Friday, March 26, 2010

About Those Beltway Hacks

Andrew Sullivan pivots from my tantrum about the Sunday shows to a more ambitious positive agenda, including this proposal:
Real questioning of people in power; discussion of issues, not process; fewer Beltway hacks; no predictions; no sports-journalism masquerading as a serious discussion of politics. 
I want to think about the whole thing, but first...what about those Beltway hacks?   Andrew asks for fewer, not a prohibition.  I think that's right.  Beltway hacks aren't useless, but they aren't used properly.

Take David Gergen.  Please!  (Sorry about that).  No, really.  Why do we want to hear from him?  Well, he has some actual knowledge.  He can tell us something about how White Houses are organized; if he or someone like him is analytically inclined, he can describe the pros and cons of different types of WH organization and presidential (and Chief of Staff) style.  Even if not analytically inclined, a Gergen can definitely let us know what it feels like inside a White House that is winning, losing, under siege, at war, etc.  A Gergen can also give outsiders some sense of the historical perspective shared by insiders.  Beltway hacks can talk about the history, or at least their memory, of House-Senate rivalry, which can help outsiders understand something about why the House was so reluctant to trust the Senate on reconciliation.  Someone who can remember the BTU tax fiasco can really inform viewers with shorter memories.

The other thing that Gergen can do -- and here, any really entrenched Beltway hack can do it, regardless of whether his or her experience is in the White House, the media, the Hill, K Street, or whatever -- is to inform us out here about what the sense of things are back there.  The cliche is true; Washington is in many ways a small town, and there's no question, at least not to me, that Washingtonians often share a sense of how things are going in Washington in general, and with the president in particular.  That sense of things may matter quite a bit; it's what Richard Neustadt called a president's "professional reputation."  If people in Washington think that the president is weak, that's something that informed Americans should know. 

What Gergen can't do, what he's not qualified to do, is to connect that insider sense with what the nation at large is up to.  It is, I suppose, possible to know both, but expertise in one (which consists of collecting and evaluating dozens of conversations with other Beltway insiders) has very little in common with expertise in the other (which often involves reading polling data, but also involves understanding economic statistics, cultural indicators, and who knows what-all else.  He also may not be qualified to do a number of other things: to evaluate and analyze policy; to offer procedural expertise beyond his experience (so don't ask Gergen about Congressional procedure); or, perhaps, to understand internal party dynamics, especially the party outside of Washington. 

What can make a Gergen valuable is, to a large extent, as an informant, not as an analyst.  That's not quite right...Gergen's assertions, as an analyst, are not useful.  As an analyst, I need to hear his argument in order for his assertions to be worth anything.  But as an informant, all I need to know is that he's a good reporter.  In 2007, it's useful to outsiders to know if Washingtonians think that Rudy Giuliani is a viable presidential candidate.  What Gergen (or Broder, or whoever) happens to believe on his own is a lot less interesting or useful, although if he has a strong argument, I'd be willing to listen.

Multiple Beltway hacks might be a good idea to the extent that there are multiple Beltway communities, and especially because in a partisan era few insiders are able to accurately report the sense of the entire Washington community.  But the CNN set and TV news in general are lousy with them, and I agree with Andrew that fewer would be better.  I will amend it, however: fewer Beltway hacks, and a lot more narrow focus on restricting them to the sorts of things on which they have real expertise.

1 comment:

  1. My favorite is when ABC's This Week has Liz Cheney as a guest on the roundtable and the group discusses the policies of the Bush Administration. Nothing like hearing the phrase "My Dad" to invoke a sense of serious political discussion...


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?