WHICH BRINGS us back to the 2012 presidential election and the role played in it by the New Yorker. At the request of National Interest editor Robert W. Merry, I agreed to monitor the New Yorker’s election coverage to evaluate it on the basis of depth, accuracy, insight and bias, along the lines of my critiques of Al Jazeera and the Economist, which appeared in the January/February 2012 and September/October 2012 issues of this magazine, respectively. There were more than a few moments when I regretted taking on the assignment. As novelist and social critic Tom Wolfe once characterized it, the writing in the New Yorker is “tautological and litotical when in the serious mode.” This is a rather William F. Buckleyesque way of saying that the stuff tends to be needlessly repetitious and riddled with cutesy understatements, affirmatives expressed by negatives, and assorted stylistic bells and whistles. The New Yorker being the New Yorker, however, the bells and whistles are usually finely tuned, and a lot of lucid, readable commentary manages to slip in amid all the rhetorical frippery.
Certain things were clear from the outset. Anyone in any doubt as to where the New Yorker was placing its bets would have had those doubts allayed as early as June 18 of last year. In its issue of that date, the New Yorker’s feature article, written by Ryan Lizza, its Washington correspondent, was entitled “The Second Term: What would Obama do if reëlected?” Lizza, an intelligent, fluent writer with access to many members of Obama’s inner circle, provided a good potted history of past second-term presidencies and engaged in much informed speculation about what four more years of Obama-Biden might bring. But the strongest impression to emerge from his somewhat “tautological” and “litotical” piece was how little key Obama White House and campaign personnel seemed to be thinking about second-term objectives in their understandable preoccupation with winning in November. In a conversation with senior campaign strategist David Plouffe, for example, Lizza noted that it “took considerable arm-twisting to get Plouffe to think past the details of the daily campaign and consider the long view.” To his credit, Lizza himself was dead-on about the electoral outcome and its likely consequences: “Obama won in 2008 by seven points,” he wrote. “If he manages to win this year, it is likely to be by less than that, which would make him the first President in a hundred and twenty-four years to win a second term by a smaller margin than in his initial election. Whatever a mandate is, Obama won’t have one.”
In a shorter “Talk of the Town” lead item in the July 30 issue, Harvard professor Jill Lepore recounted Mitt Romney’s unsuccessful 1994 Senate race against Teddy Kennedy in Massachusetts. Kennedy won, 58 percent to 41 percent, after outspending the Romney campaign by more than $4 million in an overwhelmingly Democratic state. In her piece, Lepore, after expending a lot of precious—in both senses of the word—verbiage drawing frivolous analogies with a now-defunct political parlor game once marketed by Parker Brothers, quoted a number of partisan attacks made on Romney’s relationship with Bain Capital without offering an objective analysis of either Romney’s claim to have created thousands of jobs or his opponents’ claims to the contrary. Not much takeaway value here.
The August 6 issue led with a “Talk of the Town” comment by Steve Coll, president of the left-leaning New America Foundation, belittling Romney’s perfunctory but lackluster foreign-policy tour. Much was made of a Romney remark about security preparations for the London Olympics. Innocuous in itself, his suggestion that you can never be sure how effective antiterrorist precautions are until after an event is over had been blown out of shape and out of proportion by the British press. This produced a predictably jingoistic reaction from London mayor Boris Johnson and Prime Minister David Cameron and resulted in negative media coverage here at home. A clearly partisan Coll recounted this with relish and made the mock-serious suggestion that the Romney team might have considered “exotic” travel possibilities: “Romney might have visited wounded Syrian refugees in Turkey; he might have gone to southern Tunisia, where the fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze two years ago this December, initiating the Arab Spring.” Not all that funny if meant to be entertaining and not very useful if meant to be serious.
FAR MORE interesting, and a great deal more balanced, was Ryan Lizza’s intelligent, probing profile of Representative Paul Ryan as a rising power among House Republicans. Ryan had not yet surfaced as a major vice presidential contender, but Lizza had already perceived something most Washington—and New York—media had so far missed. “To envisage what Republicans would do if they win in November,” he wrote, “the person to understand is not necessarily Romney, who has been a policy cipher all his public life. The person to understand is Paul Ryan.” Romney lost but, just as Lizza recognized, Paul Ryan is very much a rising Republican to watch in Congress and in wider party circles. Also in this issue was what may have been a small intimation of the things to come. Later in the campaign cycle, the New Yorker would publish more than one strong proimmigration commentary. Perhaps foreshadowing them was a tiny, single-column ad on page 70 of the August 6 issue peddling the wares of the “Margaret W. Wong Immigration Center,” specializing in “green cards,” “deportation,” “work permits” and “criminal aliens.”
The following week, New Yorker staffer Kalefa Sanneh offered a balanced if occasionally barbed analysis of President Obama’s much-denounced “you didn’t build that” remark and spotted a dawning irony long before most other commentators: