In Robert Penn Warren‘s classic novel about American politics, “All The King’s Men”, the author created the character ‘Willie Stark’. a brilliant but ruthless demagogue inspired by Louisiana’s Huey Long.
Stark orders a journalist supporter to dig up dirt on Stark’s political enemy. a highly respected judge. The journalist, the book’s fictional narrator, Jack Burden,” is told by Stark: “There is always something- if it takes 10 years. you find it.” Stark then adds, in what is perhaps the most quoted line from the book; “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud.”
Burden does indeed find “it,” the one sordid incident in an otherwise exemplary past which can be used to discredit someone who stands as an obstacle to Stark’s relentless quest for power. He concludes: “For nothing is lost, nothing is ever lost. There is always the clue. the cancelled check, the smears of lipstick, the footprint in the cana bed, the condom on the park path, the twitch in the old wound, the baby shoes dipped in bronze, the taint in the bloodstream.”
The foremost contemporary practitioner of this form of hit piece journalism is The New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer. A little over two years ago, Mayer wrote a lengthy article in that magazine entitled “Covert Operations – The billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama.”
The piece is to investigative journalism what “Seinfeld” was to situation comedy- a work of art about nothing. The thrust of the article is that two wealthy Kansas businessmen. David and Charles Koch, who have managed to thrive in a highly taxed and highly regulated industry, petroleum production and refining, support political candidates who favor less regulation and less taxation of business. This is about as shocking a revelation as the fact that the American Federation of State. County and Municipal Employees was the largest contributor to Democratic candidates in this past year’s elections.
The Federalist Papers (largely written by the Koch brothers’ actual ancestor, Alexander Hamilton, a “fun fact” Ms. Mayer somehow failed to unearth) are quite candid in recognizing politics as the clash of financial interests of different groups in society.
Why is Ms. Mayer scandalized by the concomitant proposition that most people support candidates whose election would tend to benefit them financially?
The other leitmotiv, running through this 10,000 word article, is that the Kochs are acting in a surreptitious or underhanded way by giving financial support to foundations and think tanks with innocuous or politically neutral sounding names, like “Citizens for a Sound Economy.” To prove this proposition, she cites two liberal groups with equally anodyne names, the “Center for Public Integrity” and the “National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.” (I’m reminded of an incident several years ago when Robert Mulholland, a member of the Democratic National Committee from California, called a press conference to reveal that the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, a 50-something bachelor best known as a Hollywood screenwriter, had frequented strip clubs and thus was unfit for public office. Asked how he knew this, Mulholland replied that he had personally seen the Republican in such vile, disgusting establishments on several occasions.)
What makes the article interesting is not anything it says about the Kochs, who are no strangers to publicity. (How could anyone who spends millions of dollars running for public office, as David Koch did as the Libertarian candidate for vice-president, be described as “covert” or “secretive”?). The article does reveal, however inadvertently, a great deal about this particular journalist, as well as liberal journalism generally. The Koch article is only the latest chapter in a long saga that began for Mayer about 20 years ago at the time of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill controversy.
In a book written in conjunction with a colleague (Jill Abramson, now of The New York Times), “Strange Justice,” Mayer established one of the essential foundation myths of the American Left.
Mayer’s argument is that the problem with the Thomas confirmation hearings was that the opponents of his confirmation were too restrained and too polite. The forces of enlightenment supposedly had mountains of additional evidence to support the notion that Thomas was a deeply disturbed person, unstable and angry. Intellectually and temperamentally unqualified to serve on the Supreme Court, Thomas could have been exposed but the Democratic Judiciary Committee members, like Joe Biden and Ted Kennedy, held back out of a misguided sense of fair play and non-partisanship.
Mayer began at that time her life’s work of ad hominem attacks on individual conservatives who pose a threat to the liberal agenda. It was then that she pioneered her patented method of repeatedly citing unidentified sources to impugn the motives and ethics of those under attack, a technique that reaches its fullest flower in the Koch article.
The other distinguishing characteristic of her writing is a repeatedly demonstrated willingness to crank out pieces on short notice to attack whoever the enemy of the day is. (Past victims include Linda Tripp, FBI agent Gary Aldrich, and RNC Chair Haley Barbour.)
George Orwell‘s “two minute hate” in “1984” is a good analogy to Mayer’s work, though nowadays it’s more like a two week hate, which is the life cycle of most stories in the left-wing blogosphere. The Orwellian propaganda ministry’s style of the rewriting of history is another totalitarian aspect of Mayer’s writing. (To give credit where credit is due, Mayer did establish the phrases, “Long Dong Silver” and “Who put the pubic hair on my coke can?” as essential elements in civic discourse.)
Within days of the Koch article appearing in The New Yorker, a condensed version was published by Frank Rich in the New York Times. Numerous Obama administration spokesmen, ranging from David Axelrod, the White House political adviser, to obscure Treasury Department staffers. to President Obama himself, took up the attacks.
What made their job a little more challenging is that the Kochs have a left-wing counter part in George Soros. A billionaire who, in Mayer’s own words, tried to use his vast fortune to single-handedly alter the outcome of the 2004 election, Soros sounds an awkward, discordant note in the Greek chorus assailing plutocrats out to undermine American democracy.
Mayer has a ready retort- unlike right-wingers, “progressive minded” billionaires (Mayer actually named the fellow conspirators who met secretly with Soros at his palatial Hamptons estate to launch that scheme in the summer of 2004) do not benefit financially from the candidates and policies they support. Assuming for the sake of argument that this was the case, what does motivate them? Again, according to Mayer herself, they were driven almost exclusively by personal animosity towards George Bush, particularly towards his professed religious faith.
Which is healthier for representative democracy? For left-wing billionaires to carry out a bitter vendetta against a single individual, especially one as ad hoc and erratic as the one waged by Soros, or for the Kochs to promote long and deeply-held political beliefs by educating the public through research and persuasion?
The answer is obvious to even the most casual observer. Why it is not obvious to Mayer is only clear if one understands her personal background.
In an unfortunately timed television interview five years ago, Ms. Mayer appeared on the educational station affiliated with U. Cal.-Berkeley. The interviewer, Harry Kreisler, had Mayer on to talk about her book, “The Dark Side,” a searing expose of the alleged assault on civil liberties by the Bush administration in the name of the War on Terror.
Mayer volunteered when asked about her background that she and her family were heirs to the Lehman Brothers investment banking fortune. (Her father is a composer of modern music. Her mother is a painter. Trust fund artists, in other words.) She said proudly that she came from a tradition of liberalism and philanthropy. A little over three weeks after this interview (August 19, 2008), Lehman Brothers collapsed. The ensuing financial panic caused the most severe economic downturn the country has experienced since the 1930’s. The very name Lehman Brothers became synonymous with greed and reckless speculation.
It’s interesting to wonder if the source of Mayer’s unearned wealth had been instead inherited stock in BP, would she have dared to lecture the Kochs about the supposed environmental depredations of their company?
It’s also amusing, given the author’s personal history, that much of the commentary on Mayer’s article by people like Rachel Maddow of MSNBC consisted of sneering comments about “Daddy’s money,” i.e. the Kochs were spoiled heirs dabbling in politics. This was a take that Mayer herself was happy to promote in both television appearances and the article itself.
At least Charles and David Koch actually make things like petroleum products and other consumer goods, which also tend to expose them and their company to the wrath of the public and government through lawsuits and investigations when bad things (e.g. pipeline explosions) happen, as they inevitably do in business. Apparently, Mayer would have us believe that it is morally superior to engage in less tangible forms of economic activity like currency speculation, trading derivatives, and shorting stocks, like Mr. Soros and her forbears. Again, which form of economic activity has done more damage in recent years?
While there are certainly arguments to make against the Kochs and their political philosophy, I’m equally certain the Jane Mayer’s and the George Soros’ of the world are not the ones to make them.
Ironically, President Barack Obama himself furnished the best explanation of what seems to even the most casual observer to be a glaring double standard: On October 14, 2010, the President said, “In difficult times, people become tribal in their attitudes.”