Why are Politico pros employing the passive voice all of a sudden?

In May I had a piece appear in The Federalist that was headlined “How Journalists Manipulate You Into Favoring Big Government.”

The gist was that through selective word choice, emphasis, framing and narrative, reporters who appear to be writing balanced stories are subtly attempting to guide the reader to a certain conclusion.

In the Federalist piece I cited several examples, many of which routinely turn up in stories in mainstream news outlet — when the reporter wants you to think spending on a government program is good, it’s called investment rather than spending; using loaded verbs like “slashed” or “gutted” when referring to spending cuts.

Now we have a new method: simple grammar.

Remember when Republicans were “threatening to shut down the government” over funding for Planned Parenthood?

Good, active-voice writing. We know who is acting and we know what they’re trying to do.

Unfortunately, now that it’s the Democrats who are threatening to shut down the government, it turns out that’s not what is happening at all. How odd.

Now, Politico tells us, “The federal government may shut down over a provision in the spending bill to rescue health benefits for retired coal miners.” (Link to story is here, which commits the same sin in a slightly different form; direct quote is from Politico’s Morning Shift labor newsletter.)

Magically, it might shut down. Nobody is acting. No group of people is trying to make it shut down, certainly not “threatening” to shut it down.

Nope. It’s just passively going to shut down, out of inattention. Or something.

These are professional journalists, who write for a living. They have professional editors. They know better than this.

Until this mindset ceases to dominate newsrooms, readers will continue to believe — correctly — that the people writing the news have an agenda, one that doesn’t necessarily comport with their own, or with what is actually going on.

 

 

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Note to Cub fans from a Red Sox fan: Your world will never be the same

Cubs fans awoke this morning sleepy, hungover and deliriously happy. Little do they realize that while they slept (or didn’t), the moral universe in which they exist shifted.

It will never be the same again.

For 108 years you spake as a child, you understood as a child. Now you have the ring, and it’s time to put away childish things.

For 86 years, the Boston Red Sox were the stepchildren of fate.

Like you, we had our litany of disaster.

black-catWe could see your billy goat, black cat, Bull Durham and Steve Bartman, and raise you a Curse of the Bambino, an Enos Slaughter, a dashed Impossible Dream, Bill Lee’s eephus pitch to Tony Perez, Bucky Dent, Bill Buckner, Grady Little and Aaron Boone.

No matter what temporary crisis befell them, Yankee fans in the stands or in front of the TVs knew – just knew – that it was all going to work out in the end. Red Sox fans knew exactly the opposite. No matter how great things might look at the moment, we were always braced for the disaster we knew was coming.

Then came 2004.

We are no longer the stepchildren of fate. Now we are the three-time world champions of the 21st century.

We have not forgotten the heartbreak of the past. But it no longer defines us.

Pesky’s hesitation, once a cause for cringing, is now like a story you tell about your lovable uncle who drove the car up on the porch that time.

Bill Buckner has been welcomed back with open arms. Bucky Dent might still get booed, but it’s with a resigned chuckle, not an air of bitterness.

And so with you.

The billy goat exorcisms are over. Leon Durham and Steve Bartman can throw out the ceremonial first pitch at games next year.

Oh, and one more thing.

You’re not lovable anymore.

The Red Sox were never lovable, but nobody hated them, not even Yankee fans.

Before 2004, to Yankee fans the Red Sox were like the annoying fly that wouldn’t get away from your head. Unpleasant, but no real danger.

Baseball fans followed the Sox saga like a Shakespearean tragedy. It came with mournful turns of the head, understanding pats on the back, and the knowledge that it was always going to end this way.

That’s all gone. People hate the Red Sox now. They hate the pink hats and the trendy fans and the probably Patriots-induced arrogance that has moved from the gridiron to the diamond.

Before, when the Red Sox lost, it was “sorry, brother.” Now, it’s “good.”

Cub fans, you are about to enter this world.

You will never again have to live in a world where your team has not won a championship in your lifetime or your parents’ lifetime.  The air will smell sweeter to you, the ballpark will be a place of pondered joy, not one of fearful anticipation. The world and all its possibilities have opened before you like a blazing sun emerging from behind a cloud.

Feels good, doesn’t it?

The downside is, the shroud that has protected you from the usual vagaries of fandom is gone.

All that bonhomie with Cardinal fans at Wrigley?

That’s over.

For a century, you too were that pesky fly buzzing around the head of the National League equivalent of the Yankees.

Now, you’re a winner. Which makes you a threat. Which means people will hate you.

Feels good, doesn’t it?

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In response to David Post

I am not a Donald Trump supporter. About the furthest thing one can get from being such a thing, actually.

But I have now read a number of these “why are you supporting Trump” pieces, and with each variation I simply shake my head in sadness at the obtuse assumptions the writers make.

The latest comes from David Post, writing in the Washington Post.

It’s not as bad as some. He makes (I think) an honest attempt to draw out legitimate explanations from Trump supporters.

On the other hand, he disqualifies what is probably the prime motivation of more than half Trump voters: “if you do care to respond, I ask that you NOT tell me about how terrible you think Hillary Clinton is.”

Well, shoot.

If I were ever to become a Trump voter — and I can’t personally envision such a scenario — that would be the reason.

But let’s move along to Post’s assumptions and misrepresentations. That’ll be more fun.

— “Maybe it’s just because I spend most of my time either in the District or Vermont, and finding Trump supporters in either of those jurisdictions is a very difficult task.”

OK, in DC that’s probably true. But in Vermont? Yes, Clinton will win overwhelmingly in Vermont. She’ll get close to 70 percent of the vote. You know what that means? That something on the order of 90,000 people will be voting for Trump in Vermont, probably. They’re not hard to find if you know where to look. Post worries about the “bubble” in which he exists. He should. Apparently, it’s not even transparent.

— He fears “that we are really, finally, collapsing into separate camps, each with its own favored newspapers, and websites, and TV news channels, and so on, and across whose boundaries nothing passes.”

He should read some newspapers from the 19th century, a time when newspapers didn’t pretend to be objective. Media has never been objective, and we have always sought out news sources that agree with our points of view. The only reason people like Post now bemoan this is because their near-monopoly on those sources has expired. Post doesn’t help this by, in essence, turning a two-player game into a one player game. Why start with Trump and his fitness? Sure, I consider Post’s evidence against Trump and say “he’s unacceptable.” But if you start with Clinton, you reach the same conclusion.

–“here’s what I don’t get.  Trump is unstable … and unstable people should not be put in command of our armed forces and our nuclear codes. … I don’t understand how Trump supporters get past this point.”

I agree with Post that Trump is unstable. Even that he is dangerously unstable. I suspect that a goodly number of Trump supporters have the same concern. But guess what, David? What they’ve decided is that “dangerously unstable” is not anymore dangerous than “dangerously wrongheaded” or “dangerously dishonest.” If you’re stable, and your state of being is always making the wrong call and then lying about it, is that any safer than “dangerously unstable”? I suspect the answer is probably not, and I suspect a lot of people have reached that same conclusion.

— “If you’re a supporter, I assume that you’ve satisfied yourself that he will exercise the rather awesome and terrifying powers of the U.S. commander in chief in a reasonable manner, and I’m curious as to how you’ve done that.”

Me too. But since you disqualified the  most obvious answer, you probably won’t find out. Sometimes it is as simple as “drink the poison or shoot myself in the head — OK, give me the gun. I might miss.”

–“So even if you like all his policies, what makes you think he will follow through with anything he promises?”

Not a thing. I haven’t believed anything a presidential candidate has said in my entire lifetime. I try to judge on broad principles rather than specific policies because, as you rightly point out, “this affects all presidential candidates, all of whom make sweeping promises to do this or that, and then, when they get into office, are unable to just snap their fingers to get them done.” You say there’s a difference with Trump. But there really isn’t. While you’re trying to figure out how people can be taken in by this obvious con artist — and Trump is a con artist — ask yourself how you and tens of millions of others believed a half-term senator with no experience doing much of anything was going to heal the planet and stop the rise of the oceans.

— “This ain’t Ronald Reagan, folks”

Please, for the love of all that is holy, stop this. Liberals hated and feared Reagan in 1980. Like Trump, he was viewed as “dangerously unstable.” Stop saying nice things about people you used to treat like malaria so you can compare them favorably with people you now treat like the plague. It’s unseemly and dishonest. Ten or twelve years from now, you’ll be using Trump as an example to denigrate some other Republican. You know it. I know it.

— “Caro’s book is peopled with all sorts of amazing characters I had never heard of or knew next to nothing about.”

I must say, this is the most disqualifying passage in the piece. If you have never heard of or know next to nothing about John Nance Garner, Sam Rayburn or Pappy O’Daniel, you have no business offering advice to anyone about politics. But thanks for linking to Jesse Walker’s piece at Reason. It really is terrific.

 

I’m cheating, because I’m not a Trump supporter. I’m not the audience David Post had in mind. I’m as interested in reading their responses as he is.

But his presumption that Trump is a different kind of bad raises an interesting question about how we define badness in politics. Every criticism Post levels at Trump is true. Someone writing from a different perspective could write just as damning an indictment of Clinton. For every “Trump is a …” there is an equally awful “Clinton is a ….”

Pretending like one side has a case while the other doesn’t probably goes a long way toward explaining that “collapsing into separate camps” Post says he’s worried about.

The problem here isn’t that one side has a case and the other doesn’t. It’s that neither side has a positive case to make for their candidate, so voters are left with nothing to base a decision on except how bad the other person is. Some will decide that he is worse, some will decide that she is worse.

Some of us will decide that neither is worthy.

That’s the thought that ought to be keeping David Post up at night. I know it’s keep me up at night.

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Making baseball better than Buster Olney thinks it can be

Buster Olney’s recommendations for Nine Ways to Make Baseball Better includes some good ideas, some meh ideas and a couple of really bad ideas.

Here’s a a rundown of his suggestions, with some commentary for each.

1. Reduce the games to seven innings. — And, I presume this would be accompanied by a 22 percent reduction in ticket prices, to correspond to the 22 percent reduction in innnings? Yeah, I thought not. No. This is a bad idea based on a faulty premise. Games are not too long. The season is too long. Cut the season to 150 games to keep the World Series out of October (and play World Series weekend games during the day). But alter the entire statistical universe of the game because of supposed shorter attention spans? Again, no. It amazes me that people who claim to love the game are constantly beating the drum for less of it.

2. Two scheduled single-admission doubleheaders for each team during the course of a season. A lot of baseball fans have memories built on attending doubleheaders. — I wouldn’t object to this, but actually, not that many fans today have memories of doubleheaders. Regularly scheduled doubleheaders haven’t been a feature since the 1960s, and were almost entirely gone by the 1970s. I’m in my 50s, and they were not part of my growing up in the game. So yeah, some guys in their 70s fondly remember toasting through 18 innings at old Comiskey Park. A bizarre suggestion from somebody who wants to SHORTEN games.

3.  Attach one item from the concession stands — hot dog, soda, something — to each ticket. — Lots of teams do this already. No harm in spreading it around, but I doubt fans are demanding it. If they were, it would already be here.

4. As part of the effort to speed up the game, do something to reduce the growing number of relievers employed in each game, whether it’s by limiting the number of pitchers utilized in a given inning, or increasing the minimum number of hitters each reliever must face. — Again, why fundamentally alter the nature of the game when a simpler solution is readily at hand. The manager doesn’t need to go to the mound for a pitching change. Just wave the guy in and let’s go.

5. An idea drawn from an active player to increase the risk for PED-users: a two-tiered penalty system for each offense. A player who tests positive would be subject to an initial 80-game suspension, and then, in the second phase of each case, there would be a review of the case. If a panel formed by the Players Association and MLB determined from the evidence (documents, testimony, etc.) that the player knowingly and intentionally attempted to cheat the system, he would face a lifetime ban. — Maybe, but how this would work in reality is probably something like this: the 25th guy on the roster would be banned for life; Ryan Braun — who richly deserves to banned for life because of his attempt to ruin the life of an innocent man — probably wouldn’t be. Penalties should be swift and evenly imposed. Why introduce what amounts to a random element into the process? Ban everybody on a second offense? Sure. Leave it to a tribunal? No.

6. Instruct the managers of the All-Star Game to play their best position players and to do all within reason to win the game, rather than focusing on getting players a sliver of action. — Yes, especially if they’re going to keep using the game to decide home field for the World Series.

7. A three-man tag team of pitchers should be aligned in the Home Run Derby. For example, Madison Bumgarner in Round 1, and if he won, then Adam Wainwright in Round 2, and if he won, Jake Arrieta in Round 3. — This might be fun. Once, as Joe Piscopo said. Until they combine for two homers. Better to just switch the NL to the DH and stop the charade.

8. A seventh-inning stretch opportunity for all fans at the ballpark: Move to unoccupied seats in the ballpark, presumably closer to the action. — No. Call me crazy, but I think people should get what they pay for.

9. Retire Roberto Clemente’s No. 21 throughout the sport, as Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 is retired, because of what Clemente represents within baseball. — Tempting, but no. Clemente was a great player, but he wasn’t first. And he didn’t do what Robinson did. Find another way to honor him (in fact, MLB has already done this, by rightly naming its award for humanitarianism after Clemente).

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The Peace That Thankfully Wasn’t

Mark Tooley’s The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War is one of those books just begging to be written.

It has been more than 60 years since anyone tackled the subject at length, and the wait was worth it. Tooley’s book is entertaining, informative and – most importantly – an object lesson on the limits of compromise.

Robert Gunderson’s Old Gentlemen’s Convention: The Washington Peace Conference of 1861, was until now the standard edition of the story. It has been surpassed.

Tooley’s tome is likely to replace Gunderson for two reasons.

First, it’s a much better read. His style is smooth and he keeps the narrative moving consistently, even when digressing to explain an arcane point (and there are a number of these). His reconstruction of the details of the debates is meticulous, comparable in their thoroughness to Pauline Maier’s in Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788, her epic study of the state-by-state ratification of the Constitution.

Even more broadly, though, Tooley takes full advantage of the avalanche of research on the antebellum era that has been done over the past six decades. Historians’ views of the war and its causes have been revolutionized in that time, a period that saw revolutionary change of its own that was not unrelated to the earlier conflict.

Gunderson’s version of events is of a different time. Tooley’s take is a modern interpretation that still manages not to get lost in modern PC sensibilities.

Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, devotes considerable attention to the role religion played in the debate, and it is a worthy addition to the story. As he points out, “Statesmen and polemists for both the North and South were freely resorting to religious rhetoric in justification of their causes, for which the churches provided ample ammunition.”

His examination of the role played by various clergy in the convention’s proceedings is among the highlights of a book that has many.

But it is the convention itself, and the looming national catastrophe its desperate delegates hoped to avoid, that is the heart of the story.

John Tyler, a former president of the United States, was chosen to preside at the convention, which met in what had been a Presbyterian church that was taken over as a meeting hall by the Willard Hotel. But the driving force was Sen. John J. Crittenden of Kentucky, like Abraham Lincoln a disciple of Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser. And it was to the idea of compromise, as much as to the Union, that Crittenden was devoted.

The “compromises” Crittenden proposed were breathtaking in their breadth. Most found their way into the convention’s final work that, ironically, would have been the 13th Amendment (instead of the actual 13th, which abolished slavery):

  • Protecting the expansion of slavery under the old Missouri Compromise south of latitude 36°30’.
  • Stipulating that the United States may not acquire new territory without three-fourths approval from the Senate.
  • Prohibiting Congress from interfering with slavery in Washington, D.C., without Maryland’s consent.
  • Prohibiting any congressional authority over slavery in states where it existed.
  • Protecting state enforcement of fugitive slave laws.
  • Reiterating the ban on international importation of slaves.
  • Providing that any changes to these amendments would be prohibited without unanimous approval of the states.

But these proposals to assuage the South by enshrining slavery in the Constitution proved unacceptable to the incoming president. Even as some of Lincoln’s more squeamish allies began to quiver at the prospect of secession and civil war, he stood fast.

Lincoln remained silent in public, but took a dim view of the proceedings in private, essentially arguing that to surrender to Southern demands at this late hour would negate the results of the election he and the Republican Party had just won.

Lincoln understood something that his hero, Clay, did not.

Compromise has its place, but there comes a point where compromise morphs into appeasement, then surrender.

Historians and journalists love to praise compromise as a virtue in itself. But the value of compromise is in the result.

Making a plea for agreement, delegate Frederick Frelinghuysen proclaimed that “if civil war is to come, if this land is to be deluged with fraternal blood, when that time comes there will not be a northern state represented here that would not give untold millions to be placed upon that record by the side of New Jersey” in his state’s support of compromise.

But Frelinghuysen was wrong. When war came, the North rose to the occasion, confident in the knowledge, as Lincoln had said at Cooper Union the year before, that “right makes might.” Perhaps most telling at the convention itself, a proposal to add to the Constitution an anti-secession provision declaring that the Union was indissoluble was defeated, 11-10. That vote, as much as anything else that happened in February 1861, proved that no compromise could resolve the question of slavery.

The “irrepressible conflict” that William H. Seward had identified in 1858 was just that. Some problems do not lend themselves to difference splitting. Sometimes you have to keep holding elections until one side wins, definitively. And sometimes, regrettably, you have to resort to arms.

As the (thankfully) failed attempt to “compromise” their way out of the coming civil war demonstrates, at least a few people – including the most important one — understood this in 1861. It’s a pity more don’t understand it today.

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Bush, Polk and the ‘Met His Every Goal’ Myth

Jeb Bush’s pronouncement that one of his favorite presidents – non-family division – is James K. Polk stirred some controversy among the politically correct crowd.

Polk, after all, was a slave owner, led the United States into the Mexican War and acquired vast swaths of territory that once belonged to others.

While he is anathema to modern liberals, historians of late have given Polk more credit than they once did. And among the general public he tends to elicit much the same response he did when news of his unexpected nomination first circulated in May 1844: “Who is James K. Polk.”

Bush’s admiration rests on the oft-repeated tale that Polk “met his every goal” by fulfilling his promises to acquire California, get the British out of Oregon, reduce tariffs and create an independent Treasury.

Historian Tom Chaffin has thoroughly debunked this notion, but it continues to live on in the popular imagination, especially when a politician needs a role model for accomplishment.

Polk did achieve all those things, and he deserves to be well-remembered for his accomplishments. But could we stop relying on the “met his every goal” myth? It’s time to put that one to bed.

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Prelude to Lincoln

Every year in July, the town of Fremont, Neb., hosts John C. Fremont Days, a weekend festival that seems to involve most of the citizens of the small city of 25,000 about 30 miles west of Omaha.

Festivities are held in more than one site, but at the city park downtown where many of the activities are held, there is a statute — of Abraham Lincoln.

This might seem incongruous at first. The cit of Fremont, holding a Fremont-themed festival, at a site with a statue of Lincoln. But actually, it makes perfect sense.

Without Fremont, there probably wouldn’t have been a Lincoln.

John C. Fremont’s reputation as the “Pathfinder” rested on the accomplishments of his five expeditions to the West, in which he explored the Rocky Mountains, the Oregon Trail, the Sierra Nevada, and other admittedly inhospitable – but nevertheless previously explored – territory.

But Fremont was not so much a pathfinder as he was a path populizer. Beginning with the reports on his 1842 and 1843-44 journeys to Oregon and – against orders — Utah and California, which were lovingly edited by his wife, Jessie Benton Fremont, the Army officer gained a level of fame rare for a soldier who was not a hero in arms.

Their “Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842, and to Oregon and North California in the Years 1843-44,” published in 1845, became an instant best seller and all but holy scripture for immigrants heading west in the 1840s. John’s detailed observations combined with Jessie’s romantic notions and talents as an editor to cast the West in an entirely new light for many Americans. Previously derided as the Great American Desert, Easterners began to see the possibilities in the new land, thanks in large part to the sweeping grandeur of the Fremonts’ prose.

Fremont, a naturally reticent man, reveled in the glory. For the next decade and more, he was one of the most revered men in the country. Far from any fifteen minutes of fame, the Fremont Moment would last a dozen years, and he would make the most of the moment while it lasted through multiple expeditions, triumphs and travails in the Mexican War, disputes with his powerful father-in-law — Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton — legal wrangling over a gold mining claim in California, election as that state’s first senator, and finally, as the first presidential candidate of the new Republican Party.

And Jessie would be right there every step of the way. Much more politically savvy than her husband, she was an aide-de-camp to her father, that most boisterous proponent of westward expansion, her husband’s great political patron and protector, and a volatile man whose relationship with his favorite daughter was unusually close and periodically tempestuous.

Fremont knew what he had in her, and was not reluctant to make use of the asset. Jessie Benton Fremont would play a role in the 1856 presidential campaign unimagined by any wife before her. In addition to her own participation, which was unique enough, for the first time other women, as well as free people of color had a cause and a campaign in which they felt a kinship. The Republican Party was no bastion of equal rights, to be sure. While some abolitionists attached themselves to the party, its senior leadership and party platform claimed no more than an opposition to the extension of slavery into new territory. Some of these men  were as racist as the slavery-supporting Democrats they opposed. But the party of “free soil, free men and Fremont” nevertheless inspired a hope that things might be better, a hope that had never really existed until 1856. For many African Americans in antebellum America, that was astonishing enough.

While Fremont was traipsing around in the mountains of the West, Lincoln was practicing law and trying to jump-start a not very successful political career. He had been a state legislator, and served one term in Congress, where he ineffectively opposed the war that Fremont was fighting. Passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 would bring Lincoln back into politics full time, where he would lose two more Senate races and be considered for the vice presidency on the ticket with Fremont in 1856.

Fremont would lose the election of 1856 to James Buchanan, who would go on to lead what many consider to be the most disastrous presidential administration in American history. Fremont would serve – not terribly successfully – in the war that followed. Both he and his wife would cause Lincoln no small measure of grief during the war.

But in 1856 the Pathfinder who had made his fame by following in the footsteps of others would, after all, blaze a trail. His campaign, unique in the annals of politics to that time, showed the way to victory for another candidate, a man less reticent personally and more prepared temperamentally for the rigorous challenge of national crisis. Where John C. Fremont led, Abraham Lincoln would follow.

That shared moment in time seems to make the shared space in Fremont, Neb., appropriate.

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