Speaking on NPR recently, Cokie Roberts, the soon-to-retire co-host of ABC’s This Week, falsely informed her listeners that “the President was exonerated by the Securities and Exchange Commission.” In fact, even though his daddy was the President of the United States during the incident in question, after a remarkably relaxed investigation the SEC informed Bush’s lawyer that its decision “must in no way be construed as indicating that [George W. Bush] has been exonerated.”
Call me sentimental, but I’m going to miss the old gal. With no discernible politics save an attachment to her class, no reporting and frequently no clue, she was the perfect source for a progressive media critic: a perpetual font of Beltway conventional wisdom uncomplicated by any collision with messy reality.
Lippmann/Dewey fans will remember that the very idea of a watchdog press breaks down when the watchdog starts acting like–and more important, sympathizing with–the folks upon whom he or she has been hired to keep an eye. With Cokie, this was never much of an issue. Her dad was a Congressman. Her mom was a Congresswoman. Her brother is one of the slickest and wealthiest lobbyists in the city. Her husband, Steve Roberts, holds the dubious honor of being perhaps the only person to give up a plum New York Times job because it interfered with his television career. And together they form a tag-team buck-raking/book-writing enterprise offering up corporate speeches and dime-store “Dear Abby”-style marriage advice to those unfortunates who do not enjoy his-and-her television contracts.
Cokie came to public attention at NPR, where she developed some street cred as a Capitol Hill gumshoe, but apparently grew tired of the hassle of actual reporting, which only helped her career. With no concern for the niceties of conflicts of interest, she and her husband accepted together as much as $45,000 in speaking fees from the very corporations that were affected by the legislation she was allegedly covering in Congress. Moreover, she claimed something akin to a royal prerogative in refusing to address the ethical quandary it obviously raised. (A spokesman responding to a journalist’s inquiry said that Queen Cokie’s corporate speaking fees were “not something that in any way, shape or form should be discussed in public.”)
Apparently, nobody ever told Cokie that the job of the insider pundit is to at least pretend to be conversant with the major political, economic and intellectual issues in question before putting these in the service of a consensually derived story line. The pedantic George Will and the peripatetic Sam Donaldson at least give the impression of having considered their remarks ahead of time, either by memorizing from Bartlett’s or pestering politicians. Not Cokie. Once, when a reporting gig interfered with one of her many social and/or speaking engagements, she donned a trench coat in front of a photo of the Capitol in the ABC studios in the hopes of fooling her viewers. She was not a real journalist; she just played one on TV.
Still, her commentary was invaluable, if inadvertently so. As a pundit, she was a windup Conventional Wisdom doll. The problem with Bill Clinton, for instance, was that he was the wrong sort for Cokie and her kind. “This is a community in all kinds of ways,” she told Sally Quinn during the impeachment crisis. “When something happens everybody gathers around…. It’s a community of good people involved in a worthwhile pursuit.” Here was her analysis of the complicated constitutional questions impeachment raised: “People who act immorally and lie get punished,” she proclaimed, noting that she “approach[ed] this as a mother.” (Her own children are fully grown, but perhaps they’re real sensitive…) “This ought to be something that outrages us, makes us ashamed of him.” When the country refused to go along with the ironclad Broder/Cokester consensus, she supported impeachment anyway, because “then people can lead public opinion rather than just follow it through the process.” These same “people,” meaning Ken Starr, Newt Gingrich and Cokie’s friends, made a return appearance in Cokieworld when the Supreme Court handed Al Gore’s victory to George W. Bush following the Florida 2000 election crisis. “People do think it’s political, but they think that’s OK,” she averred. “They expect the court to be political, and they wanted the election to be over.”
All this is relevant to those of you who are not dewy-eyed about Cokie’s departure–or Dewey-eyed about democracy, for that matter–because Cokie’s inadvertent honesty helps us understand how George W. Bush ever made it to the White House in the first place. Why are we hearing about Harken Oil only today? Why did the press ignore the evidence of Bush’s personal and professional dishonesty back in 2000, when it still mattered? Meanwhile, these same reporters concocted stupid stories about Al Gore’s penchant for “exaggeration,” misreporting the simplest facts on his (essentially accurate) claims about the Internet, Love Canal and Love Story. It’s not as if evidence of Bush’s unsavory past was unavailable. I wrote about it twice on MSNBC.com, in the fall of 2000, following a damning Talk magazine exposé of Bush’s suspicious business ethics, written by Bill Minutaglio and Nancy Beiles, and based on documents made public by the Center for Public Integrity. But nobody cared. The Times, the Post, the Journal, CBS, ABC et al.–who had all championed Ken Starr’s $70 million investigation of a $30,000 unprofitable land deal–did not think Bush’s fortune-making sweetheart deals were worth more than the most cursory of investigations. (Let’s not even bring up the dubious Texas Rangers deal or the missing years in his National Guard record.)
How did the media–and hence the nation–manage to miss these stories? Just ask Cokie: As she explained back then in defense of herself and her colleagues, “The story line is Bush isn’t smart enough and Gore isn’t straight enough. In Bush’s case, you know he’s just misstating as opposed to it playing into a story line about him being a serial exaggerator.” Thus spake Cokathustra.
For more, check out www.altercation.msnbc.com during The Nation‘s summer lull. We never take vacations at Altercation.