The New Yorker Casts Its Ballot

January 2, 2013 Topic: IdeologyMediaSociety Regions: United States

The New Yorker Casts Its Ballot

Mini Teaser: One of America's top magazines often appeared smug as it covered 2012 elections.

by Author(s): Aram Bakshian Jr.

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:

Eight years ago, pro-Bush ads managed to turn John Kerry’s service in Vietnam into a liability. In this year’s cruel twist, the success of Bain Capital has become a Democratic talking point, not a Republican one—a reminder that wealth creation need not be linked, in a straightforward way, to job creation.

Whether or not this is economically true, it certainly proved to be politically valid in the November elections.

Perhaps most revealing of a New Yorker political agenda was a lengthy, disjointed “Critic At Large” piece by the always-verbose Adam Gopnik. Entitled “I, Nephi: Mormonism and its meanings” and allegedly a review of six unrelated books on Mormon themes, this nine-page ramble just happened to focus on some of the more bizarre aspects of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and some of the grimmer historical episodes connected with it just as a Mormon was about to be nominated by a major party for the first time. Romney’s belief in a market-driven economy, as interpreted by Gopnik, becomes a Mammon-like extension of Mormon materialism, “the American Gospel of Wealth,” and “the idea that rich people got rich by being good, that the riches are a sign of their virtue, and that they should therefore be allowed to rule.” By any standards, a bit of a stretch . . . and, oh, so windy.

A week before the Republican convention in Tampa, New Yorker blogger John Cassidy led the “Talk of the Town” section with a comment entitled “Who Is Mitt Romney?” but mainly devoted to a more hostile look at his now-announced running mate Paul Ryan. Perhaps someone at the New Yorker felt that Ryan Lizza’s earlier, more thoughtful profile of the man who would now be Romney’s running mate needed some more partisan follow-up. Whatever the reason, the Cassidy piece read like talking points the Obama campaign might have given one of its surrogates. A small example: the late Jack Kemp’s Empower America organization, a market-oriented think tank dedicated to economic growth and expanded opportunity, was sneeringly dismissed as a “pressure group.”

By contrast, the same issue contained a “Financial Page” column by James Surowiecki with a soundly reasoned argument for immigration reform to attract educationally and professionally qualified immigrants. As Surowiecki points out:

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, remarkably enough, have called for streamlining the system in similar ways, and John Conyers, a Democrat, and John Chaffetz, a Republican, are sponsoring a recent House bill that would make it easier for small-business owners in the U.S. to get green cards.

A useful, informative piece with no hidden agenda.

Guilt by association was the leitmotif of New Yorker staffer Philip Gourevitch’s lead comment in the September 3 issue’s “Talk of the Town.” In it, he lumped together Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke and conservative-populist Pat Buchanan, as well as vice presidential nominee-designate Paul Ryan and Missouri “legitimate rape” senatorial candidate Todd Akin. He further implied that basic antifraud measures such as requiring voters to show a legal ID at the polls would “effectively disenfranchise millions of eligible voters,” presumably those too lazy or too mentally challenged to bother carrying valid identification. Gourevitch characterizes this as “limiting access to the polls.” On a lighter—and better-written—note, in the same issue New Yorker staffer Michael Shulman relayed some interesting anecdotes, trivia and nuts-and-bolts information on the political role of the teleprompter. Having met one of the teleprompter operators he interviewed and having worked with two of the major speakers he refers to (Ronald Reagan and Rudolph Giuliani), I can testify first-hand to the accuracy of this engaging short feature.

THE SEPTEMBER 10 “Talk of the Town” led with a hasty postmortem of the Republican convention in Tampa written by New Yorker staffer George Packer and revealingly titled, “Just Forget It.” Straining for a metaphor, Packer asserted that “the Convention showcased a Party and an ideology that want to obliterate any memory of what happened in America before Obama’s Presidency—and Tampa embodies the politics of erasure.” According to Packer, the “global economic crisis began in Tampa, and places like it” where “shoddy lending practices” and “Wall Street’s insatiable appetite for profits” created a bursting housing bubble. Never mind that the genesis of much of the housing bubble can be traced to the deliberate efforts of left-leaning lawmakers such as Massachusetts representative Barney Frank who encouraged the faulty lending policies of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that guaranteed billions of dollars in unsound mortgages to unworthy credit risks. The Packer piece was every bit as forgettable as its title.

In the same issue, the reliable Ryan Lizza had a lengthy “Political Scene” piece entitled “Let’s Be Friends,” which accurately and entertainingly described the “quasi-friendship between Clinton and Obama” the way chroniclers of an earlier age might have depicted the cynical, elaborately choreographed negotiations leading up to a royal marriage between members of rival dynasties. Strange bedfellows, indeed.

Steve Coll’s September 17 “Talk of the Town” piece contrasting the Republican convention in Tampa with the Democratic convention in Charlotte barely lived up to its title: “Conventional Wisdom.” In the midst of much anodyne generalizing, two short passages stood out. The first misleadingly declared: “In Tampa, the faces were overwhelmingly white, not young, and surprisingly impassive. In Charlotte, there was color, youth, and tears.” Actually, given the fact the conventions were directed by media-savvy professionals, what TV viewers saw at both conventions, in the galleries and on the floor, were crowds of men and women of all colors and ages that were occasionally bored but more often moved and enthusiastic about the main speakers . . . not that this proves much of anything one way or the other. Nor did Coll’s assertion that “Obama’s lined face and gray hair said all that was necessary about his education in office.” Aging, yes; education, no. No president in American history physically aged more than Warren G. Harding, who actually died in office. That his physical deterioration was evidence of a high learning curve remains dubious.

Jimmy Carter, another president who seemed to age more than learn while in office, once employed a young Hendrik Hertzberg as a presidential speechwriter. Hertzberg is now a senior political commentator for the New Yorker and has long since shed any pious attributes he might have picked up from his old boss in the White House. Proof positive was his September 24 “Talk of the Town” piece, which was little more than an extended comic riff about who invoked God how many times at the conventions, appropriately entitled “For Heaven’s Sake.” Occasionally amusing, sometimes offensive, it was a rather tired reprise of the sort of thing H. L. Mencken, an unrepentant atheist and talented political reporter, was writing as far back as the 1920s.

Hertzberg showed his talents to better advantage in the aftermath of Obama’s amazingly weak performance in the first presidential debate. Writing in the October 15 issue’s “Talk of the Town” section, he reviewed the “Ungreat Debate,” conceding that Romney was the clear winner and Obama the clear loser. One couldn’t help wondering if he would have described the debate as “ungreat” if things had gone the other way around. As it was, Hertzberg faced the facts, albeit a bit peevishly: “Romney won; and even more, Obama lost, as surely as if he had cancelled the whole damn thing.” Personal preferences aside, his evaluation of the first debate’s impact on the campaign was right on target:

If Obama’s debate performance had been half as strong as Romney’s or Romney’s half as weak as Obama’s, the result might have been a complete collapse not just of the Romney campaign but of the whole Republican project: the House, the Senate, the state legislatures, the fund-raising—everything. That now seems unlikely. . . . now, in deadly earnest, the game is on.

None of the subsequent debates had nearly as much impact, and the New Yorker’s coverage of and commentary on them, and on other day-to-day campaign events, was unremarkable. The next big splash came in the magazine’s joint October 29–November 5 issue, although stylistically it was more of a big thud: an overlong, totally expected, four-page endorsement of Barack Obama. It began with a mock-Proustian invocation of better days gone by, recalling Obama’s first inauguration: “The morning was cold and the sky was bright. Aretha Franklin wore a large and interesting hat.” From there it was downhill, a mixture of inflated rhetoric and cherry-picked factoids ending with a staggering oversimplification:

The choice is clear. The Romney-Ryan ticket represents a constricted and backward-looking version of America: the privatization of the public good. In contrast, the sort of public investment championed by Obama—and exemplified by both the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Affordable Care Act—takes to heart the old civil-rights motto “Lifting as we climb.”

Image: Pullquote: If the New Yorker is guilty of anything it is . . . an assumption that anyone who disagrees with its chosen approach to economic and social issues is either invincibly ignorant, intellectually dishonest or motivated by greed.Essay Types: Essay