Monday, July 19, 2004


How to Read Urbanely

THE MEDIA KNOW BEST. A little more than a week ago, Newsweek assistant managing editor Evan Thomas made some unexpectedly candid remarks about the current election coverage:

Let’s talk a little media bias here. The media, I think, wants Kerry to win. And I think they’re going to portray Kerry and Edwards – I’m talking about the establishment media, not Fox – but they’re going to portray Kerry and Edwards as being young and dynamic and optimistic and all. There’s going to be this glow about them that some, is going to be worth, collectively, the two of them, that’s going to be worth maybe 15 points.

Perhaps this should have prepared us for the article on Kerry in the current issue of The New Yorker. It's by a staffer named Philip Gourevitch, who's one of those nonpartisan but highly intelligent and slightly condescending voices the country's snootiest magazine has blessed us with for the better part of a century. As usual, the article begins with several headers, the first being 'Fact' in big red letters, followed by 'Campaign Journal,' also in red, and then 'Damage Control,' the byline, and, finally, the message: Voters need to believe that John Kerry can put the country back on track. Note the subtlety of New Yorker prose; Philip is threading the needle somewhere between an objective statement and a low-key push in the right direction.

It may seem from my detailed introduction to the piece that I am suggesting a word-by-word consumption of Philip's lengthy analysis of Kerry and his foreign policy quandary. I am not. Rather, I'm going to offer some tips on the best way to extract the delicate flavor of journalistic writing that is more like wine than beer or a shot of bar-brand bourbon. It takes finesse, patience, a certain restraint, and some strict methodology. Permit me to demonstrate.

It's never necessary to read the first few sentences of a New Yorker lede. These are always exercises in deliberate digression, a coy feint in one or two different directions from where the piece is really going. There's going to be some useless but artfully phrased detail, and then a slow wide downward turn into the actual subject. A sample of the useless, irrelevant detail in Philip's opening paragraph:

Even among the Democrats in his audience, which was packed with soberly tailored politicians, diplomats, military officers, and captains of finance, industry, philanthropy, and think tanks, there was a sense of near-certitude—for some delightful, for others grim—that Howard Dean was unstoppable. As a governor, Dean had been spared having to take sides when the resolution authorizing President George W. Bush to invade Iraq was passed in both houses of Congress, in October of 2002, and he’d made himself a scourge to his rivals in the primary race who voted for it. He called them “Bush Lite.”

Nobody cares about Dean. There's no point in reading this part. The article doesn't begin until we start getting artfully overblown details about Kerry himself, which happens in the next sentence:

Kerry’s deeply recessed eyes, small as an elephant’s, appeared more than usually narrowed in those days, and his smile, too, had tightened into the sort of skeptical wince that a cartoon dad displays to signal his endurance of adolescent noise.

Yes, folks. A New Yorker article is always a journey, from some remote incident the author has identified as a touchstone or beginning of some kind, through various highways and byways, with stops along the way to marvel at pretty scenery, before arriving somewhat indirectly at a conclusion which is more to be inferred by the reader than stated directly by the writer. And since everything important happens in the form of trenchant anecdotes or nuanced dependent clauses, it's a process of acculturation to the writer's tone more than anything else. There isn't really going to be an argument to follow, only a flavor and a bouquet to be appraised. It's like a wine-tasting. And for that reason there's no need to guzzle the whole bottle.

To appreciate Philip's unique insight about Kerry, we need only take a sip now and then and roll it carefully around our tongues. Some eye-rolling doesn't hurt either. Here's a sip:

“A few months ago,” Richard Holbrooke said to me, “I couldn’t go down the street in New York or Washington without people stopping me and asking, ‘Why isn’t he speaking out more clearly on Iraq?’” But Holbrooke, who is considered a leading contender for the post of Secretary of State in a Kerry Administration, thought that Kerry had just the right strategy. “We are in the throes of the greatest crisis since Vietnam and maybe even worse. Kerry has to allow events to unfold. But he should not be expected to lay out a plan significantly more detailed than he has, because it’s not necessary at this point. Everyone knows he would do it differently.”

The worse the 'crisis,' the less need there is for the opposition to speak about it. Cool. We're obviously dealing with vintage grape here, nothing showy or loud about it, but smooth and inoffensive. Kerry would do it 'differently.' Ah.

In a wine-tasting, there is a step known as clearing the palate. It involves consuming a cracker or some other neutral but absorbing taste that restores the taste buds to a state not compromised by the previous sip. It's no different with reading a New Yorker piece. For those who don't know how to clear the palate after a paragraph like that, try this.

You see how it works? Now we're ready to return to the calm reasonableness of Philip's prose for another go:

Despite the bloody and embittering disarray of Iraqi life after more than a year under the American dispensation, Bush describes the Iraq adventure as a great success for the cause of freedom—exactly as he said it would be before the war. The main change in attitude lies in the grammatical perspective, a shift in tense from future perfect to present continuous. If anything, Bush’s insistence on the righteousness of his script has intensified. He jokes about never reading newspapers, lets it be known that he communicates with the Almighty, and dismisses his critics as pessimists. He told the nation that if he had made any mistakes he was unaware of them, and he said, “I fully understand the consequences of what we’re doing. We’re changing the world.”

Last month on c-span, Kerry responded, “If you haven’t made mistakes, you’re not a living human.” By way of an example, he pointed to his own Senate vote, in October of 2002, for the Iraq war resolution. His mistake, he said, was “to trust what the President said” at the time. But Kerry didn’t repudiate his vote; he never has, even when the temptation was enormous.

It takes some fine writing to make decisiveness and resolve look weakly inept compared to constant vacillation. But that's why The New Yorker pays Philip the big bucks. Without ever abandoning his reasoned and finely calibrated precision of language, Philip has -- almost inadvertently, it would seem -- reminded us that George W. Bush is an illiterate fundamentalist boob who seems out of place appearing in the same sentence with the word "grammatical." Does it even matter what the issues are? All we need is to know that Kerry can "admit a mistake" and that he would never be guilty of the kinds of excesses every decent person scorns in George Bush. Well done, Philip.

Once again, it's time to clear the palate. Here's another cracker.

The important thing to remember about our sips is that they can be almost random. Here's one more:

“This may be our last chance to get this right,” Kerry said, and, as always, that meant “We have to truly internationalize both politically and militarily: we cannot depend on a U.S.-only presence.”

The mission he had in mind was elaborate: involving the U.N. and nato and an international high commissioner in a dizzying hatchwork of overlapping and shared authority. It was as lavish an expression of multilateralism as the Bush mission is stark in its unilateralism. But, while there were too many notes in the composition of Kerry’s dream coalition, it struck the signature chord of his campaign’s foreign policy unmistakably: that “America is safer and stronger when it is respected around the world, not feared,” and that such respect must come from strong alliances, forged by the hard work of diplomatic persuasion under committed Presidential leadership. “Now the question,” Kerry announced. “Why would others join a cause that they did not support in the first place? For one simple reason: it’s in their profound self-interest. And the President needs to put that self-interest on the table and before the world.”

I could have used the paragraph before this or the paragraph after. I could have skipped ahead or stayed near the beginning. The result is almost invariably the same. We have learned the taste of Philip's wine, and it seems to be the same even after a mouthful of neutralizing cracker. Anyone need another mouthful now? Here you go.

The reading lesson is almost concluded. Obviously, it is permissible to read the whole interminable article. It's just not necessary. It's principally about perceiving the tone, which encapsulates anything that might otherwise be measurable as fact or logic. It's still generally a good idea to taste the end of the piece, just to make sure that no sensory errors have skewed our perceptions along the way. Herewith the end of Philip's masterpiece:

Holbrooke said, “This is a referendum on Bush and Iraq. We’ve got a long way to go to the election, and three undetermined events are key here—what happens in Iraq, whether we kill or capture bin Laden, and whether or not there is a terrorist attack in the United States.”

Kerry doesn’t disagree, although he told me, “No matter what happens, the economy is going to be important. But I think these guys—what they’re trying to do to me reflects their bankruptcy of ideas. They don’t have a real economic plan, except for the tax cut. They don’t have a real health-care plan. They don’t have a plan for education, except the broken promise of ‘No Child Left Behind.’ So, therefore, what do they do? They attack, they attack, they attack, they attack. And I will continue to talk throughout this campaign about foreign policy and the war on terror and how to make America more secure.” That was the bottom line, he said: “I think we can do better. I know we can do better. I absolutely know we can do better.” By John Kerry’s own assessment, doing better is a woefully low standard—and that, he told me, was precisely what made him run for President. “I just said, ‘This has gotta stop.’”

Yep. No mistake. And just to wrap things up as neatly as possible, a final cracker. Palate clear now? Good.

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