Column: President Wonk (?)

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Mr. Carpenter is a writer and doctoral candidate in American history at the University of Illinois.

I hope Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank is enjoying the new toaster oven the White House Communications Office promised him. To ward off the flock of flesh-eating Post attorneys trained to see something actionable in that statement, I should hasten to add that I'm sure Milbank is not, in fact, now cooking up tasty morsels in an imposing toaster courtesy executive branch propagandists. But one wonders. What, short of a complimentary electrical appliance, could have possessed this reporter to scribble an April 9 article headlined:"'Plain-Spoken' President Becomes West Texas Wonk"?

It caused this reader a double take. Surely what followed couldn't be about The president, who only a few months ago revealed a case of incurable wonkness-deficiency by declaring,"Can't living with a bill means it won't become law." Surely the article concerned some discovered prodigy, perhaps a cosmetology college president in Amarillo or Lubbock or some such thing. But the article was, indeed, about our George.

One trusts that Milbank merely suffered that day of April 9 from a violently high fever, as evidenced by his approving description of W. as an emerging"welfare wonk," a"weapons wonk," and an"accounting professor." (He may have a valid point with respect to the president's accounting talents, however.) The article cited some of W.'s recent musings about"TANF funds to be block-granted" and scaling back ICBMs"to a level commensurate with keeping a deterrence" as proof of POTUS'S new-found gravitas. All George had to do was memorize a few note-card briefing lines and Milbank--obviously with a nod from Post editors--pronounced him a man of creeping awareness.

Such fawning is a staggering puzzlement, yet indicative of the kid-glove, almost surreal treatment that the mainstream press so routinely doles out to--plainly--a superficially schooled and transparently cognitive commander in chief. Mr. Bush thoughtlessly dabbles in the advisability of using kinder, gentler nuclear weapons; permits precisely 153 corporate friends to write the nation's energy policy; radically alters fiscal policy to benefit less than one percent of the population; and sticks his head in the sand over a foreign powder keg whose potential destructiveness may, in time, dwarf the tragedy of 9-11. And what do Milbank & Co. have to say on the heels of these disgraceful clinkers? They dutifully quote a White House spokesman:"You have underestimated [Bush's] ability to be a first-rate policy wonk." Yes, we also underestimated the marketability of pet rocks.

But since the Post went out of its way to puff W.'s"wonkish" utterances of late, in the interest of balance it is only proper to remind folks who may be puffery-susceptible of some other presidential nuggets of record that substantiate a truer picture. To wit...

In Tampa our philosopher-king posited that"our nation must come together to unite." Move over, Wittgenstein, there's a new kid in town.

In Crawford, Texas, that Southern isle of sagebrush where W. can relax and think profound thoughts, he showed a thing or two to snooty intellectual politicians such as former senator George Mitchell, whose Middle East report the president originally dismissed by saying we first needed"to get the framework--the groundwork--not the framework, the groundwork to discuss a framework for peace, to lay the--all right."

Last June he straightened out know-it-all geographers by noting that"Africa is a nation that suffers from incredible disease." The upside to that observation, one supposes, is that at least the rest of the continent in which Africa is situated is relatively disease free.

Displaying his grasp of history as well as international affairs, W. just a few weeks ago--while honing his Post-reported wonkishness--noted in Tokyo that"for a century and a half now, America and Japan have formed one of the great and enduring alliances of modern times." Please understand: George sees the bigger picture.

He also demonstrated that John Nash isn't the only fellow with a beautiful mind for mathematics, when he announced in March that"we've tripled the amount of money. I believe it's from $50 million up to $195 million."

Around the same time he put an end, once and for all, to any silly questioning about his penetrating faculties:"There's nothing more deep than recognizing Israel's right to exist. That's the most deep thought of all.... I can't think of anything more deep than that right." Who could say it better?

In a way, the president is only honoring a Republican tradition. Eisenhower, of course, was famed for his tortured syntax, but just as famed for spouting bromides over substance, not unlike the current White House occupant. On the campaign trail of 1952, as U.S. military forces were bogged down around Korea's 38th parallel, one reporter covering Eisenhower quipped out of campaign-speech fatigue that their speeding train was about to cross"the 38th platitude."

Twelve years later an exasperated aide to that master of verbal ineptness, presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, begged the press:"Don't quote what he says. Quote what he means."

Fortunately for 1964's body politic, the press wasn't quite as obsequious as it seems today. The result of deferential, oh-my-God-we-can't-appear-liberal-at-any-cost journalism? Stratospheric presidential approval ratings despite the clumsiest administration since the one-two punches of Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. And we all know where their political finesse led us.

It's anybody's guess as to how long those ratings will hold in the 70-percent range, but all too often the press does what it can to help--either from a sense of denial or submission. I know one thing for sure, though. Should I ever begin shamelessly puffing a politician, at the very least that pol should send me a toaster oven.

© Copyright 2002 P. M. Carpenter

Fifth Columnist is published weekly by History News Network and

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More Comments:

Endorse - 4/16/2002

I think "Polly" prefers pretzels, finely chopped please, and, if possible, washed down with premium intoxicants from the private stock of the Enron Corporation.

Comment - 4/16/2002

----- Original Message -----
From: "Alex Moncrieff"
Sent: Monday, April 15, 2002 5:49 PM
Subject: 5th Columnist/Dana Milbank

I read with interest P.M. Carpenter's toasty incineration of Dana
Milbank's piece on [The Texas Wonk -].

While some like Carpenter might understandably apprehend Milbank's pov as
Bush "flattery," others more attuned to the "blunt nuance" of political
subtext could reasonably draw their own conclusions.

For example, Milbank's strategically inserted post-its of past Bushisms
to contrast Bush's now facile wonk-regurgitation does less to suggest
latent, obscured comprehension than the more likely probability
of pavlovian, reflexive repetition.

Imagine, if you will, the popular ruse of the profanity-spewing(or in the
case of Bush, malaprop-spewing) parrot exposed to one keg-party too many.
Now imagine the same polly with his cage moved to White House briefing
rooms full of real wonks spewing typical wonk-jargon. Presto! George W.
Bush, Polly Wonk a Slacker?

Of course, the "polly" aspect to this supremely feathered recreation
cannot be overstated for this is hardly the layered, lucid, incisive
wonkism of POTUS Clinton easily translated to public clarity and coherent
policy as evidence of comprehension.

Instead, we have today the muddied, muddled incoherence of George W.
Bush, Wonking Polly, who chirps brightly and convincingly for an audience
of like-minded birdbrains now dominating "the media."