"A dearth of general information is almost necessary to the thorough-paced coffee-house politician; in the absence of thought, imagination, sentiment, he is attracted immediately to the nearest commonplace, and floats through the chosen regions of noise and empty rumours without difficulty and without distraction. Meet 'any six of these men in buckram,' and they will accost you with the same question and the same answer: they have seen it somewhere in print, or had it from some city oracle, that morning; and the sooner they vent their opinions the better, for they will not keep. Like tickets of admission to the theatre for a particular evening, they must be used immediately, or they will be worth nothing: and the object is to find auditors for the one and customers for the other, neither of which is difficult; since people who have no ideas of their own are glad to hear what any one else has to say, as those who have not free admissions to the play will very obligingly take up with an occasional order. It sometimes gives one a melancholy but mixed sensation to see one of the better sort of this class of politicians, not without talents or learning, absorbed for fifty years together in the all-engrossing topic of the day: mounting on it for exercise and recreation of his faculties, like the great horse at a riding-school, and after his short, improgressive, untired career, dismounting just where he got up; flying abroad in continual consternation on the wings of all the newspapers; waving his arm like a pump-handle in sign of constant change, and spouting out torrents of puddled politics from his mouth; dead to all interests but those of the state; seemingly neither older nor wiser for age; unaccountably enthusiastic, stupidly romantic, and actuated by no other motive than the mechanical operations of the spirit of newsmongering." -- Hazlitt
Swift and Johnson had denounced coffehouse politicians in the eighteenth century, but Hazlitt was, we believe, the first to really paint the species in all the colors of its modernity: that is, connecting the triumph of the "moderns" over the ancients and with the triumph of a new mode of knowledge -- the triumph of the sensationalism of the newspapers (or of the laboratory) over the precepts of authority. Newspaper knowledge was the parody, the sotie, of science. In the latter, all that is ephemeral is true; in the former, all that is true is ephemeral.
There's an obvious cultural contradiction in the mournful theme. Johnson, Swift and Hazlitt both lived as literary journalists. In Hazlitt's case, this contradiction achieved pervasive surface expression -- one of the constants in his essays is his dislike of the role of essayist.
LI is making these Wizard of Oz like literary reflections because we are about to duck into cultural contradiction ourselves. That is, we are about to swell about in full coffehouse politician regalia. So be warned.
The WP reported, this week, that Howard Dean collected 7 million bucks this quarter. This is more than any other candidate, for the quarter. The e WP responded to Dean's sudden pre-eminence by publishing articles heavy with disdain for the man. The WP is as offended by Dean as some Hollywood movie mogul might be by internet movie trading among teens. It just isn't business. The WP beau ideal is beau ideal is a 'centerist' Democrat in the JFK mode. As in the headline, Centrist In Debt To JFK: Living Religion, Honing Ambition The headline was about, of all people, Joseph Lieberman, whose likeness to JFK is well disguised. As is his connection to the accounting industry and his bullying of the SEC in the nineties, when the head of the joint was trying to reign in corporate fraud on the books. About that topic, the WP profile is discretely mum.
Compare and contrast the headline about Dean: Short-Fused Populist, Breathing Fire at Bush. The profile is a hatchet job through and through, picking through Dean's flip flops, and leaving heavy, winking winking signs that here's a man who doesn't have a chance against Bush. They treat Dean more like some slightly disreputable shock-jock than, say, as a 'centrist in debt to JFK.' Here's a sample:
"In recent months he has been called "brusque," "brash," "blunt" and "belligerent"; a few more choice words on his part, and critics will be questioning whether Dean has the diplomatic skills needed to be the leader of the free world.
One story circulating in Washington is about the time he met with the editorial board of Roll Call. Elections analyst Stuart Rothenberg, who writes a column for the Capitol Hill newspaper, asked Dean why, if he was so proud of signing the first same-sex civil union bill in the country, he had done so in a closed-door meeting rather than in a public ceremony, as a Democrat in Vermont had described. Dean, Rothenberg recalled, paused, leaned back in his chair and exclaimed: "That's [expletive]! Nobody from Vermont said that!"
"Sometimes Howard's tongue is faster than his brain," said Peter Freyne, a columnist for Seven Days, a weekly newspaper in Burlington, Vt. It doesn't help matters that Dean speaks off the cuff; out of hundreds of campaign speeches he has delivered, only four were written in advance. The rest were ad-libbed. "He's smart and energetic," Freyne said. "I've been calling him Ho-Ho for years, because he's like the little engine that could."
This is in stark contrast to the mellow tones that aureole Lieberman's moral agons as he ascends to that summit of all things good, the senatorial seat from Connecticut, at the conclusion of which we are given a dose of the true pap:
"All of this bespeaks a man of driving ambition, but it does not answer the question of what lies behind the ambition. What makes Joey run?"
Whether it's self-aggrandizement, selfish ambition or ambition to really do a good job, they all come out looking the same," said Peter Kelly, a Hartford lawyer and veteran of Connecticut and national Democratic politics. "It's really hard to picture Joe Lieberman as somebody who says I'm going to do this because it's going to get me something. That's just not the way the man thinks."
Lacking JFK's Charisma
Lieberman is 61 and, like so many others of his generation, he came of age politically with the 1960 election of Kennedy, the dashing Democrat from neighboring Massachusetts. Since Kennedy's assassination in 1963, all Democratic presidential hopefuls have paid homage to his memory, and none more so than Lieberman.
He describes himself as "still a Kennedy Democrat," almost suggesting that, if JFK were alive today, he, too, would be a member of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council." Etc., etc.
The subhead, Lacking JKF's Charisma would be humorous if the article wasn't so filled with kisses for Lieberman. Other subheadings suggest themselves: Lacks Orrin Hatch's Charisma. Lacks Nixon's Charisma. Lacks Gerald Ford's Charisma. Etc., etc.
But the WP is uneasily aware that, for some reason, Dean seems to be popular among voters. So -- in what will probably be the first of many similar articles -- they lightheartedly profile the antics of Karl Rove, Bush's Svengali, who wants Bush to opposed Dean -- signal to voters, don't get your panties in a wad for this Dean character.
Under the headline, Rove spends the fourth rousing voters for Dean, they portray a prank of Karl Rove's -- getting a bunch of Republicans to cheer for Dean at a parade -- in an attempt to insinuate that Dean is a sure loser. Insinuate might not be the word. Contemptuously state, in so many words is probably closer to it. It the old trick: don't vote for the sucker candidate - vote for the centrist loser.
So what, coffeehouse politicians everywhere wonder, should Dean do?
He should confront this contempt head on. Not in the attack mode of the media is too conservative -- that is silly. Rather he should confront the contempt as unprofessional. This is a line of reasoning that will resonate with the WP. Dean really has nothing to fear from quotes that compare him to the little train that could. But he does have a lot to fear from the press using him for target practice.