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The New Celebrities of Washington

1.

By any reasonable reckoning of the consequence, Washington’s debate over aid to the contras has been unnaturally shrill. What was at stake, after all, was $100 million in assistance, about one-eighth as much money as the Pentagon spends every day, year round. Obviously money is not the only measure of significance—operating an electric chair is not very expensive, either—but the political claims about the contras were also more modest than the emotions they provoked. The administration did not contend that the aid would be enough to overthrow the Sandinistas. Those who opposed the aid generally said they opposed the Sandinistas too. Yes, doctrinal disagreements were in the air, but compared to anything like a real, European-style clash of values, this was mostly a debate about means, details, proportion. How many old Somocista thugs were still among the contras? How many freedom-loving peasants? Which approach—military or diplomatic—was more likely to pry Nicaragua away from the Soviet Union? Was this a war the contras stood any chance to win?

Taken at face value, then, the disagreements were discrete and containable, but the resulting arguments were anything but restrained. The political and journalistic debate had a rancorous, hyperbolic, and ungenerous tone rarely heard since the fall of Saigon. Patrick Buchanan made the best-publicized comment when he said that Tip O’Neill and the Democratic opponents of aid “stood as co-guarantors with Moscow” of a totalitarian state in our own back yard, but his comments differed from many others mainly in their panache. An editorial in The New Republic of April 7 went so far as to claim that “the liberation of Angola, Afghanistan, and Cambodia would not have one-tenth the geopolitical importance—and psychological importance for other oppressed democrats—that the replacement of the Sandinista regime with a democratic government in Managua would.” By any cooler or more logical standards than those of the contra debate, such an idea would seem laughable. The politics of Southeast Asia revolve around Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia, which also colors America’s relations with China. At the most restrained estimate, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan has more “geopolitical importance” than anything that could happen between the contras and the Sandinistas.

Even personal relations in Washington, which usually roll on untroubled by differences of policy, showed the strain. Friends disagreed over the contras and did not remain friends. Bitter in-house feuds, so familiar in the 1960s, reappeared. When The New Republic published an editorial enclosing the contras, eleven of the magazine’s eighteen contributing editors, including some very well-known names, wrote a heated letter of dissent. (I almost said “twelve of nineteen,” but one of the letter’s signers, Abraham Brumberg, was dropped from the masthead between the time the letter was written and when it appeared.) Tempers were so frayed and civility had worn so thin that when the letter was published, part of it was buried far back in the letters section, apparently so that the long list of names would not be visible until the reader reached page 41. (In addition to Brumberg, the signers were: Robert Coles, Henry Fairlie, Hendrik Hertzberg, Vint Lawrence, R. W. B. Lewis, Mark Crispin Miller, Robert B. Reich, Ronald Steel, Richard L. Strout, Anne Tyler, Michael Walzer, and C. Vann Woodward.)

Perhaps the entire affair should be seen (as Michael Walzer has suggested) as a shrewd bit of political positioning: the administration would like nothing better than to have Democrats keep “voting for Moscow” right up to election day. But I think there was more to it than that. The roots of the bitter argument naturally stretch back through more than one hundred years of US-Latin American relations and at least forty years of America’s efforts to contain the Soviet Union. Yet the nasty tone of the debate also showed something about much more recent developments in Washington. A combination of economic shifts and accidents of fate has altered the structure of journalism and the opinion business so as to encourage precisely the kind of views and behavior Washington saw this spring. The argument about interventionism was an intellectual and political event—but also an anthropological one, and it is useful to understand the culture in which it took place.

In the last ten years, Washington journalism has been shaped by several convergent and overlapping trends which are hard to disentangle from one another but whose cumulative effect is clear. They are confusing to discuss not simply because of their interconnections but also because the harmful implications are often the reverse side of real improvements in the trade. Their common themes are the ratcheting-up of the celebrity level of Washington journalists, and the constant shifts in the models of journalistic success.

One long-developing, underlying, and generally positive trend has been the move away from bare-bones, “objective” reporting. Say what you will about the Vietnam war, race riots, and other traumas of the 1960s, they had one clearly beneficial effect on the press. More and more journalists sensed that big, troubling issues needed to be explained, and that the only way to grapple with them was to move beyond wire-service stories of the “President Nixon said today…” variety. There was no way to understand the intentions behind the war, or the forces that led those intentions astray, without trying to report more deeply. How did the American army work? How did Vietnamese society work? How did the war as seen from the Pentagon differ from the war as seen from the field? What were the tensions in black and white America that led to racial eruptions?

The Watergate scandal, in which reporters acting as detectives had a historic effect, threatened to reinstate the idea that conspiracies lay behind most public problems and that a reporter’s job was to keep searching for the incriminating fact. But most reporters and editors seemed to recognize that scandal was not an explanation for, say, the collapse of American industrial competitiveness. Their job, therefore, was to do research and help the reader understand events. As a result, most American journalism is now clearly better—more useful, more fully explanatory—than it was ten years ago. To some extent there has been a structural shift: television forced newspapers out of the strictly “what happened” business; newspapers began to publish the “how it happened” stories previously found in news magazines; the news weeklies and monthlies had to scramble for new ways to investigate and explain public events. Reporters of all varieties have had to work harder and explain events more clearly than they did before. Everyone laments the superficiality of TV news—but the evening news shows are less superficial than they used to be, now with more six-minute features designed to go two inches deep, not just one.

But this healthy development had an inescapable side effect. As journalists worked harder to understand and tell the story, they naturally became more visible themselves. The old news magazines could run articles without bylines. It would seem odd, even vaguely sinister, to publish a long, anonymous story today—not simply because of the writer’s ego but also because of the reader’s subconscious curiosity about where the article’s viewpoint originated. Moreover, Vietnam and Watergate did not merely make reporters “visible”; a few of them were turned into stars. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein became rich and famous. Film crews moved into a replica of The Washington Post newsroom and Robert Redford played Woodward in All the President’s Men.

During the Watergate era, the route to journalistic stardom seemed to lie through reporting—that is, through finding out the facts, either for their own sake (as in Woodward and Bernstein’s exposés or Seymour Hersh’s My Lai story) or in order to interpret matters from a position of understanding and authority. In that sense, Robert Caro’s books on Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson were part of the same shift in the status of journalism. The books earned money and won Caro fame, but the rewards were for his work as a reporter, which gave his interpretations (especially about Robert Moses) immense weight.

The prospect of prominence through reporting could lead to vulgar excesses—the name Geraldo Rivera comes to mind. CBS’s popular 60 Minutes exemplified the combined good and bad of star-system reporting. Half the time, Mike Wallace was a caricature of himself, grilling some hapless small-town sheriff about misappropriated funds, but the other half of the time the show helped millions of people to gain some understanding of important subjects.

Sometime in the late 1970s, the success pattern for journalists edged in a different direction. Increasingly, the rewards seemed to be offered not for reporting itself, nor for interpretation (à la Caro) based on reporting, but for sheer opinion and the promulgation of sweeping world views.

The timeless struggle within newspapers, of course, has been between the news page and the editorial page, each disdaining the other for (respectively) lowbrow literal-mindedness and armchair theorizing at great distance from the facts. The shift I am describing is one of degree, involving the relative attractiveness of the armchair position. Good journalism obviously depends on those who can put things into perspective, as well as on those who can mine the facts. Wading through The Washington Post when it decides to give me all the facts available on the congressional elections or the tax-reform plan, I often yearn for someone who would give me the main points in 1200 words. Journalism has often rewarded those who could skillfully present the big picture, offering them more fame and money than most other reporters receive. Walter Lippmann naturally heads this list. In the TV age, 60 Minutes complemented its exposés with short, snappy opinion battles between Nicholas von Hoffman or Shana Alexander and James J. Kilpatrick; the CBS Evening News offered first Eric Sevareid and then Bill Moyers. Through the 1970s Washington’s staple opinion shows were Agronsky and Company, with a group of regulars who pompously rendered judgment on the week’s events, and Washington Week in Review, hosted by Paul Duke, on which a varying panel of reporters explained what had happened on their beats.

The soul of the Agronsky show was the late Peter Lisagor of the Chicago SunTimes, one of several newspapermen of the “objective journalism” era who evidently felt he should cleanse his copy of the insight and wicked humor that adorned his private conversation. But in worldhistoric terms—that is, those that affect life in the capital—the most important figure on Agronsky’s show was certainly George Will. Launched as a columnist at the height (or depths) of Watergate, when he was in his early thirties, Will bravely and eloquently challenged Richard Nixon. He also won a huge following on Agronsky with an Oxford Debating Union demeanor, harrumphingly dismissing those who disagreed with him while giving every indication that he had been reluctantly pried away from his books.

Compared to, say, Princess Diana, Will is not really famous, even though he is now a regular on ABC News. But in Washington he is omnipresent, a kind of sun king. When the Los Angeles Times discovered, in a poll conducted by the Gallup organization, that only 12 percent of the public knew who Will was, it took out full-page newspaper ads to trumpet the astonishing fact. Washington journalists would find such a result hard to believe (except as another bizarre manifestation of life “out there”), because Will so blindingly exemplifies what career success can mean, in money, influence, and a narrow but concentrated kind of fame.

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