Punditry and the Art of Failing Upward

Punditry and the Art of Failing Upward

Punditry and the Art of Failing Upward

From William Kristol to Condi Rice to Joel Klein, conservatives turn disastrous decisions into fabulous careers. How do they do it?


Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks at the ground breaking ceremony for the George W. Bush Presidential Center on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, November 16, 2010. REUTERS/Mike Stone

In the newly relaunched Baffler, now edited by John Summers, essayist Tom Frank expands on an argument that has obsessed your columnist for decades: that success in the punditocracy is inversely related to good judgment. Indeed, one can even find an almost perfectly proportional relationship between wrongness and success. Nobody was consistently more wrong about pretty much everything related to George W. Bush than William Kristol; and yet, following the Iraq folly, Kristol was rewarded with the single most prestigious perch in daily print journalism: his own corner of the New York Times op-ed page—which he immediately screwed up and lost, having little familiarity with actual journalism. Kristol is perhaps the most illustrative case, but similar phenomena are evident throughout the punditocracy. And does anyone believe that Christopher Hitchens, talented as he may have been, would have come to enjoy the celebrity intellectual cachet attached to his name were it not for his enlistment in the ranks, first of Kenneth Starr’s sex police, then the army of Bush and Cheney’s armchair generals?

These pundits are showered with fame, prestige and riches not in spite of their misjudgments but because of them. This thought was reinforced when I saw an announcement of a new education study fronted by Condoleezza Rice and Joel Klein for the Council on Foreign Relations.

The very idea of this ought to be a joke. Rice is famously among the worst advice-givers in human history, first failing to take seriously the August 6, 2001, presidential briefing she and Bush received, titled “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US.” (Bush apparently responded that the briefers had “covered [their] ass,” and went back to “cutting brush,” whatever that meant.) Rice later explained that she couldn’t “connect the dots,” which was true. But when it came to Iraq, she connected dots that weren’t there, while aiding the president’s grievously misguided trust in the hawkish arguments of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld while shunting aside the more prudent concerns of Colin Powell. All this got her promoted to secretary of state and bestowed upon her a kind of “Wiseman” status of yore.

Klein, meanwhile—charged with the transformation of New York City’s schools, admittedly a nearly impossible task—succeeded primarily in transforming the way they measured their success rate, in order to give the impression of progress where little evidence could be found to support it. Klein then left the job unfinished to take up the task of becoming a top adviser to Rupert Murdoch, among the few people on planet Earth who rival George W. Bush in the area of damage done to honest discourse and democratic debate—and hence, citizen education.

As the proud parent of a public school child—recently admitted to the Bronx High School of Science, thank you very much—I am all for strengthening our public education system. But it pains me to see the road these two have taken. The report’s language is thick with rhetoric reminiscent of Sputnik-era panic. They argue that education is “key to national security; human capital important in world competitiveness” and “crucial for leadership.” “A year ago,” they say, “we brought together leaders in education, politics, business, academia and the armed forces and diplomatic communities to assess the nation’s educational challenges in the context of national security. We believe education is posing direct threats to our nation: to economic growth, to intellectual property and competitiveness, to the protection of U.S. physical safety and to U.S. global awareness, unity and cohesion.” They warn, “It is not hyperbole to say that the state of education in our country is a challenge to our national security.”

The authors also inform us that “the State Department is struggling to recruit enough foreign language speakers.” But what they cannot explain are the politics that lie beneath that result. Not only have we starved low-income schools of investment, whether in teachers’ salaries, technology or nutrition. But as author Stephen Glain demonstrated at great length in his recent study State vs. Defense: The Battle to Define America’s Empire, Americans have always been misers when investing in their diplomatic corps. The meager budget allocated by Congress to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson necessitated his sale of a horse and his furniture to fund the nation’s missions abroad himself. Today’s State Department budget is barely one-twentieth of the roughly trillion dollars the United States expends annually on defense, nuclear weapons, intelligence and “black” programs, and others for military-related purposes every year.

These numbers represent political calculations made by Congress and the executive branch, just as our schools represent the priorities of state and local bodies. And surprise, surprise: they are not all that different. While Americans do spend a great deal of money on education, precious little of it goes toward ensuring that our economically disadvantaged young people are given the training and support they need to compete with their more affluent neighbors. This is presumably one of the motivations for the Klein/Rice/CFR report, and it’s a laudable one, of course. But really, are we so illiberal a society that we cannot support education for its own sake, rather than marshaling phony-baloney national security arguments in order to fund it? Whatever happened to good old-fashioned equality of opportunity, of giving everybody a fair shot at the American dream, regardless of how well-born he or she might be? I thought that was the kind of classic liberal tenet in which even die-hard conservatives professed to believe.

I confess: I’m baffled.

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