Sean Wilentz: The Delusional Style in American Punditry

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Wilentz is professor of history at Princeton.]

Every now and then in American politics, normally balanced people get swept up by delusions of greatness about a presidential candidate, based on an emotional attachment to the candidate's oratory or image. The youthful William Jennings Bryan brought down the house and swept up the nomination with his famous "Cross of Gold" speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1896--only to be crushed by the dreary William McKinley in November.

Political journalists have never been immune to the delusional style. But editorialists and pundits are supposed to be skeptical experts, who at least try to appear as if they base their perceptions in facts and reality. Enthusiasm for a candidate because of his or her "intuitive sense of the world," "intuitive understanding," and discovery of "identity"--the favored terms in some recent press endorsements of Barack Obama--is presented as the product of such discerning, well-considered thinking. But it is in fact nothing more than enthusiasm, based on feelings and projections that are unattached to verifiable rational explanation or the public record.

In recent years, pundits from across the political spectrum--and not just in politics--have denigrated informed and reasoned decision-making in favor of hunches, snap judgments, instincts, and what the upscale middlebrow's favorite trendspotter, Malcolm Gladwell, defends as "instant intuition." The political pundits have praised candidates based on their projections about the candidates' characters, personalities, and inner lives--and what they imagine about the candidates' instincts. Possessed by a will to believe in somebody, the pundits intuit intuition. It is the delusional style in American punditry.

The style was particularly prominent during George W. Bush's rise to the presidency. Although Bush had a thin record on domestic matters as governor of Texas, no record whatsoever on foreign policy, and things to hide about his past, none of it mattered. As president, he has asked the American people to trust him because of his faith in himself and his God-given instincts--what he calls his "gut." For years, the Washington press corps was bowled over by such self-assurance. Having decided that the wonkish, reasonable Al Gore was boring and inauthentic, reporters covered Bush as a centered man with superb intuition.

Bush has governed in much the same way, with harrowing results. Shortly after the invasion of Baghdad in 2003, when Senator Joe Biden raised serious questions at a meeting in the Oval Office, Bush serenely pushed aside Biden's concerns about rising sectarian violence, the disbanding of the Iraqi army, and the growing problems of winning the peace. "Mr. President," Biden finally said, "How can you be so sure when you know you don't know the facts?"

Bush stood up and placed his hand on the senator's shoulder. "My instincts," he said meaningfully. "My instincts."

Biden, who had never been mesmerized by Bush's manufactured mystique, was incredulous. "Mr. President," he said, "Your instincts aren't good enough."

Yet today, after seven disastrous years of the Bush experience, otherwise rational editorialists and commentators are insisting that instincts basically are good enough--and are actually more important than what they consider prosaic credentials such as knowledge, experience, and sound policy proposals. The pundits have vaunted good vibes and gut-thinking as the crucial qualifications for the nation's highest office. They have turned the delusional style into a rallying cry--in support, at least for the moment, of the candidacy of Barack Obama and his allegedly superior intuition.

The Boston Globe, in an ideal specimen of the delusional style, ran an editorial that endorsed Obama because he is biracial and grew up in "multi-ethnic cultures"--adequate substitutes, by the editorial's lights, for serious background and expertise in foreign affairs. Obama, according to the Globe, has engaged in "a search for identity" and taken "a roots pilgrimage to Kenya," all of which supposedly displays a "level of introspection, honesty, and maturity" that the newspaper longs for in a president. "Obama's story is America's story," the Globe intoned--a sentence that comes as close as any distinguished newspaper ever has to perfect emptiness. ...
Read entire article at New Republic

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 1/27/2008

Gore is also the guy who couldn't identify a bust of Ben Franklin at Monticello.

Larry Cebula - 1/26/2008

Wilentz seems to be running for court historian for the Clintons, a Schlesinger to their Kennedy.

Alonzo Hamby - 12/23/2007

It seems to me that millions of people (albeit not a majority) voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004, either because they shared his professed values or becuase they considered him a competent manager. Whether they were correct is another matter.

As for Gore, I thought then, and still do, that he displayed weak leadership qualities, as measured by the standards of today's media politics, and also exhibited a certain intellectual mushiness.

I cannot refrain from quoting Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s evaluation in his recently published JOURNALS. After being subjected to what he described as a long and "rambling free association" monologue by the newly minted vice presidential candidate of 1992, Schlesinger "began to wonder what this sort of talk reminded me of. Suddenly the name swam into consciousness: Henry Wallace." (726-27)

Tim Matthewson - 12/22/2007

The press has a tendency to fall in love with candidates. Many reporters on McCain's Straight Talk Express bus in 2000 enjoyed listening to the Republican candidate and his off the cuff, maverick style and wrote a series of puff piecess about the war veteran, totally ignoring the issues and the candidate's knowledge of the world and ability to deliver on the concerns of the American electorate.
In 2000 Al Gore was too stiff for the press corp. During the debates the major issues were not what he said but the number of times he sighed during the debate. I must have seen the tape of his sighs hundreds of times in the following months, as if that was the most important issue of the campaign of 2000. I thought I was witnessing an exposition on drama criticism rather than an electoral campaign. The issues of the campaign -- health insurance, social security, foreign policy -- were totally irrelevant.
Now here we are again in a presidential campaign and the press is doing the same thing. The fact that the vast majority of the wealth in this country has gotten so skewed that most of it is controlled by the top 1% of the population does not matter to the press corp. Again it's likability that is the top issue -- we're again looking for a person to have a beer with after work, as the press did with George Bush -- because the press enjoyed showing pictures of Bush wearing boots and jeans, clearing brush and he knew how to operate a chainsaw.
The disaster that was the Bush administration has not registered with the American electorate. No lessons were learned. Americans are still looking for a persons to have a beer with after work. There is another disaster out there brewing!