Access kills


The most interesting part of my job is that I get to observe powerful people at close quarters. Most people in government, I find, are there because they sincerely want to do good.

This encapsulates everything that is wrong with the modern punditocracy: getting off on access to powerful people and assuming that these powerful people aren’t crooks and charlatans.

By virtue of writing for this blog, I have gotten a few (though not many) high-level pundit-types to return my emails. And it’s amazing how much they buy into the “if you met so-and-so, you’d see he’s really a good guy even if he compares Obama to Hitler every week on the Sunday shows”. For example, I was once told that I couldn’t appreciate what a decent, serious person Newt Gingrich is since I’d never toured inner-city schools with him.

I’ve never seen this kind of naivete from any group of people other than national pundits.

48 replies
  1. 1
    Yutsano says:

    For example, I was once told that I couldn’t appreciate what a decent, serious person Newt Gingrich is since I’d never toured inner-city schools with him.

    Wait, this is a joke right? Pics or it never happened. Seriously. And I’m going with the latter option here.

  2. 2
    DougJ says:


    Completely serious.

  3. 3
    Calouste says:

    I think it’s naive of you to call it naivete.

    I’d call it part selling your soul and part being blinded by the light of celebrity.

    For example, I doubt will hear anybody say that Peter Orszag is such a good guy, because he is basically just a grey bureaucrat who is not going to advance anybody else’s career.

  4. 4
    Yutsano says:

    @DougJ: I’m guessing you got a long lecture about his serious intellectual prowess not long after. Newt, from what I understand (and I’m too lazy to Wiki it right now) has a rather lightweight academic resume, so why in the hell he’s touted as some amazing right-wing genius is honestly beyond my ken. Plus, well, he got the House back only to lose it in spectacular fashion by throwing fits of pique and focusing on the Clenis. I almost want them to take the House just so Issa can investigate every little nook and cranny of the Obama administration and demonstrate how unsuitable they are for governance.

  5. 5
    Mike Kay says:


    it’s all about the beltway dinner parties.

    to his credit, Jake Tapper did a nightline feature in 2006/7 on how corrosive dinner parties are to reporting, even though he admitted that he attended the parties.

    it was kinda like watching a BBC interview of Albert Speer describe the corrupting influence of attending reich dinner events.

  6. 6
    Ash Can says:

    Thank you for this post. What these myopic overgrown high-schoolers just can’t get through their heads is that no amount of being nice in private can make any of the damage these fucking shitheels have done in public go away.

  7. 7
    Keith says:

    The most interesting part of my job is that I get to observe powerful people at close quarters. Most people in government, I find, are there because they sincerely want to do good

    Maybe he wasn’t really complaining when he brought up being groped by a Senator at dinner.

  8. 8
    Alex S. says:

    Dick Cheney is a unique beautiful snowflake

  9. 9
    Ian says:

    if you met so-and-so, you’d see he’s really a good guy…

    Even if that were true, even if so-and-so happens to be neither a crook nor a charlatan, there remains the possibility that so-and-so is incompetent. It doesn’t matter how good his intentions are if he can’t translate them into action.

    We can ultimately judge politicians only by the policies they actively support and enact.

  10. 10
    R. Porrofatto says:

    I’ve never seen this kind of naivete from any group of people other than national pundits.

    I have, from corporate toadies to the bigger corporate cheeses. I found it to be less naivete than a deliberate self-deception required for them to convince themselves they were independent free-thinkers while still sucking up to an embarrassing degree, and to allow them to enjoy the executive lunches and other perks with a clear conscience. I don’t imagine it’s any different for the pundits.

  11. 11

    Brooks’ whole column is barf-making. He’s basically saying that Gen. McChrystal got trapped into talking to Michael Hastings and that he doesn’t understand that when someone is standing there with a notepad and a tape recorder they’re not doing a product demonstration for Office Depot.

    And he’s shocked and saddened that this nice general got cashiered by his trustiness.

  12. 12
    LittlePig says:

    I’ve never seen this kind of naivete from any group of people other than national pundits.

    That’s because the position is selecting for that. Courtiers are in style these days (journalism is soooo 19th Century), but kissing ass that hard every day, day in and day out, is very difficult for anyone bothered by cognitive dissonance or a functioning human soul. So only someone who truly worships the aristocracy can cut it.

    If they were not that naive they couldn’t stand the job in the first place.

  13. 13
    c u n d gulag says:

    That’s why I call most of them, “Pun-twit’s.”

  14. 14
    valdemar says:

    Makes me glad I live in socialist-monarchist BBC-land, where Jeremy Paxman adheres to the fine old maxim ‘Why is this bastard lying to me?’ It seems to work.

  15. 15
    WereBear says:

    I’m reminded of the classic LBJ line: “I want you to kiss my ass in Macy’s window, and tell me it smells like roses.”

    Insecure bosses want this kind of obsequiousness because they work hard enough convincing people who don’t have to kiss up to them. They don’t want to do it at “home.”

    I don’t care if Newt Gingrich sobs his heart out when he tours inner city schools. He’ll turn right around and make sure they don’t have enough books or even plaster for the ceiling, and continue to push policies that make them second class citizens.

    I’m sure someone had lunch with Glenn Beck and is going around saying, “It’s all an act. He’s not crazy. He doesn’t really believe the outrageous things he says.”

    But Glenn Beck isn’t sold as an “act.” He’s packaged and sold as a political commentator.

    He’s sold as someone who believes the things he says.

  16. 16
    Guster says:

    It’s the fact that they think it matters that really baffles me.

    Every novelist knows you give the evil psycho a few redeeming traits.

  17. 17
    Harry Kawasaki says:

    I’ve never seen this kind of naivete from any group of people other than national pundits.

    Actually, it sounds as if they’re somehow turned into doting grandmothers.

  18. 18
    jron says:

    otoh, when you’ve got someone who actually wants to make a difference, our punditocracy will savage them, because they’re no fun to hang around (unless you share their drive).

    selfish folks are just more fun on a superficial dc level. engaged & concerned is boring.

  19. 19
    vtr says:

    Another lovely day begins. I awoke to my clock radio, and heard the musical drawl of Congressman Mitch McGopher blahblahblathering about something on Morning Edition. He’s really a nice guy, too.

  20. 20
    Keith G says:

    Brooks was just being sill, eve disingenuous.

    General McChrystal was excellent at his job. He had outstanding relations with the White House and entirely proper relationships with his various civilian partners in the State Department and beyond. He set up a superb decision-making apparatus that deftly used military and civilian expertise.

    WTF is he talking about? “Outstanding relations with the White House”? Didn’t he get called on the carpet last year for verbally assailing Biden (behind the VP’s back) in London?

    Isn’t his less than cooperative working relationship with Eikenberry widely reported?

    I think Brooks has been trading bong hits with Sully.

    Pass the Ding Dongs

  21. 21
    JCT says:

    Nothing like starting your day off with one of Bobo Brooks’ insipid “columns”. I wonder if Paul Krugman feels his IQ points being sucked away just having a column next to this clown.

    Oh well, just gives me a fine excuse to tease my UChicago undergraduate. Told her they should start a recall petition on his diploma.

    That Newt comment is just a scream. That guy is a pure moral void.

  22. 22
    Turgid Jacobian says:

    @WereBear: Moreover, other people believe he’s telling the truth. This same goes for all the asscaps who are “really terrific human beings in private.” Forget that–their actions have consequences, and they ought to be held account to those consequences, not their amiability.

  23. 23
    Todd says:

    To make this explicitly clear and put it in context for anyone who stumbles upon this thread, this comes back to this this post by Greenwald about the media. In his own way, Brooks is saying he has no reason to hold these powerful figures accountable because he implicitly trusts them. He does this out of a self righteous attitude that since he is granted privileged access to these individuals, he has some sort of keen insight into their souls that lets him know deep down what they’re doing isn’t *bad*.

    I guess what I’m getting at is: at what point is naivete no longer a valid justification and it’s just willful arrogance that leads to inept character judgments?

    Maybe I’m missing something where those two concepts aren’t really distinct. Naivete in my mind implies doe eyed innocence. Can that really be said about Broder?

  24. 24
    fucen tarmal says:

    just like those inner city schools probably work their balls off to clean up for a visiting gasbag like gingrich, in advance of his visit, no matter how off-the-cuff they try to make it seem, no one in that situation has the incentive to show how things are exactly.

    does a school admin want the newt, or his throng to see the school on an average tuesday? and be picked apart for whatever small incidence of reality they would stumble upon? or do they demand and plead for the kids to wear their nicest school clothes? and offer extra credit to kids who comply? its comical that bobo, or any member of the media think the same doesn’t work in reverse. don’t they realize the media is always the media to the pols, whether or not they have a watergun in their hand? extreme fundamental attribution error.

  25. 25
    Facebones says:

    You could flip Brooks’ axiom around and it would still apply. I think a lot of reporters start out with visions of Woodward & Bernstein and All the President’s Men dancing in their heads. They scrape and scrap and work hard to get to the national bureau or the DC bureau…

    And then they relax. They achieved what they set out to do. They feel the need to reward themselves. And it’s not like the other media members are going to push them, since they’re all in the same position. Dinner parties, cocktail parties, “You don’t know the whole story! He’s really a great guy.”

    They work to get access, and then do everything they can to protect that access by not embarrassing anyone.

    Even Woodward fell victim to this, so how can you be surprised when others do as well?

  26. 26
    jeanne marie says:

    @jron: Anyone serious about changing the status quo is a party pooper.

  27. 27
    edmund dantes says:

    A person who is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, is not a nice person. — Dave Barry <– This axiom holds true.

  28. 28

    I usually respond to this with either Emerson or Godwin.

    Emerson: “Who you are speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying.”

    Godwin: “Hitler loved puppies and was a sweetheart to Eva.”

  29. 29
    beltane says:

    @Ash Can: Any tyrant/monster can be nice. Saddam Hussein was allegedly a charming man in certain situations. The same thing with Slobodan Milosovic. (See, no need to violate Godwin’s law here). In fact, I’d say most psychopaths that come to power need a certain amount of charm to reach their positions. Sane people judge politicians by their public acts, not by how pleasant they were at a cocktail party attended by the rich and well-connected.

    Our media fails the sanity test.

  30. 30

    I will put in a plug for a terrific book:

    Mistakes Were Made: Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

    Pretty much lays it out how people can come to embrace, a little at time, the most ludicrous viewpoints. It’s not just about self-interest, although that’s of course a strong motivator. But the need to perceive oneself as not just a good person, but consistent and coherent in one’s beliefs, could be equally strong. of course you mix them all together, and you wind up with a helluva big impediment to common sense and the common good.

    this book explains so much of what we see around us – like that farmer in KS who put up the billboard against government handouts while receiving $1MM+ in farm subsidies. the book explains how, a little at a time, someone could come to such a ludicrous and self-contradictory world view.

  31. 31

    @Kirk Spencer:
    dammit if KS didn’t beat me to the Godwin. I was going to say:

    You know who else was a “nice” person in private?

    BTW, I was just thinking about the difference between a lot of these “journalists” and the ones who work out here in the heartland, aka flyover country. Fancy degrees from high-end ivy league schools or wannabes, vs. degrees from weathervane schools. High 5 or even 6-figure salaries vs. public school teacher pay, if that, etc.

    Washington might actually do well to import some Roykos and Breslins for a change.

  32. 32
    SpotWeld says:

    It seems that the national media is falling into the trap of easy contrarianism.

    The first step is to find a common narrative in the “conventional wisdom” then posit the possibility that what “everyone thinks” may be wrong.

    Since there are huge advertising campaigns to paint political figures a certain way, you don’t even have to expend the effort to research that. Just pulls some clips and do a voice over of “well, this is what you may have heard”, then troll a few pundit farms to get the contrarian view and post that up in the next sections with a “but is that really the case” rejoinder.

    No heavy lifting.

    John Stossel has pretty much degraded his career into this formula to the point where he is a human Mad Lib of predictable show format. He doesn’t even need to be right, just present a “balanced view of both sides”

  33. 33
    Emma says:

    Valdemar: Oh yes, I do envy you that. The first time I saw a BBC political interview, I nearly fell off my chair. A reporter, smiling and very sure of his facts, looked some sort of boffin straight in the eye and said:now we both know that’s not quite true, is it?

    I darn hear hyperventilated.

  34. 34
    Violet says:

    The first time I saw “Question Time” my jaw literally dropped. Politicians taking real questions from real people and being forced to answer them? Alternate universe.

  35. 35
    BC says:


    A reporter, smiling and very sure of his facts

    Of course, we have to stretch to find the reporter who is “very sure of his facts” now. That’s my one complaint with reporters, the fact that they don’t even do the research ahead of time so they know what their interviewee is likely to say and have the facts at hand to continue the discussion or to refute what their interviewee says. Saying that they don’t have access to Google isn’t really a defense, they should have the knowledge before they interview. What we get instead is the reporter has written up 20 or 30 questions, asks those questions in order, and just writes down the responses. No followup, no refutation, no indication that the reporter even hears what the answers are (any good stenographer will tell you that writing down what is said means that the effort is made to making sure you have an accurate transcription, not that you actually hear and understand what you are told; take this from someone who once was very good at Gregg’s shorthand and knows this firsthand. I am so old).

  36. 36
    Emma says:

    BC: In the US, there are NO reporters who do follow up. Or who prepare. None. The ones I’ve observed in the UK (haven’t been there in two years, though, so…) do seem to at least take a stab at knowing what they are going to be talking about.

    Violet Question Time! Yeah!

  37. 37
    catclub says:

    I remember reading about someone (Clinton?)
    who was extremely pissed at Yasir Arafat because Yasir
    lied directly to him but Yasir would NOT lie to his
    (Palestinian) public. I took this as a huge advantage for the system Arafat worked under, in contrast to ours.

    In ours, the bigwigs can lie to the public but they won’t lie to each other – because THAT would be rude.

  38. 38
    ET says:

    While I agree with your sentiment, I am glad he wrote that most want to do good because I do think there is a significant segment of the population that think that powerful people in government don’t want to do good – especially if they are in the opposing political party. Just listen to conservative and tea party rhetoric.

  39. 39
    Athenawise says:

    I was a journalist (good writer, not a spectacular byline name) at a couple of top-flight venues for years. Dinner parties, punditry-by-accessibility, snobbery, self-importance — I witnessed. Same as it ever was.

  40. 40
    batgirl says:

    @Mustang Bobby: I listened to General Jack Keane on Charlie Rose last night and he basically blamed the guy from RS saying that real serious reporters hear this stuff all the time but know better than to actually report it. He also blamed military pr for letting a jack-ass RS non-real serious reporter in in the first place.

  41. 41
    gmknobl says:

    1) I assume every person I meet is a regular person until they demonstrate otherwise.

    2) Public comments constitute demonstrative proof unless taken out of context but I get to decide if they are taken out of context or not.

    3) You CAN compare Bush/Cheney and many of his mini-onions to Hitler and their bunch. There are SOOOO many historical parallels.

    4) Journalists may become friendly with their subjects but must able to maintain an independent “journalistic” detachment to their subjects in the back of their mind, otherwise they aren’t performing their job correctly – or aren’t journalists.

    5) Not everyone in government is there because they solely want to make money for themselves; many if not most are there because they want to serve and serve well. This is not all though but you shouldn’t assume they are out for themselves at everyone else’s cost.

    6) There was a time when to work for the government was considered a prestigious job and it paid well too. Honest people hired honest people for the most part to do the behind the scenes tough work or making the government function, coming up with ways to help business while protecting the environment, feeding the world and eliminating duplicate work. (I speak of my dad.) But someones then got elected by claiming government was terribly wasteful when it really wasn’t so. Income to the government went down because of these people while spending on truly wasteful projects and wars went WAY up, as well as the salaries of those claiming government was wasteful. Funny how that works. Now it’s hard to hire good help because working for the government isn’t so prestigious. Meanwhile the non-wasteful parts of government are starved for money while the rich get richer and robber barons once again rule the economic world, just like in the gilded age. There’s your brief history of how we got to where we are now from post WWII via overweening faux (and some real but misguided) conservatism.

  42. 42
    Lit3Bolt says:

    See, it’s comments like, “Yes, so and so says despicable things, yet he’s still an ok guy because he bought me a drink.” that if anything reveals EVEN MORE rot and complacency in the punditocracy. For Brooks to say that and believe it, he has to acknowledge that everything politicians and pundits say and do in public is a pure facade and is pure kabuki done only for the sole benefit of the kabuki player themselves. If these douchebags are “really great people” how come the public has never seen a glimmer of that side of their personality? Oh right, image and hate-selling and all that bullshit.

    I cannot wish doom upon America fast enough. Oh wait I can. Vote Palin 2012!

  43. 43
    Stefan says:

    Oh yes, I do envy you that. The first time I saw a BBC political interview, I nearly fell off my chair. A reporter, smiling and very sure of his facts, looked some sort of boffin straight in the eye and said:now we both know that’s not quite true, is it?

    The only way you’d ever get an American reporter to address an American politician that way would be if it was a Democratic politician who was denying an affair.

    In that case, reporters are righteous solons, incorrupitible defenders of truth, honesty and the American way. In all other cases, not so much.

  44. 44
    econlibVA says:

    I’ve met and/or observed a bunch of politicians over the last several years. Almost all of them are charming and nice when you talk to them – that’s why they are good politicians. Bobo’s comments reveal neither naivete or self-deception. Instead, they reveal a complete lack of seriousness about his work as a journalist. Journalists exist to help illuminate the truth, whatever that is. If as a journalist you view a politician’s worth by how nice they are to you, then you have completely abdicated your job in helping to illuminate the truth. You instead help obscure it, by giving better coverage to those you like personally.

    Also, @Beltrane – I couldn’t agree more.

  45. 45
    curious says:

    @Stefan: well, npr recently had a pretty vicious interview with a spokeswoman for the soda lobby! so there’s that.

  46. 46
    Batocchio says:

    I grew up in the DC area, and once I saw Gingrich in the audience at the Kennedy Center, attending the same opera or play I was. (These sightings can feel a bit surreal.) If he was there by choice, I suppose it spoke well of his artistic tastes. But what was more striking was the hypocrisy – here was a scumbag who was enjoying the very same publicly-supported arts he demonized and fought like hell to defund. (The conservative crusade to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, which receives miniscule funds to begin with, is one of the more nonsensical and spiteful of conservative fixations. But hey, Saint Ronnie – a former actor! – pushed the cause, so…)

    Gingrich, Tony Blankley, David Brooks, David Frum and the like are very much country club conservatives. They have enough “breeding” to hold up their end of conversation, aren’t entirely ignorant of good policy (or culture), and jousting with their slightly more liberal former classmates in the media is partially a bullshitting performance. Blankley dials the wingnut waaaay down from his columns when he appears on NPR’s Left, Right and Center. Brooks and Frum very consciously craft and sell the “reasonable conservative” brand, and will occasionally slip in a little truth, but overall remain loathsome. Brooks especially is a happy class warrior, and I don’t think his swill defending the pecking order is just an act – while he is a hack, when it comes to defending the aristocracy, he’s also a true zealot. (“Liberal” Richard Cohen and other “insiders” are the same way for the Beltway establishment.) Gingrich is the most personally ambitious of the four conservatives I mentioned, a presidential pretender and megalomaniac who routinely goes into “liberal fascism” and McCarthyite territory. Despite this, mainstream outlets treat him as respectable and a serious intellectual. He provides them headlines, and he’s a member of the club.

  47. 47
    Nancy Irving says:

    The other side of the coin is that famous pundits really seem to believe that the vox populi is represented by the opinions of the taxi-driver who takes them from the airport to their downtown hotel.

  48. 48
    DPirate says:

    Not naivete, but toadyism.

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