Amtrak and American mediocrity

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

24 June 2013

An Amtrak train

This is from the Wikipedia entry on Amtrak:

Nearly everyone involved expected the experiment to be short-lived. The Nixon administration and many Washington insiders viewed the NRPC as a politically expedient way for the President and Congress to give passenger trains the one “last hurrah” demanded by the public. They expected Amtrak to quietly disappear as public interest waned. Proponents also hoped that government intervention would be brief, but their view was that Amtrak would soon support itself. Neither view has proved correct. Popular support has allowed Amtrak to continue in operation longer than critics imagined, while financial results have made a return to private operation infeasible.

I've been thinking about the idea of mediocrity in the American imagination, or the lack of the same. America is comfortable with the idea of success and it’s also well acquainted with the idea of failure, since failure is just success in the negative: success distinguished by its absence. America tends to render mediocrity comprehensible by recasting it as failure — think Willy Loman, perhaps? Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech? — an endpoint rather than a protracted existence. Amtrak doesn’t fit in with America: it won’t thrive but it won’t die.

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What kinds of people, in the American imagination, ride Amtrak? And I mean those who ride the networks across the broad expanse of the country, not the Acela of the north-east corridor, adopted by the professional class of the BoNYWash connurbation. If you’re a responsible, self-regulating citizen in America, you’re supposed to use certain modes of transport: private automobile in many cities and on the interstates between them, suburban and metro rail in others, commercial airlines for long distance travel. And if you fall for whatever reason outside the categories that are used to define a member of the American mainstream, you might catch the bus: this is for the poor, the counter-cultural (it’s what Paul Simon’s hitchhiker rides in “America”), the foreign, the (often) non-white. But Amtrak exists nowhere in the American mind: it’s not a success or a failure; you don’t want to ride it but you’re not quite reduced to riding it. It is something of the sort in which America is not interested: a middling, albeit acceptable, nothing.

What other American institutions fall into this category? I’m thinking vaguely that the National Hockey League might, though perhaps this is not true for certain areas of the Midwest and North East. And there’s comedic space for protracted mediocrity: the Al Bundys, the George Costanzas of the world. (Are there mediocre women? Were the ’90s, with Daria’s “Sick Sad World” and The Simpsons’ prevailing aesthetic of national crappiness, a time unusually curious about the mediocre?) What else belongs to this American blind spot of the non-failing average?


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Is "only Nixon could go to China" a myth?

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

21 February 2012

USSC Associate researcher and American Review contributor Tom Switzer had a great article in this weekend's Australian on President Richard Nixon's opening of diplomatic relations with China. The conventional wisdom is that this was a diplomatic coup that could only be achieved by a hardline anti-communist like Nixon. Not so, argues Tom:

The conventional wisdom is wrong. Why? Because the American consensus to isolate communist China had collapsed by 1966, more than five years before Nixon's visit. So swiftly had the political climate changed that even a liberal Democrat president could have negotiated with Mao Zedong and Chou En-lai in 1972 without arousing the anger of middle America. Moreover, it was in 1966 when the pliant Nixon had begun his own ideological odyssey.

Tom argues that during the late '60s, American opinions on China were undergoing a rapid change:

The answer lies in understanding the broader US reconsideration of China policy. In 1966, as serious doubts emerged about the Vietnam war, a great debate began. Opinion leaders — politicians, journalists, business, think tanks — began to criticise the two-decades-old policy of isolating Peking. Even the Sinophiles who had been dismissed as academic fringe-dwellers had suddenly gained a new legitimacy in congressional hearings.

It was widely agreed that China, far from being a reckless dragon bent on world revolution, had been more moderate and cautious; and that Washington should make every effort to integrate Peking into the world community.


Clearly, a new era in US understanding of China had begun in 1966. Meanwhile, Nixon was uncharacteristically silent. From August 1966 until the second half of 1967, there is no evidence to suggest he had said anything publicly about China policy. Nothing. The silence was significant.

This seems pretty reasonable to me. Nixon was a canny observer of the public mood, and had a great talent for putting himself on the more popular side of the divisive issue. I wonder though whether, even if a liberal Democratic president could have gone to China as Nixon did, whether latent fears of McCarthyism might have dissuaded him? Was Nixon's exceptional quality not his ability to go to China, but his recognition that it was now within the realm of the possible?

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I'mma set it straight, this Watergate

By Jonathan Bradley in Newcastle, Australia

15 September 2011

This is pretty great:

A fellow by the name of Jeff Yorkes has given a new soundtrack to seminal journo flick All the President's Men: the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage." The song's original video was heavy on the '70s crime caper iconography anyway, but who'll say no to extra Dustin Hoffman, extra Robert Redford, and, of course, extra Richard Milhous Nixon?

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What the public wants to know from the President

By Jonathan Bradley in Newcastle, Australia

8 July 2011

President Barack Obama and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey at the Twitter Town Hall

It might have been a stunt, but President Barack Obama's "Twitter Town Hall" event was useful for something: It allowed Americans to ask questions of their president that the press doesn't. Or that's the conclusion of this infographic from the Boston Globe, which contrasted the questions asked by Twitter uses tweeting questions with the #AskObama hashtag with those asked by journalists at White House press briefings over the past two weeks. The most striking finding: The public wants to know about jobs. Journalists ask about the process.

Matt Yglesias comments:

This continued to reflect, in my view, the leading failure of the press. It’s not exactly that the man on the street is more substance-oriented than your average political journalist. It’s more that insofar as the man on the street wants to see some diverting entertainment, he’s probably watching a football game or The Real Housewives Of Atlanta. Ordinary people don’t care about politics all that much. But when they do decide to pay attention to politics, it’s because they’re worried about jobs or the environment or energy prices or taxes or something. It’s never because they’re wondering how the president reacted to Steny Hoyer’s remarks about Eric Cantor’s characterization of the Treasury secretary’s statement about the debt ceiling.

James Fallows, meanwhile, says that nothing's changed since 1996, when he wrote a story for The Atlantic on Why Americans Hate the Media. In that article, he said:

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When ordinary citizens have a chance to pose questions to political leaders, they rarely ask about the game of politics. They want to know how the reality of politics will affect them — through taxes, programs, scholarship funds, wars. Journalists justify their intrusiveness and excesses by claiming that they are the public's representatives, asking the questions their fellow citizens would ask if they had the privilege of meeting with Presidents and senators.

In fact they ask questions that only their fellow political professionals care about. And they often do so — as at the typical White House news conference — with a discourtesy and rancor that represent the public's views much less than they reflect the modern journalist's belief that being independent boils down to acting hostile.

I can understand why political journalists behave as they do. Political journalists, by definition, tend to be knowledgeable individuals who pay close attention to politics. Politicians tend to state their views on policy matters over and over again, and also tend to come from parties who, as internally varied as they may be, are organised on an ideological basis, and push policies consistent with that ideology. Journalists hear the same policies over and over again, and don't think they're discovering anything new by asking about them. Considering those policies are based on the broad ideological underpinning defining the politician's party, those journalists likely know why a politician favours a policy even if they don't ask. Further, journalists are ideologically neutral for a different reason to the public: journalists pursue neutrality for reasons of professionalism, while the ideologically neutral members of the public tend to be low-information voters. It makes sense that a low-information neutral voter would seek more policy information, but a highly informed neutral journalist would think that unimportant.

This is a mistake, of course. The political journalist's job is to help inform the public and help it hold the government accountable. That's why the First Amendment to the US consitution recognises freedom of the press as distinct from freedom of speech. If journalists are failing to find out the things the public wants to know from its representatives, it's failing at its job. The worst failure of this kind is when the presse engages in the recursive loop of navel-gazing, when it tries to discern — or even predict — how the media will respond to some superficial aspect of a political event, as if their response were not part of the very response they are discussing. The New York Times article I linked to at the top of this post apparently considered the main point of Obama's Town Hall to not be the answers he gave, but the length of them. "It took a while," snarked the writer, Michael D. Shear, on the president's answer to a question about the debt ceiling, as if more information was somehow undesirable.

I'm a politics geek, so I like the horse race stuff. There is a place for that kind of thing in journalism, but it should be on politics-focused blogs, and as an analytical supplement to bread-and-butter issues voters want to know about. It should not be the primary focus for political reporting. I will, however, make one defence of the journalistic obsession with process.

In 1994, when President Richard Nixon died, the gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson wrote an obituary for the president in Rolling Stone. In it, he said:

It was the built-in blind spots of the objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.

Lord knows Thompson should never be held up as a model for political journalism, as great a writer as he was. And as far as political devious goes, Nixon was worse than most. But Thompson has a point. Politicians know how to get out of answering the kind of fact-based questions the public wants answers to. Ask the Republicans or the Democrats about health care, and politicians from both parties will tell you they want to save Medicare, while their opponents want to destroy it. Some clever questioning and a lot of time will allow a good journalist to straighten out some of the spin, but most reporters aren't that clever, and nor do they have that much access. "Tough" questions end up being the faux-confrontational type Conor Friedersdorf criticises here.

The way reporters compensate for media-savvy politicians who have an interest in denying the public useful information is to get meta. Discuss the process, analyse the way rhetoric changes, debate ephemeral but out of the ordinary events. If you spend enough time watching a game, you begin to understand why the players do the things they do, even if they would deny it.

The problem is that political journalists forget the point of going meta. I'm all in favour of pointing out that politicians from a certain party have changed their rhetoric on an issue, but only if you subsequently explain how that affects the stance on an issue. Horse-race coverage is a tool, not a means to an end. Treating process analysis as an endpoint in itself isn't political journalism, it's just bad journalism.

(And, yes, like most efforts at media analysis, this is a hypocritical post. I'm analysing the media reaction to an event rather than the event itself. In my defence, i'm not a part of the White House press pool. Analysis is my job.)


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Huntsman 2016

By Jonathan Bradley in Newcastle, Australia

21 June 2011

Utah Republican and former US Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman

Soon-to-be-official Republican Presidential candidate Jon Huntsman is a poor fit for a GOP that is "devoid of ideas" and "gasping for air" — or that's the gist of some comments from Jon Huntsman in 2009. Jonathan Chait thinks Huntsman's 2012 run is laying the groundwork for a more competitive 2016 bid:

It's not like the GOP has moved to the center since then, either. So why is he running now? Almost certainly, Huntsman is hoping to raise his name recognition, run a credible campaign, and then, if and when a prospective Obama reelection prompts the party to move to the center, set himself up as an acceptable candidate for 2016.

I don't know whether that is running through Huntsman's mind. Perhaps he thinks the GOP has reached the limit of its explorations of its constitutency's right wing fringe, and he can be the one to lead it back to power and sanity. As Kevin Drum points out, if this is Huntsman's strategy, it shows an extraordinary amount of self-discipline. But whether Huntsman believes he can win or not, a 2012 campaign is an excellent way to catapult him to the front of the field in 2016.

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Unlike Democrats, who are far more susceptible to the thrill of charming newcomers, Republicans have a habit of handing their party's nomination to the candidate next in line. John McCain was a runner-up to George W. Bush in the 2000 primary contest, and sure enough, he got the nod in 2008. 1996 candidate Bob Dole had previously challenged then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988. Ronald Reagan had come close to securing the nomination over Gerald Ford in 1976 and against Richard Nixon in 1968 before winning it in 1980. Nixon himself became the party's nominee after losing the 1960 general election and a contest for the governorship of California in 1962. Democrats will give a shot to a relative newcomer like Barack Obama or Bill Clinton, but Republicans prefer someone who has been through the process once or twice already.

A Jon Huntsman who had been out of politics for eight years might be a hard sell to a Republican primary base in 2016; a Jon Huntsman who's already proved himself in the 2012 nominating contest might be welcomed more warmly. If Huntsman is running this time to set himself up for 2016, it's a smart move. 2016 is a long ways away, and anything could happen between now and then, including a Republican victory in 2012, putting all other contenders off until 2020. All things being equal, however, a smart GOP contender who wants to be president later will run sooner as well.

And as for what all this says about 2012? Well, there are a ton of great reasons Mitt Romney will not receive the nomination, and the Republican party is not currently as welcoming of institutional figures as it has been in the past. Nonethless, Romney has run before. Republicans have been known to look kindly on such activity.


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Wacky Presidents Day link of the day

By Jonathan Bradley in Newcastle, Australia

22 February 2011

Presidents Day has been and gone in Australia, but in America it's still Monday, and hence still the holiday. In my mind, the best way to celebrate what was once known as Washington's Birthday is to salute the imaginativeness of the Internet as applied to the occupants of the Oval Office and their character traits. Last year I linked to a list of the sexiest presidents. For 2011, how about this draft guide to the talents of the 43 illuminaries in the world of professional football? Some of my favourites:

1. William Howard Taft, Nose Tackle. A big man with good hands. Thicker than a copper bathtub through the ass, an important asset when talking about nose tackles. Nimble enough to construct Anti-Trust legislation and then properly evaluate it as a jurist. Endurance (one term) is an issue.

5. Bill Clinton, Running Back. An amazingly elusive open field runner with penchant for fumbling the ball with the game on the line. Character issues are a genuine concern, as he once texted inappropriate images to a female trainer. Gets great penetration. Often found out of position; puts ball where it shouldn't go. Conditioning is suspect.

42. Barack Obama, Wide Receiver. Too little football experience to properly evaluate here; already holds Heisman Trophy for some reason, though.

(H/t to Colin Seiler for that one.)

Speaking of presidents and football, and since I've just finished re-reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, here's Hunter S. Thompson biographer Willam McKeen recounting the single interview Thompson got with his bete noire, Richard Nixon:

Hunter was one of those reporters following Nixon around in the early days of the [1968] primary. And after an event one night in New Hampshire he was getting juiced at the bar with some of his other reporters when one of the Nixon aides came in and said, "Listen, the old man has a 75-minute drive to the airport to catch his private Lear jet. He wants to talk football. None of us know football. Thompson, you know football. Will you sit with the President and talk to him?" And the minute you bring up any other subject but football, we're dumping you out the car by the side of the road in the frozen tundra of New Hampshire. So he said, okay.

Given his love for the sport, I have no doubt Nixon would be disappointed at his number 27 rating in the draft pick list above.

Finally, I'm grateful to the Associated Press for clearing up something I have to check on every year. According to its Twitter feed: "It's Presidents Day." No apostrophe; "Presidents" is an adjective in this case.

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