The Breakfast Table

Mentally Ill Candidates, Scummy Journalists, etc.

Dear Susan:

Now, really. If Dukakis was not mentally ill, why in the world did he climb into that silly looking tank, put on that stupid looking helmet, and allow himself to be photographed, looking like a 10-year-old playing soldier?

For that matter, if he was not mentally ill, why did he put himself through the insanity of running for president in the first place? When you examine that insanity, it becomes more and more obvious why no mentally healthy individual has much chance of winning the presidency by slogging through the whole horrible primary process, and that if we want a sane president, we’ll have to draft one. Calling Colin Powell. Or how about a woman? If you had the power to elect the next president all by yourself, picking anybody in the entire U.S. population, whom would you choose? And if that would be a man, whom would you choose if limited to the entire female population?

But seriously, you make a very good point (aagh, more consensus, alas!) about New York law firms–and other big institutions–not having black faces in big jobs. I don’t think this is necessarily racist–although sometimes it is–because the talent pool of people with elite academic credentials from which big law firms get their partners is no mirror of our society. I am struck, though, by the righteous liberals in those firms who view it as “pro bono” activity to litigate in favor of rigid racial quotas for fire departments and the like. I did a long piece in 1989 on such a case, in which what was then the richest law firm in the world (Cravath, Swaine & Moore) was litigating against white firefighters who thought that Birmingham, Alabama had gone too far in seeking to undo its legacy of discrimination by using extreme racial quotas. Cravath was supporting measures like taking the black firefighter who had ranked 96th on the promotional exam (and who had never personally been a victim of discrimination by the fire department, although his father may have been) and elevating him solely on the basis of race, above the white firefighter who had ranked third. When I called the Cravath partner and told him that my piece would also be discussing why his law firm had never had a black partner in its history, he seemed sincerely shocked and amazed that I would stoop to such irrelevancies. It was quite obvious to him that a law partner, whose job would consist mainly of using elaborate word games to make the rich richer, needed to have graduated at the very top of his class from one of the very best schools, whereas a fire lieutenant, with such mundane duties as making instantaneous decisions on what chemicals to use to put out a chemical fire before someone gets killed, need not have any book-learned expertise at all.

Shelby Steele has written something to the effect that racial preferences are motivated more by the desires of their white sponsors to feel virtuous (and by the narrow self-interest of the relatively privileged minority-group members who benefit) than by any good they do for true victims of discrimination or poverty. The evidence is all around us. What stops me from becoming an anti-preference absolutist is the difficulty of achieving much racial integration in the most elite sectors of our society without some (very limited) use of preferences. The only long-run solution is better early education. In the short run, all the policy alternatives are bad.

As to the NYT report about the governor of South Carolina denying (truthfully, I am convinced) the allegations that he had an affair with his former press secretary (my friend, who also denies this), I’ve learned more about what got it started. It’s a typical tale of scummy journalists and sleazy politicians racing hand-in-hand to the bottom. This was a 2-year-old rumor, but Time magazine this week became the first purportedly respectable publication to find a pretext to put it in print. Time’s pretext was its ongoing smear campaign against Kenneth Starr, plus a dollop of South Carolina politics. In a smarmy little piece under the headline “Catching the Starr Bug,” Time proceeded from the undocumented and transparently mendacious premise that what Starr is doing is conducting a fishing expedition through Clinton’s sex life, to the conclusion that “The Starr method, invented and deployed in Washington, has made its way to the states.” Next this: “[A]llies of Jim Hodges, the Democrat running against GOP Governor David Beasley, plan to ask Beasley about–you guessed it–infidelity.” These “allies” were, of course, anonymous. Once Time had opened the floodgates, the South Carolina press followed. Beasley, his wife, his former press secretary, and her husband hatched an unusual strategy to try to spike the underlying lie: The four of them held a joint press conference, and said that the Democrats spreading this rumor should be ashamed of themselves. So should Time Magazine, for more reasons than one.

Barbara Boxer won last time in part by smearing her opponent? Why am I not surprised? Tell me more about her.

As to the Clinton scandal, I note that you rightly fear the debate “will be conducted at the worst level. Cue Ball Carville against Dick Morris.” I also note that BOTH of these disreputable characters were brought to prominence by Bill Clinton, and that BOTH of them have been consulted and used by the president this year in constructing his defense: The toe-sucking Morris has testified that the president consulted him in January about how various responses to the Monica story would play with the public, and that after Morris had reported that his polls suggested perjury would not play in Peoria, Clinton responded: “We’ll just have to win, then.” Poll-tested lying. The increasingly rabid Carville, of course, lies every time he opens his mouth. Nations get the kind of governments they deserve, and if this nation decides that Clinton is good enough to stay in office, then it deserves the Carvilles and the Morrises who are part of the whole lowlife package.

I hope the Democrats don’t adopt your rally-around-the-liar strategy. It would make them the party of lying and coverups. And it would disgust a lot of (so-far-silent) politically active Democrats I know–people from whom I hear just about every day, and who are disgusted not only with their president but with their party. Unfortunately, the partisanship of the Republicans in Congress has enhanced the naturally polarizing nature of this battle, so that Democrats who denounce Clinton will be savaged for disloyalty (and for sexual peccadillos too, if the Clintonites can come up with any such mud to throw at them). That takes courage, which is in short supply in Washington. But I’m hoping to see some soon, from people like Sens. Pat Moynihan, Bob Kerry, and Joseph Lieberman, who made a good start a few weeks ago.

Best, Stuart