transition.) The country, I am assured, is not much bothered by what it sees so far of the Bushes.

But then there is, I think, a further resistance, a deeper difficulty.

Assuming things are really cockeyed, how do you express it? I mean without being a bore or a crank. A crime, an irregularity, any various allegations, if they are manifested through the proper channels, all right. But how do you deal with what you can’t quite acknowledge has happened – even though everyone knows what has happened? Here’s an absolutely novel circumstance – a tainted American presidential election – and there is no language with which to express it.

The New York Times can’t call the president a pretender or usurper – no more than it could say Bill Clinton fucked Gennifer Flowers, even though every reporter knew he had.

“Do you want us to say he’s not the president? He is the president,” Mitchell said irritably when I inquired about all this. “There’s no other way to look at it.”

“But the emperor’s new clothes – “

“That’s ridiculous. I’m sorry, that’s entirely ridiculous.”

“What I’m trying to get at is the situation in which we feel that things are off, that everyone’s pretending, that – “

“Fifty percent of the country voted for Bush for president, so I assume at least 50 percent of the country is happy that he is president.”

“But still, people know he might not be president.”

“Well, he is president. Or he will be.”

“When you wrote about the Cabinet selection, here, too, there’s no sense of – I mean, you seem to be playing this so straight. No shades of the peculiar. I mean, these people – Powell, Rumsfeld, Norton, Chavez – they’re so … been there.”

“We’ve said in other stories that many of these people are from past Republican administrations. So?”

“But, for instance, the ethnic diversity which you emphasize – “

“They are diverse.”

“Well, they’re not really diverse.”

“I completely disagree. They are. If Bill Clinton got credit for having a diverse administration – “

“It just seems to me that you are willing to take these people on face value. You take them very seriously.”

“Well, yes. I do take them very seriously. They’ll be running the country.”

“They won’t be running the country, actually. They’ll be involved with various administration functions with regard to running the government.”


“What I’m trying to get at – just the strangeness of it all, of being able to communicate that this is different. The cognitive dissonance. That we’ve never had something like this, never had such an awkward situation. Don’t you feel that this is a weird moment?”

“Not particularly.”

“Is there a possibility you have a Washington-centric point of view?”

“Well, you have a New York point of view. Listen, I would like to help you, but …”

You could start to think that Alison Mitchell sounds perfectly reasonable.


The Great Pretender