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 Magazine Watch

Tuesday October 12, 1999 (Vol. One; No. 20)

Bush’s Sister Souljah?; Filet of Freeh; Quindlen’s Pro-Dung Debut

1. All three news magazines predictably found George W. Bush’s calculated cracks against conservatives a fine strategy. Newsweek guessed that in the "Caring Clinton ‘90s," being attacked by Rush Limbaugh helps. Time suggested only "posturing rivals and professional loudmouths" objected, and demanded Bush do better than "kind words and cold policies."

2. Newsweek finally arrived on the FBI agents’ testimony of Justice Department footdragging on the fundraising scandal. Well, actually, that’s only briefly mentioned as the magazine highlighted FBI chief Louis Freeh’s troubled ethics.

3. Time landed the right to interview the Unabomber, and wondered whether his brother was really a "moral superhero" for turning him in.

4. U.S. News reconsidered the Cold War, but Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter says it’s the conservatives who never learned.

5. Celebrated feminist logician Anna Quindlen debuted in her new essayist slot at Newsweek by bemoaning the benighted critics of the dung-on-the-Virgin-Mary exhibit in Brooklyn.

On the covers of the October 18 issues: Newsweek aspired to attract soccer moms with "Tweens," focusing on kids between 8 and 14. Time offered another cover to Apple boss Steve Jobs, and U.S. News & World Report stuck with its historical bent by focusing on the Cold War.


All three news magazines predictably found George W. Bush’s calculating cracks against conservatives a fine strategy. The headline aptly summarized the theme of Time’s Eric Pooley: "George W. Bush is so deft he reminds Bill Clinton of himself. But can the G.O.P. front runner move his party to the center -- and does he even want to try?"

Pooley reported Clinton "saw himself in Bush, a whole lot of himself." But "Clinton and his allies note a difference between what he did in 1992 and what Bush is doing now. As the President sees it, he actually did the hard work of moving his party -- debating the policies, fighting the fights -- and so far, he thinks, there's little evidence that Bush is trying to transform his party in similar fashion. ‘When will George W. stand up and and disagree with the NRA or the evangelicals?’ asks former Clinton aide Paul Begala, who wrote the Sister Souljah speech. Says another adviser: ‘Bush is just doing a tactical push-off. Is he really going to take on these guys in the House, or just make a speech and then run from it?’"

Both Time and Newsweek compared Bush’s attacks on conservatives with Clinton’s 1992 Sister Souljah remarks. But the black rapper had just suggested in a Washington Post interview that "If black people kill black people everyday, why not have a week and kill white people?...So if you're a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person?" How courageous was Clinton to oppose that? And how does it compare in any way to alleged conservative obsessions with the Earned Income Tax Credit or the CBO?

Pooley despaired that Bush didn’t stay the bashing course, and noted one Bush camp spin, that he had only meant to attack "perceptions" of the GOP, "was not courageous -- or true. The speech had been in the works for a month, and principled slaps at the GOP had been in the earliest versions. Indeed, Bush had been saying similar things in milder terms since summer, calculating that he can chide conservatives and woo moderates without losing his right flank."

But Pooley felt Bush’s critics weren’t important: "Beyond the posturing rivals and professional loudmouths, many conservative leaders secretly are not that concerned about what Bush said last week. They know he has a history of offering moderate rhetoric, then coming down solidly in their camp. Two weeks ago, he opposed a GOP plan to delay tax-credit payments to low-income workers, saying his party's leaders shouldn't ‘balance their budget on the backs of the poor.’ But he supported the party's $800 billion tax-cut plan, which would require deep cuts in worthy programs aimed at the same people."

Pooley liked Bush’s Manhattan Institute speech on education, with a proposal to bring his Texas education plan -- money from the top down, management from the bottom up -- to the other 49 states. "Now Bush is under the hot lights. He can either return to his old pattern -- kind words and cold policies -- or offer more of the innovative conservatism his new education proposal represents. Education has always been his best issue, but he needs to build on it."

In Newsweek, Howard Fineman found stunning opposites in Gore and Bush: while Bush stole tactics from Clinton, Gore seems content to become Walter Mondale. "Casting about for an identity after eons of dithering and waste, Gore has more or less settled on becoming an old-fashioned, card-carrying, lunch-bucket Democrat -- happily beholden to party insiders, even if he risks alienating swing voters who decide general elections. Bush, meanwhile, is following the Clinton model: a Southern governor with a well-thought-out theme and a package of practical programs, who doesn't mind picking fights with the arbiters of ideological purity in his own party as he focuses on winning key swing constituencies in the fall."

Fineman explained, "Now Bush is navigating in the currents of the Caring Clinton '90s. He is a self-described conservative, but one who says he has developed a compassionate Third Way that has little in common with the coldblooded spirit of the Hill-based GOP. He isn't afraid to wield the power of government. Indeed, if the program is focused enough, Bush relishes its use. He wants to increase the power of the Department of Education, for example, not shrink it."

He concluded by arguing that conservative complaints were actually good for Bush, agreeing with Bush advisers: "Neither Forbes nor Gary Bauer can win the nomination, they contend, and McCain -- who takes center stage in the campaign-finance-reform debate this week -- is widely disliked on the right. ‘Rush Limbaugh doesn't like us this week,’ said one top Bush adviser, ‘so what does that really mean?’ If Bill Clinton's playbook is right, probably everything."

U.S. News had no Bush article, but owner Mortimer Zuckerman had warm words in his back-page commentary: "George W. Bush did well to rebuke his party when House Republicans maneuvered to balance the budget by proposing to delay the earned income tax credit for the working poor -- paying it in monthly installments rather than an annual lump sum....Bush may have discomfited his Republican colleagues, but his words served to remind that they are out of touch with the realities of life for so many Americans. He later softened his criticism, but it is time, nevertheless, for a more generous leadership from the House Republicans."


Newsweek finally arrived on the FBI agents’ testimony of Justice Department foot-dragging on the fundraising scandal. Well, actually, that’s only briefly mentioned as the magazine highlighted FBI chief Louis Freeh’s troubled ethics, which surely pleased the White House spin control team.

Daniel Klaidman and Michael Isikoff mentioned the agents’ testimony against Reno Central only as bureaucratic butt-covering: "FBI director Louis Freeh is about to be embarrassed again by his own troops. On Capitol Hill, the FBI is already under fire for mishandling the investigation of Chinese espionage at the nuclear lab at Los Alamos, N.M. For years, the FBI's spycatchers focused on a single suspect, the Taiwanese-born scientist Wen Ho Lee. Criticized at congressional hearings for casting too narrow a net, senior FBI officials doggedly insisted that the investigation was on course and blamed the Justice Department for failing to grant the bureau a license to wiretap."

They continued in their "What Chinese espionage?" vein: "But Newsweek has learned that bureau officials failed to disclose persistent misgivings by their own gumshoes. As far back as December 1998, the FBI's field office in Albuquerque, N.M., raised concerns that the investigation was superficial and failed to look at other suspects outside of Los Alamos. Though Freeh was getting briefed on the case every day, he was never told of these qualms, which appeared in a half-dozen memos. Now that the case against Wen Ho Lee appears to be weak, the revelation of the FBI's own suppressed doubts is sure to set off another round of bureau-bashing in the press and on Capitol Hill."

After detailing every FBI screwup from Richard Jewell to false arrest warrants in Connecticut, Klaidman and Isikoff suggested Freeh’s also hurt by not being close to Clinton: "The director has little room to maneuver. He long ago alienated Clinton by calling for a special prosecutor to investigate campaign-finance abuse. (Privately, he finds Clinton's ethics to be ‘shocking,’ says a friend.) Repeatedly asked by reporters if he has confidence in Freeh, the president refuses to answer. When a reporter at a recent White House picnic asked Clinton about some campaign-finance allegations, the president reddened and shot back, ‘The FBI wants you to write about that rather than write about Waco.’" (That’s the first news magazine mention of Clinton’s rebuke of Investor’s Business Daily reporter Paul Sperry, with no reflection on how that makes Clinton look.)

Newsweek concluded: "[J. Edgar] Hoover's motto was ‘Never embarrass the bureau.’ In his day, it was possible to hide the FBI's mistakes and excesses. But in an age of scandal and exposure, it's the attempt to cover up that's most likely to embarrass. Curiously, that's a lesson the Feds seem not to have learned."

It’s too bad Newsweek can’t find anything resembling that problem at the Department of Justice.


Time landed the right to interview the Unabomber, and wondered whether his brother was really a "moral superhero" for turning him in. Stephen J. Dubner rewarded terrorist Ted Kazczynski for granting him access by shifting his story into shades of gray: "After Ted's arrest, David was instantly lauded as a sort of moral superhero for sacrificing his beloved if troubled brother. Not surprisingly, Ted finds fault with this scenario. David's decision to turn him in, he says, was less a moral or lawful one than a way to settle a perversely complicated sibling rivalry. Beneath David's love for him, he argues, lay ‘a marked strain of resentment,’ and ‘jealousy over the fact that our parents valued me more highly.’"

For his time, the Unabomber gained some publicity from Dubner for his attack on his brother’s halo: "There is, it should be said, a certain lack of perspective in Ted's writing. After all, it was he, not David, who sent the bombs. Still, the original tale had been so much neater: the evil, deranged brother and the righteous, heartbroken brother who put a killer out of commission. As it turns out, the Kaczynski tragedy is more Greek than American, a morally complicated tale in which even the most righteous intentions have created shadows that will haunt all the players for the rest of their lives."

Is it really "morally complicated" to anyone outside this fraternal struggle? Unabomber captured, bombings stop.

Dubner also noted that mail-bombing the right people can make you popular in some quarters: "Ted Kaczynski too enjoys a certain amount of attention these days. He receives mail from sympathizers and admirers. He has accepted an offer to donate his personal papers to a major university's library of anarchist materials. He wrote a parable for a literary magazine at another university. Speaking with him, one is struck not by the burning anger that characterized his Unabomber campaign but by a satisfaction that the world, at long last, is treating him like a valuable human being."


U.S. News reconsidered the Cold War, but Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter says it’s the conservatives who never learned. The media rarely reflect on what we’ve learned from the documents tumbling out of communist archives, but in the lead article in the U.S. News Cold War cover package, left-leaning Yale history professor John Lewis Gaddis found some 20/20 hindsight: "Before the Cold War ended, the American public had more than enough information from Western sources to expose the shortcomings of the United States and its allies, but historians could only hint at those that may have existed on the other side. We now know much more, and what emerges is a pattern of brutality, shortsightedness, inefficiency, vulnerability, and mistrust within the Marxist-Leninist world that dates back to the earliest days of the Cold War."

While U.S. News also presented an article with both sides of the test-ban treaty debate, Newsweek’s coverage was limited to Jonathan Alter lamenting that the people with the outdated views aren’t the arms-control gurus: "Public boredom with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which would prohibit all nuclear test explosions worldwide, is depressing but comprehensible. After all, the Cold War is over. The problem is that Senate Republicans don't recognize that fact, and they are playing with fire in the messy new 21st-century world. The debate over the treaty, first proposed by President Eisenhower and signed in 1996, tells us plenty about the rejection of the whole idea of diplomacy in favor of a new, highly partisan obtuseness in American foreign policy."


Celebrated feminist logician Anna Quindlen debuted in her new essayist slot at Newsweek by bemoaning the benighted critics of the dung-on-the-Virgin-Mary exhibit in Brooklyn. Reflecting on protesters in front of the Brooklyn Museum, Quindlen thought: "Standing on the sidewalk seemed oddly apt. Why sully strong opinions by actually seeing the art that evoked them?...the overwhelming sensation is deja vu all over again. The same polemics, the same slogans by folks who proudly say that they have not seen what they revile. Obscenity. Sacrilege. Pornography."

Quindlen added: "Can the uproar over director Kevin Smith's funny new film ‘Dogma’ be far behind? It is easy to imagine the bloodless incendiary descriptions: ‘a film in which one character admits to being sexually aroused after kissing a female God, and a black apostle suggests that the evangelists were racist.’ You can see the pickets in your head, hear the criticisms -- anti-Catholic! Blasphemous!’ -- by people who have not seen the movie, which happens to be outrageous, profane and quite devout. The unexamined life may not be worth living, but there sure are a lot of people willing to carry on about unexamined art."

Wow, what would Quindlen say about "a lot of people" who actually saw the exhibit or newspaper photos of it and still objected? But she is quite willing to carry on about unexamined conservatives.

Quindlen found First Amendment objections to taxpayer-funded anti-Catholicism a "red herring" and declared: "Religious intolerance has been the other rallying cry in this imbroglio, because the painting of the Virgin surrounded by tiny magazine cutouts of buttocks has offended some Catholics... No one seems to know, care or consider that medieval Catholic art, for example, is chockablock with sexual and scatological imagery, the sacred considered as meaningless without the profane as day is without night. There are centuries-old religious manuscripts in museum collections with illustrations far more shocking than the "Sensation" Virgin: prayer books with couples pictured in medias res [Latin for "in the middle of things"], books of devotion with illustrated animals defecating in the margins. In deference to the terror that has gripped curators, perhaps it is better not to be specific about where these can be found."

Quindlen concluded: "Meanwhile, in other news, cops are being accused of savagery, priests of impropriety, and thousands of children are failing in the New York City schools. And civic leaders, both political and religious, are using their bully pulpits for this? So much sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Gee, I wonder why students at a Catholic college like Villanova wouldn’t want Quindlen (also on the board of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League) to speak at graduation? Quindlen’s predecessor, Meg Greenfield, would roll in her grave to think her thoughtful picking at knee-jerk conventional wisdoms had been replaced by the author of classic loopy feminist sentences like "Sunday, the Super Bowl will be played in Tampa and so, inevitably, my thoughts turn to abortion."

-- Tim Graham


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