Kausfiles Special

Et Tu, TNR?

The mini-orgy of media-bashing in this space two days ago made kausfiles seem like the organ of some irritable neoconservative rebelling against the dominance of sentimental liberalism–someone like Hilton Kramer, maybe, or David Horowitz, or Martin Peretz. Full disclosure: I used to work for Marty Peretz, consider him a friend, and still eagerly read his magazine, the New Republic. In fact, the Dec. 27 issue of TNR just arrived … wait a minute, what’s this? Can it be … a really dumb liberal article in a magazine that’s supposed to avoid reflexive anti-right politics, that sees itself as the puncturer of leftish cant?

I’m referring to Jim VandeHei’s article “Bottom of the Barrel” (overline: “Where the GOP is finding its candidates.”). VandeHei’s thesis is that these are such “desperate times” for House Republicans that they are sifting through the dregs, dragging in “desperation candidates” from the ranks of celebrities. VandeHei’s evidence? Rep. Tom Davis, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, tried to recruit Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, former guitarist for the Doobie Brothers, to run in California. He also talked to Fred Hemmings, a Hawaiian surfing champion, Bob Backlund, a former pro wrestler, Noble Willingham, a television and movie actor, and others “from the lower rungs of the celebrity food chain.”

VandeHei is probably right to think the Republicans are in deep, deep trouble in their fight to retain control of the House. But his piece doesn’t do anything to prove it. For one thing, although VandeHei calls Baxter and Hemmings Davis’ “recruits,” in fact they aren’t running. (The districts they were considering would be safely Democratic even in a better year for the GOP.) More important, even VandeHei eventually admits they wouldn’t be particularly unqualified: Baxter, he notes, is a “defense maven” who has “written for Jane’s Intelligence Review” and “chairs a ballistic missile defense advisory group for Representative Curt Weldon.” Hemmings is a former state representative. How are they the “bottom of the barrel”?

It’s pretty clear that we’re supposed to laugh at Davis and the Republicans–well, because they’re Republicans. It’s not as if Democrats have never nominated minor TV actors for Congress–remember Rep. Ben “Cooter” Jones of the Dukes of Hazzard and Georgia’s 4th Congressional District? And which party was it again whose local leaders wanted to run Jerry Springer for Senate in Ohio? VandeHei gives the game away when he complains that Davis is also trying to recruit such obvious low-lifes as “Adam Putnam, a 25-year-old state representative” in Florida. Can you believe it? Running a local politician for Congress! That’s really scraping the bottom!

Why didn’t any editor at TNR stop and think: Hold on. State reps have been running for Congress since the beginning of the republic. That’s where Congressmen come from! Because there’s no payoff in being merciful to House Republicans. I’ve been at too many parties lately with too many respectable Washington journalists who seem to think the name “Tom DeLay” is enough to bring any argument to a snorting, chuckling halt. Add to that the press’s non-ideological, but still unattractive, contempt for likely losers, and you get an atmosphere in which the House GOPs are fair game for cheap shots.

Note to Marty: Please don’t complain to your new editor, Peter Beinart, about the amateurish VandeHei piece. Beinart’s just started. And there’ll be so many other important things to talk to him about in the coming months!