Press Box

Condensed Apple Sauce

Consumed whole or reduced by 75 percent, Johnny Apple’s copy positively zings with cliché.

When editors at the New York Times want to inspire their reporters to dig deeper and give a news story extraordinary sweep, they command, “Write it onto Page One.” The implicit message is that the Times runs along meritocratic lines—that every Times story is a candidate for the showroom window.

This tradition looks much less inspirational, of course, whenever the Times publishes Page One stories swollen to the point of corpulence with clichés, platitudes, and the most foolish sort of conventional wisdom. Stories, that is, by veteran correspondent R.W. “Johnny” Apple Jr.

Apple, who’s worked at the Times for more than 40 years, last year was called out of a kind of paid retirement, writing about Bordeaux and soft-shell crabs, to lend his special touch to Times coverage of the coming war.

Around the office, Apple calls the inflated prose that he proudly produces “bringing out the mighty Wurlitzer.” What’s the saying about one man’s music … ?

Previously, Press Box cored Apple’s Page One pieces in  ”The Leading Indicator of Victory” and “Apple Turnover.” But Apple isn’t easily discouraged. He returned to Page One yesterday, April 9, with a pastiche any fool who watched the Bush-Blair press conference on television could have composed (“Bush’s War Message: Strong and Clear“).

Today, Apple spills an ocean of dull gray type into his Page One “news analysis,” titled “A High Point in 2 Decades of U.S. Might.” Every paragraph, every sentence, every punctuation mark is bloated with ordinary and commonplace observations about the war in Iraq, its back story, and its repercussions. (See below for more examples than you can probably stomach.)

Never before has Apple soared to such heights of self-parody! Just two weeks ago, Apple had the United States choking on quicksand; four days ago, the United States’ big problem was to know how to define victory. Now, the United States is a latter-day Roman Empire. And he gives a history lesson about U.S. interventions since Vietnam that would not look out of place in Highlights for Children.

The best way to give critical justice to today’s piece would involve reproducing all 1,100 words of it and highlighting every sentence in yellow, with an appropriate annotation (“Well, duh!”; “No kidding?”; “How stupid does Johnny Apple think we are?”; and so on). I’d do just that, if it didn’t step on U.S. copyright law. Instead, let me serve a 75 percent reduction of Apple’s sauce. Be forewarned: If you’re operating heavy machinery, affix lid-locks to your eyes, and read at your own risk:

The standing of the United States has perhaps never been lower among Islamic nations and nations with restive Islamic minorities than it is today. American esteem has also fallen across much of Europe. …Triumph in Iraq, if the whole nation goes the way of Basra and Baghdad, would mark the second important American victory in a row, after Afghanistan. …No one knows Mr. Hussein’s current whereabouts, and allied forces have found no conclusive evidence of chemical or biological weapons. …It may well be that sweeping, unqualified victory is a thing of the past, except in minuscule conflicts, like the one in Grenada. … The equation will also be affected by what Washington does next. …But Mr. Bush, facing a campaign next year with the job of nation-building in Iraq incomplete, may be loath to ride the tiger too far, lest he get lost in the jungle. …Many Americans drew a parallel [with the toppled Saddam statue] to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communist states. …Hoping not to send a politically clumsy signal, the marines quickly stowed the American flag they unfurled at first and replaced it with an old Iraqi flag. …Will [U.S. troops] be considered liberators or intruders? … Some of the Iraqis in the streets today were jubilant. …However much they disliked Mr. Hussein’s government, however grateful they may be for its apparent demise, many Iraqis resent America’s Middle East policies as much as other Muslims do. …Somehow—through the distribution of aid, through a hundred wise decisions and a thousand generous gestures—the United States must change minds in the months ahead. The most experienced hands in Washington are betting that it will be a harder job, and a longer one, than the military campaign now near an end.

While some find Apple’s drivel crazy-making, others actually look forward to his dispatches, exploring their contentlessness with the zeal of a Carlsbad Caverns spelunker. It’s restful—almost meditative—to read Apple on any topic, they say. You can feel whatever knowledge you have about the subject reach the vapor point and hear it whoosh as it’s sucked from your head.

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