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Rubin Agonistes | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Rubin Agonistes

My new "Think Again" column is called "The Long March of Patrick J. Buchanan" and it’s here.

And I did a column on Obama’s tax plan, (and Romney’s) for The Daily Beast here.

I don’t know why I’ve become obsessed with the issue of phony anti-Semitism claims, but I have. I wrote my last two Nation columns on it, so I probably should lay off there for a while. And if I hadn’t quit my column in The Forward, I would probably find a way to note the following developments which, according to the anti-Semitism lobby, ought to be impossble or at the very least evidence of alleged anti-Semitic feelings on the part of their authors (or perhaps the absurdity of the argument). They are:

1) Anti-Semitism in France drops 16.5% in 2011, study shows.

2) AIPAC and the Push Toward War.

3) Senior U.S. And Israeli Officials Express Serious Reservations About Israeli Strike On Iran.

Alter-reviews:
I saw a sweet show by Laura Cantrell at Hill Country Barbeque last night. It’s a really sweet, Texas-but-not-Bush-Texas-in-New-York kinda place and her gig, which was part of a four week residency, had a wonderfully relaxed feel to it. The musicians, who included Jeremy Chatzky of the Seeger Sessions Band, and a duet with Teddy Thompson, was first rate and there was no distance at all between the audience and the band. Cantrell has a number of songs that feel like they’ve been around forever; she’s written some and some have been written by her friends. My favorite is her first album, Not The Tremblin' Kind. And if you’re in town, check out the schedule at HQB.

Oh and I saw Steve Van Zandt interview Dion about his career at the 92nd Street Y Sunday night. It was pretty fun. Read all about it here.

Really short book reviews:
Love Goes to Buildings on Fire
The range of this book, about the music scene in downtown Manhattan of the early seventies by Rolling Stone editor Will Hermes is really amazing. I worked at RS for a couple of years in the 90s but I don’t recall ever meeting the guy...but he was a suburban kid a year younger than I am and we shared the experience of being turned away from the Bottom Line despite our "Official New York State Identification Card" purchased at Playland on 42nd street. I’ve not had such fun with a book in a long time.

Arthur Miller, 1962-2005. Christopher Bigsby
I thought the first volume of this book was terrific, expansive in just the right ways and respectful, without being uncritical of Miller’s achievement and drama-filled life. I read all of volume 2 because Miller is a subject in my next book but it is a much tougher haul. His life was hardly as dramatic in its second half and rather than expansive it feels kind of padded. It’s smart and learned and almost certainly definitive, but nobody should even consider reading this without reading volume one first.

Suzzy Roche, Wayward Saints
Suzzy is like, the world’s nicest person and a brilliant, unique artist. My friend Deb Kogan says about this novel “I swallowed WAYWARD SAINTS whole, in a single day’s gulp, until I was left gasping at the end. Suzzy Roche has always had perfect pitch, the voice of an angel, and the wit of a jester, but here she takes her prodigious gifts and runs with them, weaving a golden-threaded tale of mother/daughter redemption, of the transformative power of art, and of the mysteries, pains, and sacrifices of love. How is this her first novel? She’s already a master.”

I also have two books in two of the smaller rooms in my house. One is The Last Icon: Tom Seaver and His Times. It’s a friendly, well-researched book about one of the great men of all time, that is um, best read in small doses.

Matthew Silverman’s Best Mets: Fifty Years of Highs and Lows from New York's Most Agonizingly Amazin' Team is an easier read, and for a while, all we Met fans are going to have is a past so here is a useable one. Silverman is also the author of a fancy coffee table 50th anniversary book on the Mets, New York Mets: The Complete Illustrated History which is much better written than one would expect of these things. And the writing is not really the point, so that makes it almost great.

I’m also reading Thinking the Twentieth Century which consists of Tony Judt’s wide-ranging conversations with historian Timothy Snyder, a longtime friend of the late intellectual Tony Judt, There’s a conversation with Snyder about it here.

Now here’s Reed:

Rubin Agonistes: The Washington Post’s not not-Romney blogger
by Reed Richardson
If I didn’t know better, I’d say the Romney campaign has planted a mole on the Washington Post op-ed page. And her name is Jennifer Rubin.

Indeed, to read on a daily basis the Post’s “Right Turn” blog, for which Rubin prodigiously generates long, discursive posts, is to routinely peer into what the Romney campaign’s opposition research might look and sound like with a better vocabulary and more than 30 seconds of Super PAC-funded air time.

The signs began to manifest themselves last fall. When the campaign of the first big not-Romney candidate, Rick Perry, suddenly took off, Rubin quickly joined the battle and relentlessly trained her rhetorical fire on him. Writing dozens of unmistakably anti-Perry posts (at one point, eight in a single day), she picked away at Perry’s policies and character with the meticulousness of a turkey vulture going back again and again to get every last bit of meat from a roadkill carcass on a hot Texas highway.

But her obvious animosity for Perry was soon supplanted with an almost unchecked dislike for former Speaker Newt Gingrich. So much so that, after Gingrich’s romp in the South Carolina primary sent his momentum and poll numbers skyrocketing, Rubin churned out a panicked blog post that was akin to climbing up on the roof, Commissioner Gordon-style, and sending up a bat signal to the rest of the Republican Party leaders not currently running for president. Complaining about Gingrich as an “egomaniac” whose “hyperbolic rhetoric” would leave the GOP “(correctly) mocked,” she plaintively wrote, “My own view is that any one of you would be preferable as a candidate to Newt Gingrich, as would either Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney.”

That she would put Santorum on par with Romney at that moment was somewhat surprising, but also telling. Because perhaps nothing better displays Rubin’s willingness to selectively engage threats to Romney’s struggling candidacy as does the complete, 180-degree turnaround of her editorial treatment of Santorum—from attraction to admiration to apprehension to dislike—in the past two months. The headlines alone give you a sense of her intellectual malleability, but digging down into the text is even more illuminating. What follows is a lengthy exegesis of her evolution.

In the accommodating, uplifted spirit of the New Year, Rubin started off 2012 with rather charitable setting of low expectations on Santorum’s notoriously belligerent personality:

Certainly he’s a bit intense, which can come across as angry. But he’s got a lovely family, and he’s not going to embarrass you in public. “Santorum woos Iowa”1/01/12

A day after damning with that faint praise, and with Santorum’s ascendancy in the Iowa caucuses now abundantly clear in the polls, she made a point of making nice with someone who just might (and ultimately did) become the public face of the GOP’s not-Romney candidate:

And, moreover, in comparison to his opponents, [Santorum] has come to be seen as a practical politician rather than an ideological zealot. “Santorum is no extremist” 1/02/12

(Remember that phrase, ‘ideological zealot,’ class, as it will show up later in our course.) A week later, Rubin was off chiding the pundits for supposedly ignoring Santorum’s intellectual bona fides in order to exaggerate his moralistic obsessions with anything related to sex:

Despite Santorum’s expressed views on birth control (he’s opposed to it as a Catholic but wouldn’t outlaw it and recognizes it would take a constitutional amendment to do so), liberal columnists like my colleague Eugene Robinson insist on painting him as a bug-eyed radical out to snatch up birth control bills. “Brainy conservatism is in style again” 1/08/12

Post New Hampshire, she was bemoaning the fact that both mainstream and conservative media pundits don’t give him any credit for how likeable he really is to those in the ‘real America’ hinterlands:

[H]is appeal, as he argued in the interview, is to blue-collar workers and stressed Rust Belt Americans. “Santorum’s path out of the pack” 1/15/12

By late January, with Gingrich riding high once again, Rubin continued to push Santorum as the best not-Romney, although she’s still careful to give him second billing to Romney himself:

It’s quite telling that conservatives who merrily went along with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an American hero but arguably the worst GOP candidate in decades, are angst ridden over selecting an overly-prepared Romney and are ignoring the consistent conservative (Santorum) for whom they pleaded. “Conservatives need to get a grip and pick a candidate” 1/24/12

But when it comes to angst, Rubin can’t seem to let hers go even when Gingrich starts to fade, to the point where she pretends that Santorum’s prickly, bitter worldview doesn’t even exist:

As a smart and articulate proponent of conservatism with an interesting twist on traditional free-market economics, [Santorum will] be a welcomed alternative to the Newtonian politics of outrage, anger and self-delusion. “Will Santorum overtake Gingrich?” 1/27/12

By early February, with her flirtation in full bloom, Rubin could be found tut-tutting those arrogant conservatives who dismissed Santorum as a hopeless, reactionary also-ran with no message or chance:

The right made a critical error in not recognizing Santorum’s strengths earlier in the race. “Path to the nomination” 2/07/12

Following Santorum’s electoral hat trick in Minnesota, Colorado, and Missouri, Rubin elbows Gingrich aside and all but declares it a two-man race, talking up the formidable, and eminently electable nature of Santorum:

It was by any measure a hugely impressive evening for a candidate who had not won since Iowa. […] The good news for the GOP is the race is now essentially between two credible, intelligent and experienced candidates. Each will improve as time goes on. “Romney has a fight on his hands” 2/08/12

But just a day later, what’s that off on the horizon? Storm clouds. Thanks to Santorum’s ominous predilection for unabashedly spouting conservative, culture-war dogma without couching it in friendlier, less frightening platitudes like everyone else does:

Santorum can’t and shouldn’t change his core beliefs or his agenda. But a candidate running for president can constantly improve his presentation and must be mindful of the issues voters care about most. “Santorum’s dilemma” 2/09/12

Plus, the GOP cavalry candidate isn’t riding into the picture to save the party from a lackluster field, so Republicans better get right with the idea that they are now down to two “serious” candidates (who are trying really hard not to be awful):

In all likelihood, either Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum will be the GOP nominee. The Republican Party has had better nominees and worse ones. But these two are giving their all. They are serious people who have come up with serious policy ideas. “Republicans will have to get real” 2/10/12

Once Santorum starts to threaten Romney nationally and moves into the lead in Michigan, however, Rubin makes her pivot. And she starts by somewhat hilariously pointing out how stupid some members of the media were to ascribe any importance—ahem, “hugely impressive evening”—to the former’s three primary wins the week before:

It is only fitting that two relatively meaningless wins in the Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll and the Maine caucus for Mitt Romney should rewrite the media narrative created after three equally unmeaningful wins for Rick Santorum last Tuesday. “Romney wins a couple contests, confuses the media (again)” 2/12/12

And for someone she once lauded for his ‘consistent conservative’ principles, Rubin now blithely suggests that Santorum try a little inconsistency. Otherwise, he will continue to come across as the same jerk who wrote a sanctimonious, sexist book way back in his youth—seven years ago:

Santorum will have to deal with the words he wrote, and, if his views have evolved, he should say so quickly and definitively. The issue is potentially critical because it goes to his electability and because it makes a positive — his strong social conservative stances — into a negative. It’s time for him, or someone on the campaign, to go back and read the book and figure out what he can live with and what he can’t. “Sometimes it takes a book to trip up a candidate” 2/13/12

And about that ‘appeal’ he reportedly has with all those blue-collar voters out in the Midwest? Yeah well, all his birth control talk pretty much cuts that number in half now:

The impression that Santorum finds the prevalent practice of birth control ‘harmful to women’ is, frankly, mind-numbing. If he meant to focus on teen sexual promiscuity, he surely could have, and thereby might have sounded less out of touch. […] If he is the nominee in 2012, he might get some blue-collar fellows, but what about those women in Ohio, Pennsylvania, etc.? And what about more secularized suburban communities? Fuggedaboutit. “Santorum: Birth control ‘harmful to women’” 2/15/12

Alienating large swaths of general election voters by trying to wrench the country back 50 years is probably a bad campaign strategy, but Rubin decides to focus on the one GOP candidate who doesn’t try to hide that plan (and is threatening to defeat Romney in Michigan, Arizona, and Ohio). And so in the last week we finally witness Rubin’s inevitable, full-throated, double-barreled assault on Santorum:

[T]here are a raft of statements on women, personal morality and the family that will, in the minds of many swing voters (especially female voters but also upscale, suburban voters), render him unpalatable. “Santorum can’t expect to coast” 2/16/12

Sounding almost like David Axelrod in the process, Rubin laid it on the line this past Sunday—Look, the GOP can’t survive, much less succeed, with a candidate who is willing to always say everything conservatives actually believe:

Santorum likes to say that he is principled, but in fact he’s vividly demonstrating day after day that his strongly held social views, when uttered aloud in dogmatic tones, sound outrageous to voters who aren’t hard-core social conservatives. […] Ironically, he is the worst possible spokesman for social conservative views that are within the mainstream because he intersperses them with stances that make him sound extreme. “Santorum adds fuel to the culture wars” 2/19/12.

When he talks about conservative ideals, in other words, Santorum makes those unpopular ideals even more unpopular, Rubin cavils. The solution: change our ideas, stop Santorum from talking! On the same day, we also get a subtle edit to the January “Right Turn” archives. To wit, Santorum is not an ideological zealot:

Average Americans are tolerant people, increasingly inclusive in their views about their fellow citizens with which they disagree, and when they hear this stuff [Santorum saying in 2008 that Satan is attacking the United States] they think ‘wacko’ and ‘zealot.’ “Is the not-Romney an improvement for conservatives?” 2/19/12

And as for all those elitist, establishment Republicans that Rubin scoffed at just two weeks ago for not recognizing the ‘strengths’ of a Santorum campaign? Well, maybe they had a point:

There is no ‘back-up’ plan circulating if Romney wins. […] But for Santorum, the opposite is true: His nomination, experienced Republicans know, would sink the party. “Is Santorum the Sharron Angle of 2012?” 2/19/12

The wheels might be coming off this Romney thing, so shut up already, dude:

Running through Santorum’s statements is a common failing. Santorum says controversial things couched in the harshest terms possible. When he’s misunderstood (or even understood correctly but greeted with shock) he complains that the media are twisting his words or fixating on a few small issues. “Santorum’s divisiveness” 2/20/12

On Tuesday, another slight revision to the January archives: Santorum is not an extremist:

In short, Santorum on social issues is not a conservative but a reactionary, seeking to obliterate the national consensus on a range of issues beyond gay marriage and abortion. “It’s not conservative, it’s reactionary” 2/21/12

Yesterday, Rubin resorted to a true last gasp for conservatives—identity politics—with a “think of the women (who vote, but not for crazy Santorum)” appeal:

Perhaps when discussing electability we should not focus solely on geographic (Rust Belt) or class (blue collar) appeal but at gender appeal as well. It might put Santorum’s rhetoric and electability arguments in their proper perspective. “Santorum scares off women voters” 2/22/12

By the time of what might have been the last Republican debate on Wednesday, Rubin, perhaps tired from all her rhetorical pugilism, had dropped all pretense at intellectual justification and was essentially punching flat-footed. An early morning blog post of hers yesterday could be boiled down to Santorum, bad; Romney good. What else do you really need to know?

For starters, Santorum didn’t collapse on his own; Romney sliced and diced, deploying data and keeping Santorum on his heels. And he did it without losing his temper (the same can’t be said for Santorum). But that’s still not going to be good enough to win over the Romney-averse. Romney, you see, only wins by ‘default.’ Whatever.

But not everyone on the right has drunk the anti-Romney Kool-Aid. Jim Pethokoukis said Romney’s tax plan "goes the full Reagan." […] I suspect with each passing week you’ll see that sort of analysis become more the rule than the exception. The perpetual search for, celebration of and then disappointment in the fatally flawed anti-Romney flavors of the month can be exhausting, not to mention fruitless.

And based on her body of work over the past six months, Rubin certainly ought to know.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

The mail:
Jim Ojala
Bellingham, Washington

Mr. Richardson,
I appreciated your article on the development of public opinion polling in the U.S. As many people have done before, you begin your narrative on the subject with a reference to the "Literary Digest" debacle of 1936. (Their presidential poll that year was essentially an unscientific straw poll on steroids, with all the flaws inherent in that methodology writ large.)

You may find interesting therefore a monograph by Melvin Holli, retired professor of history from the University of Illinois-Chicago, titled, “The Wizard of Washington.” [Full citation: “The Wizard of Washington: Emil Hurja, Franklin Roosevelt and the Birth of Public Opinion Polling,” by Melvin G. Holli (New York, NY: 2002) — ISBN 0-312-29395-x — a volume in Palgrave Macmillan’s Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute Series on Diplomatic and Economic History, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., General Editor] In this slim volume, Holli argues forcefully that Emil Hurja, FDR's pollster from the dawn of the New Deal through the ’36 election, was the true “father” of modern public opinion polling as we know it today.

George Gallup learned his approach to opinion polling at Iowa State University. It was based in part on the statistical methodology of genetics. Gallup and Hurja exchanged a series of letters during Gallup’s early years as a pollster in which Hurja tutored Gallup on some of the finer points of polling that were as yet under-appreciated by him. Traces of their correspondence remain in some of Hurja's extant papers (mostly at the FDR Presidential Library in Hyde Park, NY and the Tennessee State Archives (i.e., Andrew Jackson's Hermitage) in Nashville, TN. Interestingly, the keepers of the truth protecting Gallup's correspondence refused Holli access to their copies of the Gallup-Hurja correspondence.
To the cynics and conspiratorial theorists amongst us, that was but one more example of the victors rewriting history to suit their purposes and embellish their own reputations. But then, Emil Hurja was my uncle and godfather, so I must admit an a priori bias on this particular subject.
Best regards,

Charlie McBarron
Eric,
I've enjoyed your work for a long time, both the blog and your books. I'm always interested in your music writing, which is why I thought I'd send you the following. The Grateful Dead Covers Project is underway on You Tube and, as I know you're a big fan, I thought you'd like to know about it if you didn't already. Specifically, I wanted to draw your attention to this cover of Bertha. The performer is a professional who happens to be my nephew. If you like it, I hope you'll "Like" it on You Tube and encourage others to do the same.
Thanks again for the great work!

Pat Healy
Vallejo, CA
"...Thompson is not so pretty to look at..."
Dude, really? You wanna go there?
Besides, if you can't see him, you can't watch his fingers and go "Daaaamnnn. How's he do that?"

Eric replies:
Hey, I didn’t mean it that way. I just meant, it’s ok to see the guy play even if you’re behind the pole, (as I was), because it’s not really a visual show.

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