Leslie Savan | The Nation


Leslie Savan

Politics, media and the politics of media.

Joe Scarborough Is Shocked, Yet Awed by Single-Payer Logic

Something rather remarkable happened on Tuesday's Morning Joe. Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York pointed out that the health insurance industry has no clothes, and Joe Scarborough, after first trying to spin it some gossamer threads, broke down and said, By God, you're right, this emperor is a naked money-making machine!

Well, he didn't use those exact words, but Joe did seem to finally get that America has granted insurance companies the right to create bottlenecks in the financing of healthcare in order to extract profits out of the suffering of ordinary people--without providing any actual healthcare whatsoever.

"Why are we paying profits for insurance companies?" Weiner asked Scarborough. "Why are we paying overhead for insurance companies? Why," he asked, bringing it all home, "are we paying for their TV commercials?"

Weiner, who recently warned that President Obama could lose as many as 100 votes on a health bill if a public option is not included, really wants single payer--Medicare for all Americans is his goal. What a crazy, way-out, reckless notion, Joe went into their encounter believing. But Weiner asked some simple, direct questions that no politician, much less Obama or HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, has managed to pose:


What is an insurance company? They don't do a single check-up. They don't do a single exam, they don't perform an operation. Medicare has a 4 percent overhead rate. The real question is why do we have a private plan?


"It sounds like you're saying you think there is no need for us to have private insurance in healthcare," Joe asked at one point.

Weiner replied: "I've asked you three times. What is their value? What are they bringing to the deal?"

Scraping the bottom of a seemingly bottomless pit of spin, Joe is repeatedly left speechless, "stunned" and "astounded," he said, by the questions themselves. Indeed, when confronted with unfettered capitalism's massive failures, the right usually has nothing to say. The "free market" is supposed to eternally grow, not crash under its own greed. They're left ideologically crippled.

But unlike, say, Lou Dobbs, who began dobbering when confronted with similarly direct argument for single-payer, Joe was able to take a deep breath and return from a break with his eyes opened.

He even repeated Weiner's points clearly: The goverment would take over only the "paying mechanism" of healthcare, not the doctors or their medical decisions themselves. His ears perked up every time Weiner mentioned that the nonprofit Medicare spends 4 percent on overhead, while private insurers spend 30 percent.

And Joe, who has been criticizing mob rule at town halls, seemed to appreciate the way Weiner counters the fearmongering over Medicare: After decades of railing against the program's wasteful, "runaway" spending, Republicans have done a 180 and are now trying to scare seniors that the Democrats' proposed Medicare cuts will come directly from their medical care and not, as is actually proposed, from wasteful, stupid practices in the system--like, as Weiner mentions, putting people into a $700-a-night hospital bed when all they really need, and often prefer, is a visit by a homecare attendant in the two-digit-a-day range.

Maybe the real turning point came when Weiner asked, "How does Wal-mart offer $4 prescriptions?" Joe and co-host Mika Brzezinski looked as if they'd been thwacked by a hardback copy of Atlas Shrugged, and sat back to let the congressman explain it all to them:


They go to the pharmaceutical companies and say, "Listen, we have a giant buying pool here. You're going to give us a great deal."


Who's bigger than Wal-Mart? We are, the taxpayers. Do we do that? No. Because we have outsourced this to insurance companies who don't have necessarily as much incentive to keep those costs down because, frankly, they are getting a piece of the action.


Progressives tend to understand this stuff, but many conservatives won't trust such logic, especially in the abstract, which is how most Dems have been communicating. But Weiner, aware that if you can't visualize something it ain't going to stick, argued with a specific, familiar visual--that of a successful, supercapitalist, and, as Mika might say, "real American" company. And suddenly, as the mote dropped from the MJ crew's eyes, Weiner went from "scaring American citizens," in Joe's words, to instant celeb.

"That was SO great!" said Mika, as she and Joe asked Anthony to please, please come back soon, this week if possible!

"You have succeeded in doing something that no one else has done on this show in two years," said Joe, his fists rapidly knocking the table in excitement. "You made me speechless. And you made me speechless because you so clearly came here and stated your position."

While maintaining that he and Weiner have "different worldviews," Joe nevertheless raved, "This is fascinating, and one of the problems with the president's message is that it's muddled." And, damn, that's true.

Could this episode herald a Single-Payer Awakening? Or is this just the thrill of logic running up Joe's leg, soon to be forgotten as corporate media try to undermine real reform of a system that feeds the nets millions in ad revenue? When the big mainstream players shouted in unison to prematurely declare the public option dead, I couldn't help but think: In the corporate media's total takeover of ideas, they, too, have a death panel--made up of three or four conglomerate owners and chaired by Rupert Murdoch--that will determine whether an idea lives or gets its plug pulled.

On Thursday, Morning Joe replayed Weiner's best hits, but Joe was occasionally dobbering himself, complaining that our healthcare problems come down to costs, costs, costs but "now all the President is talking about is a moral imperative." (Of course, Obama put morality on the table only yesterday; until then, he focused on costs, costs, costs.)

We'll see how far this relative openness to single-payer goes. In the meantime, though, the education of Joe Scarborough is, as always, a sight to behold:

BREAKING: Rush, Newt, and Sarah Supported Death Panels, Too!

Attention, townhall protesters: Guess who else wants to pull the plug on granny and kill Sarah Palin's baby? In some knock-out reporting, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow showed Thursday night that not long ago Rush Limbaugh promoted death panels on his own radio show, Newt Gingrich sung their praises in the pages of the Washington Post, and, as the half-term governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin actually proclaimed an official Death Panel Day for her state!


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Now, I wonder how long it will be before this must-see hypocrisy is featured on the nightly news and Sunday talk shows? Especially on your shows, Brian Williams and David Gregory, since you are, like Maddow, part of the "NBC family." Surely you're not going to ignore this major story at the heart of the health care debate, are you?

And for more must-see health care hypocrisy, viddy this: Glenn Beck on the Best Health Care in the World, from The Daily Show, aired the same night.

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Lou Dobbs: Secret Single-Payer Socialist?

Lou Dobbs is a strange man. One day he's railing against "Obamacare," stoking the birther and deather paranoia that an illegitimate president's health care plan will mandate euthanasia. Next day he's practically singing the praises of single-payer healthcare systems 'round the world.

It's kind of French of him, but last week, CNN's government-out-of-my-face bloviator began a monthlong, nation-a-night series to "learn from other countries' health care plans." He's already toured the single-payer systems of Denmark, Canada, and England, and the heavily regulated, public/private plans of Germany, France, Holland, and Switzerland. And, as if he were channeling Michael Moore or something, he's been rattling off stats showing that most of these universally covered foreigners are spending less on healthcare but living longer than we do.

Oh, sure, he'll occasionally exaggerate any weakness he can find--Lou's particularly eager to tsk-tsk over England's long lines. But overall, the series (reported mostly by CNN's Kitty Pilgrim), has been straightforward, like this look at Denmark, which could almost inspire a townhall mob to chant "Mandate, baby, mandate!"

And tonight it's off to Japan!

But, really, what gives, Mr. Independent? Have you gone soft on softcore socialism? Do you realize that you're actually making the "government takeover of healthcare" look pretty darn good? Or is this some kind of forced penance for spraying CNN with birther spittle, causing the network a "publicity nightmare," and, worse, sinking your own ratings?

On his Wednesday radio show, Dobbs as much as announced that CNN president Jon Klein (who's been publicly defending Dobbs against calls for his firing) made him do it: "We're pushing opinion aside. We're focusing on a nonpartisan objective reality that it is our job to cover," Dobbs declared, admitting, "I resisted this idea initially."

But as Lou has proved again and again, he can't help but resist. On radio the very next day, he slammed Obama for compiling "an enemies' list" (not true), and harrumphed mightily: "I'm moving from being an independent, sir, to being absolutely opposed to your, any policy you could conceive of!" As if he hadn't moved into outright opposition long ago.

So, as soon as Lou had completed all that extra homework--writing 100 times on the blackboard, "I will push opinion aside. I will push opinion aside"--he finally gets to bust out and mix it up with his guests. Only then do the familiar snide comments, appalled facial expressions, and twisted facts spill into a headlong attack on each and every aspect of Obama's healthcare plan--even the aspects resembling those he had just more or less commended in Europe.

That is, Dobbs can read all sorts of fair and balanced words from a script, but he is willfully deaf to their meaning. Anything that doesn't fit his worldview, he doesn't hear, it doesn't compute, and he goes blank.

As he did last week when he interviewed Obama's former doctor, David Scheiner. The fact that Scheiner had criticized the president's healthcare plan was enough to land him on Lou Dobbs Tonight; but the fact that Scheiner had criticized Obama from the left for ignoring single-payer plans simply couldn't find an empty berth to tie up to in Dobbs's brain. Dr. Scheiner passionately, and at length, explains to Dobbs that it is private insurance companies that are standing between doctors and their patients, not the goverment. "The government never gets in the way," Scheiner says. "In Medicare, 40 years of Medicare, they've never interfered with me giving care."

"Medicare is--I'm sorry, which is interfering?" replies a suddenly glowering Dobbs, who apparently wasn't listening at all. Yet even after Scheiner carefully explains yet again, Dobbs kept on: "But the argument is, as you know, Doctor, that with government-run healthcare that there would be great intrusion by the government..."

Now that's what I call dobbering! More willful than mere doddering, Lou's habit of hearing only what he wants to hear, while clinging to factoids that have been proven wrong and getting offended when others question these falsehoods, deserves an eponymous word all its own.

Take Lou's famous Imaginary Alien Leprosy Epidemic from 2005: He insisted that 7,000 cases of leprosy had suddenly appeared in the U.S. over the previous three years, mostly, he implied, from "illegal aliens." There were indeed 7,000 cases, "but that's over the last 30 years, not the last three," David Leonhardt wrote in The New York Times, and there was no link to immigrants. Leonhardt added that Dobbs "never acknowledged on the air that his program presented false information twice. Instead, he lambasted [guests] for saying he had."(For a recent, ridiculous health care lambasting, see this.)

People who've worked with Lou at CNN frequently try to explain his self-contradictions--the free-market capitalist who rails against corporations outsourcing American jobs, for example, or the anti-immigrant scourge who's married to a Mexican-American, or the avuncular anchor who says the only way to stop "leftist bloodsucker" Howard Dean is to "put a stake through his heart"--with a Theory of Two Lous. Lloyd Grove quoted an email from former CNN CEO Tom Johnson last week in The Daily Beast that explicitly postulated a nice, warm, sensitive Lou who wants all his colleagues to love him and simultaneously a mean, self-centered Lou who "can intimidate the hell out of" his people. You flips your coin and takes your luck.

In fact, Dobbs's fluctuating nature may simply be an expression of his total embodiment of CNN. No other cable anchor is as identified with his network as Dobbs is with his--none have been at the helm for as long, or have as intimate a relationship with the corporate side as Dobbs does (he and Ted Turner are old, close friends). Over that tenure Dobbs has gone from being the enterprising pioneer pushing a 24/7 news cycle to, with the rise of FOX and MSNBC, the closest thing we have to a cable establishmentarian. FOX is red, MSNBC is blue, and CNN is not purple but beige on beige--like Dobbs sees himself. At times he seems to fade into the silvery ether of his network's logo, leaving nothing but his perfect pearly whites behind, clacking away.

Dobbs has all the seamless, slick authority of a local TV anchor circa 1979--it's not for nothing that he's often compared to Ted Baxter, the hamster-brained blowhard on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. He was chosen to give heft and an air of reliability to CNN--the same reason the network got James Earl Jones to intone "This is CNN" for its bumpers--when it was little more than a local Atlanta start-up, fighting for acceptance from major corporate advertisers. As it has succeeded, so Dobbs has morphed into a kind of Mr. Drysdale, the stuffy banker from The Beverly Hillbillies, projecting a pompous dignity while secretly, just below the surface, bubbling with insecurities.

And like Mr. Drysdale, Dobbs sees himself as helping good, decent folks fit into a modern world that has too little respect for and absolutely no understanding of their traditional values. He has become a tribune of the "center" in American politics, and the center to Dobbs looks an awful lot like his glory days in the 1980s and early '90s, when CNN bestrode the cable world like a colossus and conservatism had not lost two foreign wars and destroyed the national economy. That these things have happened is almost beyond the ken of any political talk star created by Ronald Reagan's repeal of the old Fairness Doctrine rules, Dobbs included. They, quite naturally, just want all the changes to stop, right now.

So he looks into the camera with beetled brow, tries to make sense of these terrible truths, and asks, as he did last week about health care reform, "Is doing nothing better than doing something?"

Race, Lies, and Health Scares

It'd be nice to think that the recent surge in overtly racist rhetoric on the right has been a case of random opportunism, provoked by the coincidence of a wealthy black Harvard professor yelling at a white cop who arrested him in his own home. Like, who could've predicted that the professor would be a friend of the Harvard law school graduate who is president, or that president would then say on camera that the cops acted "stupidly"? Or that the incident would happen just as Congress was going into a clinch over health care reform?

The Henry Louis Gates imbroglio did come out of nowhere, and it did give President Obama's opponents a chance to howl about the onerous burdens "reverse racism" puts on the fading white majority in this country. You may not see how that justifies the big-time bigotry that took over the discourse last week, but hey, it's a white thang: There were Birthers insisting that Obama's presidency is illegitimate because he was "born in Kenya"; CNN's Lou Dobbs trying to legitimize the Birthers, and of course, an angry Rush Limbaugh fuming that Obama "is an angry black man." None of them, however, could hold a fuse next to Glenn Beck, who asserted that the biracial POTUS is a "racist" who has "a deep-seated hatred of white people," something so unhinged that even the Brown-Haired-Guy-Who's-Not-Steve-Doocy (the Fox & Friends cohost who had to apologize a couple weeks ago for blurting that Swedes and "other ethnics" are different "species") called him on it.

It's not only angry white male pundits who are waving the white victimhood flag. It's also the chair of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who last Thursday called the kettle dusky by excoriating Democrats who've defended Sonia Sotomayor for "giving cover to groups and individuals to nurture racial grievances for political advantage."

With every passing day it gets harder to think of this sudden dialing-up of whiny hate speech as sheer coincidence. Instead, it's beginning to look inevitable--so much so that maybe the real question is, What is it about health care that brings out the latent racism in the GOP?

The answer is simple: For two or three generations, Republicans have defeated progressive reform of the health care system by hinting that it would mean redistributing wealth from whites to blacks. As Beck himself said, practically redefining "welfare queen" as "healthcare queen": "Everything that is getting pushed through Congress, including this health care bill, are transforming America, and they're all driven by President Obama's thinking on one idea: reparations."

Nevertheless, when we see that Obama's poll numbers have dropped back to the margin of victory he had in the election and have even gone underwater on his handling of health care, it really shouldn't make us give up on the prospect of reform.

Sure, Professor Gates's run-in with Cambridge's Finest wasn't planned, any more than the rump rebellion at GOP Rep. Mike Castle's townhall meeting about health care by a Delaware chapter of the Birthers (video of which catapulted the loonies to national prominence) was. There was no "conspiracy" linking those two events, but the mainstream media quite predictably chose to make them headliners, all but obliterating detailed discussion of health care reform for more than two weeks (and this just when the subject was beginning to resurface after the blanket coverage of Michael Jackson's and Sarah Palin's exits).

The news media could have instead been running, say, commentary about Michael Moore's Sicko, like the interview Bill Moyers did with CIGNA's former PR chief just two weeks ago; or they could have aired footage of the uninsured being wheeled out onto the sidewalk outside hospitals to "walk it off." That they didn't isn't a conspiracy, either--I mean, those endless ads for "purple pills" and aphrodisiacs on the evening news are just the way capitalism works, and don't necessarily mean that Big Pharma has already paid for that microphone. Right?

The Obama people are always talking about how they don't want the perfect to become the enemy of the good, and that often seems to suggest that they have no notion of the bad and the ugly. In fact, they were exquisitely attuned to the American racial divide, at least during the campaign. Obama's nomination was a way of calling the bluff behind the GOP's Southern Strategy--it forced this sort of overt racism out into the open, where before it was always cloaked behind anti-tax or anti-welfare rhetoric, and that exposure helped split the Republican coalition. The Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll showing that 58 percent of Republicans either don't believe Obama was born in the U.S. or aren't sure (compared to 7 percent for Dems and 17 for independents), confirms Bill Maher's formulation: Not all Republicans are racist, but if you are a racist these days, you're probably a Republican.

Who knows where it will end up, but the not-terrible news right now is that there seems to have been just enough of a demographic shift toward racial equality in America to pass Obama's own middling approach to health care reform, as furthered watered down as it will likely be. After all, the Medicare bill passed by Lyndon Johnson in 1965 is not the program we have today; there have been 44 years of amendments, fill-ins, and gap coverages that have created the best-loved insurance program in America. The kinds of arguments Obama has to sell are hard to make: his health care plan is by definition a Trojan horse, a gradual glide toward guaranteed care that will take several more years (at least) of handing out emergency room addresses to the poor, unemployed, and unlucky before it really kicks in. Arguing that we have to settle for something less than a single-payer system like those in every other advanced industrial country can seem rhetorically dishonest, or at least lame--and people are starting to distrust Obama's ability to discipline the Dems and get it done.

But watching the Republican Party morph into the National Association for the Advancement of White People should give us all hope, not despair: Anything that brings 'em out of the closet and gets 'em running naked through the streets shouting, "I'm the victim here, dammit!" will only ensure their minority status over the long run.


The Birthers of a Nation

The long hunt for the new leader of the Republican Party has at last come to an end, and the winner isn't Rush Limbaugh, Mitt Romney, or even Sarah Palin, but this woman in a red T-shirt:

If you're going to lead a low-tech lynch mob, you've got to be able to get that Gilbert Gottfried screech into your voice like the Lady in Red does when she says, "I want my country back!" That's leadership for you, ever so much more forceful than poor Delaware Rep. Mike Castle, a GOP moderate (one of eight who voted for the House climate change bill), who seems to be ducking a personal Oxbow Incident by meekly asking the crowd if they'd like him to "lead" the Pledge of Allegiance. By then the crowd is already on its feet, one hand on their hearts and the other on an imaginary holster, insisting, like their dimestore-flag-waving leader, that they "don't want this flag to change!"

It's paranoid, it's deranged, and it's as American as Andrew Jackson and the rebel yell. What's different now is that the nativist right has finally had their bluff called by the landslide election of a black man as president, and their centuries-old legitimacy is in question as it never has been since Appomattox. So they are desperately projecting that self-doubt onto reality itself.

Of course, the Lady in Red couldn't scream the N-word in a townhall meeting (which, by the way, was called to discuss healthcare reform), so she screamed about his birth certificate. Karl Rove mentor Lee Atwater called this shot nearly three decades ago, when he explained how the Republican Party should parse its racism for the 20th century and beyond:

You start out in 1954 by saying, `Nigger, nigger, nigger.' By 1968 you can't say `nigger'--that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights, and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.

And now, finally, things have become so algebraic that the base goes totally into denial, refusing to see a notarized public document as it's waved right under their noses, and the whole nativist scheme falls into ridicule.

The Birthers go beyond simple conspiracy theories--they're cast members of the ongoing American denying-reality show, not unlike the folks who deny the moonlanding or the Holocaust (like James von Brunn, the octogenarian who killed a guard at the Washington, D.C., Holocaust Museum and who had earlier posted a screed entitled "WHO SENT YOU???," charging that Obama is utterly undocumented), and very much like the Creationists who insist that the Earth is but 6,000 years old, the Teabaggers who refuse to believe they must pay taxes, the 9/11 Truthers who say the government attacked the Twin Towers, and, as we might call them, the Inhofers who believe global warming is a hoax.

The word Birther itself comes trailing clouds of associative fog. It's unclear who minted the term, but for the true believers themselves, it can have a positive ring. When I first heard of Birthers I thought maybe they were subscribers to some sub-catechism about the birth of Christ or an offshoot of the anti-abortion movement--pro-life, pro-birth. Which makes sense: The Bircher, er, Birther movement is born from the same psychology that can trace social unease to a single issue--if we could only stop abortion, we could turn the clock back to Father Knows Best; if we could abolish all gun control, we could restore the eye-for-an-eye justice of the Old West; if we could only prove that Barack Obama was "born in Kenya," his presidency would go away and White Power would be restored.

It's great to dream the American Dream, and the right of an individual to pursue whatever fantasy he or she wants is what makes America so admired around the world. There's nothing wrong with dressing up in Confederate grey and re-enacting your defeat--you just can't impose such a monoculture on the rest of us.

What has been so polluting about the GOP's Southern Strategy over the past 50 years is the winking at racism by supposedly mainstream pols and pundits for short-term votes and ratings. It's the cynicism of a Liz Cheney or a Lou Dobbs doling out MSM legitimacy with each Birther encouragement that really opens a rent in the social contract. Occasionally, you might trip up such media figures with factual arguments, as Chris Matthews did this week with both an addled G. Gordon Liddy and a Republican congressman pushing a bill that would force presidential candidates (i.e., Obama in 2012) to pony up their birth certificates.

But with Birthers and others in the fantasy-based community themselves, no amount of argument or evidence will knock some sense into them. Their lives are defined in significant part by the strength of their denial. Maybe the only way to effectively respond is the way a real American hero, like Buzz Aldrin, did a few years ago when confronted by one of those crazies who insist the moonlanding was faked:

Embedded video from CNN Video

Healthcare Debate Is Sicko

What are you doing tonight, Max Baucus, Kent Conrad, Ben Nelson, and other Blue Dog Dems blocking real healthcare reform? If you can spare two hours, you ought to catch Michael Moore's newly hyperpertinent documentary Sicko on The Movie Channel at 8 p.m. Tonight doesn't work for you? You can also catch it on these dates.

We know it's extra hard for lawmakers like yourselves to sit for two hours and watch the 2007 Oscar-nominated expose without squirming, if only because corporate and rightwing propagandists have successfully painted Moore as anathema to mainstream thought and any public option as "rationed" care with commie bureaucrats standing between you and your blah blah blah. You've been brainwashed to think this way because, as Wendell Potter, former head of PR for the insurance company CIGNA, explained to Bill Moyers the other night, flacks like him specifically targeted Democratic centrists like you:


BILL MOYERS (reading from an industry memo): And there was a political strategy. "Position Sicko as a threat to Democrats' larger agenda." What does that mean?


WENDELL POTTER: That means that part of the effort to discredit this film was to use lobbyists and their own staff to go onto Capitol Hill and say, "Look, you don't want to believe this movie. You don't want to talk about it. You don't want to endorse it. And if you do, we can make things tough for you."


As for the truckloads of dirt that Moore uncovered in the industry and the superiority of government-run systems in other countries, Potter says, "I thought that he hit the nail on the head."

It's stuff like this that proves that not only is Michael Moore well within the mainstream on healthcare solutions, but that Bill Moyers is almost single-handedly keeping PBS relevant to modern journalism, though his techniques are as old-fashioned as a 1964 NBC "White Paper" report--just Bill, a guest, and a camera.

Senators, you can check out the full episode here. It'll only hurt a little.

Media Moonwalks Through Political Change

In the summer of wall-to-wall Michael-Jackson-is-still-dead coverage, the job of White House correspondent for a major network is easy as 1-2-3: mention the place where the president happens to be, sound-bite the conventional wisdom about the president's political fortunes, and then tie it all together with a familiar cliche.

So for NBC's Chuck Todd, the heavy lifting last week involved talking about President Obama's domestic "setbacks" while he attended the G-8 Summit in Rome. There were several cliches Todd might have reached for: It wasn't built in a day; all roads lead to it; when you're there, do you do as they do?

But he found another route to the sweetspot that encapsulated the corporate media's meme of the week, which was that (despite a 58 percent approval rating in the Gallup poll and legislative success on most fronts), prodigal son Barack Obama was really, really going to get it when he got back home.

That's the overwrought conclusion you might have reached from Todd's Thursday night segment:


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The saying Todd refers to in his intro is, of course, "fiddles while Rome burns," though the first word went missing. The reference is to Emperor Nero, who is said to have played the lyre while his capital city burned like a theatrical backdrop behind him (and the last time a president was tagged with fiddling through a fire was, oddly enough, when George W. Bush was caught strumming a guitar with country singer Mark Wills while New Orleans drowned).

Odds are Todd didn't really want to equate Obama with Nero (or Bush), or to suggest that the Prez was dallying in idle chitchat about climate change and nuclear disarmament while the store burned to the ground back home. That's probably why Todd couldn't bring himself to actually say "fiddles" and immediately downgraded his assessment of Obama's (only slightly decreasing) poll numbers from burning to "not burning" to "wilting a little bit in the summer heat."

Todd was one of the freshest, most insightful political analysts during the presidential campaign, but since getting bumped up to White House correspondent he's often been bland, awkward, and sometimes downright stupid (asking, for instance, if Obama would "veto" the stimulus bill "if it didn't have Republican support," or why hadn't Obama "asked for something specific that the public should be sacrificing to participate in this economic recovery?")

If your job is to pit the president's--or anybody's--popularity against whatever slapdash conventional wisdom rules the day, then you can usually toss any cliche or non sequitur into your copy without worrying whether it implies something you don't believe or isn't supported by the facts. As long as the words emit sounds that slide past the viewers at home and still support the interests of the people who pay you, you're home free.

Todd's less than three-minute report brimmed with such truthiness, like calling Obama's handshake with Moammar Khadafi "controversial." What's controversial about the jolly fellow whom the Bushies famously claimed to have turned from a terrorist to one of our bestest allies ever?

Or like NBC correspondent John Harwood opining, "It's too early to say that this trip is a major setback for healthcare reform." Major setback? Who knew it was a setback at all? (In fact, I thought last week was a mixed and in some ways a positive one for reform--what with Blanche Lincoln coming out for a public option; Harry Reid ordering Max Baucus to stop trying to please Republicans; and House Dems proposing (finally) to tax the rich to pay for healthcare.

And while the economy is indeed looking worse and the job numbers continue to suck, was it really so bad that, as Chuck said, Obama "had to stop and deal with it himself in an interview with NBC"? That's a little like Dick Cheney leaking to The New York Times and then citing the resulting story to corroborate his POV, since it was Todd himself who was making Obama "stop and deal" with "it."

Too smart and earnest for unambivalent sleazing, Todd closed the self-referential circle by sheepishly adding, "the White House will say this hand-wringing over the President's focus on the domestic agenda is just summer overspeculating from the peanut gallery."

And Chuck Todd is hardly the only, much less the worst, goober in the peanut gallery. His overspeculations are small things, mere media misdemeanors compared to the disingenuous distortions of Joe Scarborough or the idiot blurtings of David Gregory, and nowhere near the big lies that Hannity or Limbaugh retail everyday.

But Todd's Rome-burning segment reveals something important about how the MSM (and sometimes non-MSM, mea culpa) typically use language: not to say a specific thing, but to pivot from the pictures they have to the political conflict they've decided to amplify. Gliding effortlessly from, say, beautiful shots of the Obama family overseas to the machinations in Washington can leave you fiddling with falsehoods, like the screwy idea that back in the states the Repubs are finally achieving political traction, if only because Obama's away.

The domestic political truth is not that the Republicans have recaptured their mojo, but that the GOP is like a dung beetle on its back. (Especially this past week, what with the luv guv blabbing on, Palin going bald from all the pressure, and the leading members of the GOP's holier-than-thou club revealed to be covering-up Sen. John Ensign's affair, even to the extent of deciding how much hush-money his parents(!) should pay his mistress.) The corporate media is the party's only hope for putting a good face on this shambles.

If Chuck and so many other journalists play it bland and partially blind, it's because they see themselves as having to be political synthesizers of the old CW, including all the stuff said in right-leaning think tanks, op-eds, chat circuits, and at the network water coolers.

MSM journalists may well be liberals, but their interpretation of the news usually tilts rightward, because the Beltway is wired by money--just as the MSM is wired by advertising. And money likes bland, because it doesn't want to provoke suspicion and resentment.

The group most susceptible to the myth of the indominatible Republican Party are the Blue Dog Dems, who have trained themselves to listen for the pitter-patter of Big Feet. Coming largely from conservative districts, they believe that the best way to get re-elected is by cutting deals with the forces that might oppose them--insurance companies, banks, business associations--instead of voting for meaningful reform. If they did go all-out bold and commit to government-run health insurance and a second economic stimulus, they could create an FDR-style constituency that might well re-elect them and fellow Democrats till the cows came home.

Of course, you won't see that as a theme on the nightly news. It's safe to dwell on a 3-point drop in Obama's approval rating, but dilating on the 72 per cent of Americans who say they want a public option on healthcare might mean looking into the real powers who are blocking progressive change--many of whom are also advertisers (and, in the case of NBC, owners). For most media, that would never be easy as ABC.

Destroying America to Save It

It's not only neocons who desperately need enemies, like Ahmadinejad, to succeed so that they'll have an excuse to bomb bomb bomb Iran, or any place they damn well please. It's also the paleocons and the concons (conspiracy conservatives), or whatever Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA's bin Laden unit, could be called these days.

Hard to categorize and hard to completely dismiss, Scheuer is the thickly bearded guy who's been all over the media the last few years calling his cable hosts "Sir," speaking out against the Iraq war, and making the sensible case that one reason "they hate us" is because of our support of Israel--not unlike paleo Pat Buchanan. But Scheuer's getting so wigged-out lately (writing in his most recent book, Marching Toward Hell, that Americans are now in "a place worse than hell"), that he's been finding common ground with Fox News' brightest conspiracy star, Glenn Beck. On Beck's show the other night, the two got themselves into such a froth over lax security on the Mexican border that Scheuer let loose with this:

"The only chance we have as a country right now is for Osama bin Laden to deploy and detonate a major weapon in the United States."

Come again? "Only Osama can execute an attack which will force Americans to demand that their government will protect them effectively, consistently, andwith as much violence as necessary."

Beck bobblehead-nods his assent. This is the kind of doomsday scenario he's been predicting on his laughable "War Room" segment, in which Scheuer has served as one of the hysterics, saying that if "bubbas" take up arms against the government, "I don't think you want to defuse it."

Actually, Beck does have his standards when it comes to whackjob guests. Last week, he hustled Congresswoman Michele Bachmann off the air as soon as she likened the U.S. census to the U.S. internment of Japanese-American citizens during WWII. That was over the top for him, but Scheuer's bin Laden thesis, well, it's philosophically sound!

And to think that conservatives, of all stripes, took great offense when CIA director Leon Panetta said of Dick Cheney: "[I]t's almost as if he's wishing that this country would be attacked again, in order to make his point."

Sanford's Telltale Heart Exposes GOP's Money/Honey Problem

Conservatives Choke on Persian Pretzel Logic

The democracy movement in Iran has thrown Republican ideologues into such a tizzy of circular logic that they're stepping on their own dicta.

Neocons and hardliners may be as eager as ever to bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb bomb Iran, but are restrained this time out by the feeling that they must support Iran's courageous protesters. After all, the Twittering Green Revolutionaries, as the rightwing brain sees it, are marching in the name of George W. Bush's own vision of a "democratic Middle East," the same vision that led him to occupy Iran's next-door neighbor. ("That's not meddling at all," says conservative conventional wisdom poobah Fred Barnes. "That's supporting the people who see America as a model that they like to emulate.") Yet at the same time, the GOP worries about the meaning of an eventual Mousavi victory in the streets--neocons in particular have openly hoped for Ahmadinejad's survival, for fear that a more reasonable face on the Islamic Revolution might preclude future opportunities for either us or Israel to bomb Iran back to the 7th Century (where Ahmadinejad would like to take his country anyway).

And worst of all, if the demonstrations bring about a regime change in Tehran, the world might well ascribe it, as they have the election of moderates in Lebanon, to the Obama Effect and his Cairo speech. That would be a neocon catastrophe, quite possibly sweeping us toward a moderate, compromised resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well (before Netanyahu and crew have settled all the land they want). So folks like California congressman Dana Rohrabacher are now calling Obama a "cream puff"--since, after all, he won't sing along with "bomb-bomb-bomb..."

Never mind that taking sides in the Iranian conflict would give the Ahmadinejad supporters a plausible excuse to blame America for what is so clearly a domestic dispute and grant them the perfect excuse to use overwhelming violence. But any victory without the use of force simply has no flavor for the GOP. And besides, there's a special Tehranian tic buried deep in the Republican party.

It was, after all, the 1979 hostage crisis that paved the way for Ronald Reagan's presidency, and it was his decision to sell arms to the ayatollahs in order to raise a slush fund to fight the Sandinistas that shattered faith in his honesty. Persia tasks the GOP like a black whale (it has ever since the West lost control of those oil fields), and there is almost no law of man or nature they won't try to overthrow to get it back.

It's this imperative that has led Republican talking heads into such conniptions of pretzel logic. Days before the election, Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum at the conservative Hoover Institute, said he'd vote for Ahmadinejad because "I would prefer to have an enemy who's forthright, blatant, and obvious." Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute added that a Moussavi win would make it "easier for Obama to believe that Iran really was figuratively unclenching a fist when, in fact, it had its other hand hidden under its cloak, grasping a dagger."

No, no, say some slightly less extreme wingers: Rooting for Ahmadinejad is a "cynical calculation," says Indiana Congressman Mike Pence. And yet, because he feels the need to press Obama wherever possible, he goes on to complain that "in the cause of freedom America cannot be neutral, cannot be in the business of making careful, short-term calculations." Today, the House passed a toned-down version of Pence's resolution (co-sponsored by Dem Howard Berman of California) condemning Tehran's crackdown on dissidents. Some of the more virulent Iraq-war pushers have even blamed Obama for the stolen election itself. "These people are thugs and they have been emboldened by our weakness," says neocon nabob Frank Gaffney.

See how it works? Obama is weak because he won't scream denunciations at Ahmadinejad; if only he would, then Ahmadinejad would have a more secure hold on power--which (to complete the circle) is what the neocons not-so-secretly wanted in the first place.

Bush first nibbled at the pretzel of U.S.-Iranian relations right after he came to power. President Mohammad Khatemi had been elected in 1997 on a promise of reform, leading many in the West to suggest the possibility of a rapprochement with Tehran back then. But once the U.S. Supreme Court put Bush into office, he immediately began squashing any such cream-puffery, and once 9/11 happened and he fixated on invading Iraq, all hope was lost. The 2003 invasion provoked Ahmadinejad's election in 2005 and hardened his determination to pursue nuclear power, thus laying the groundwork for Iranian intransigence and a nice, long-lasting conflict that hardliners on both sides feed on.

But the odd truth is that people get tired of all the shouting and sick of fighting wars. So the calm and cautious Barack Obama was elected over the truculent and reckless John McCain (old "Bomb-bomb" is now knocking Obama for being "tepid"), and now we have the season of Republicans tying themselves into knots. Last week, after eight years of denouncing Democrats for "betraying the troops" if they so much as discussed voting against funding for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the House GOP voted almost to a man against the military appropriations bill because of a few minor Democratic attachments (they weren't "betraying the troops," they were standing for fiscal sanity).

One thing about being lost in the wilderness, you lose your sense of direction.

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