PARIS -- Often when Europeans see President George W. Bush depicted by
U.S. media as "bold," "resolute," morally upright and visionary --
despite ethical, intellectual, grammatical, political and diplomatic
deficiencies that would disqualify almost anyone else from public works
administration, much less the leadership of the free world -- they
anoint me spokesman for America and ask, "What's wrong with your
journalists? Can't they see through this guy?"
I've tested countless solutions to this riddle, but never really put my
finger on Bush's uncanny knack for turning the cream of American
newshounds into a lot of slobbering lapdogs -- 'til the other day, when
Rosalind Russell came to mind.
Russell's plum role was Hildy Johnson, opposite Cary Grant's Walter
Burns in "His Girl Friday," Howard Hawks' comedy about reporters.
Besides being great cinema, "His Girl Friday" encapsulates journalism's
growth since 1940. It suggests how a dissembling charmer like Dubya can
effortlessly hypnotize today’s reporters, although Hildy's team would
have ground him into mincemeat.
The monograph of "His Girl Friday" sets the story "in the 'Dark Ages'
of the newspaper game." It adds that the characters bear "no
resemblance to the men and women of the press today."
Amen to that. Except for Hildy, none of the film's reporters has the
benefit of higher education. A gaggle of blue-collar cynics who rarely
interrupt their eternal poker game, they sneer at the targets of their
reportage and snigger at human tragedy. Hildy sums them up aptly as "a
lot of daffy buttinskies running around without a nickel in their
pocket... peeking through keyholes... chasing after fire engines...
stealing pictures off old ladies..."
Today's journalists are a finer breed. Even though Walter Burns might
regard them -- men and women alike -- as "little college girls from the
school of journalism," they have uplifted the profession from mere
literacy to near literature.
Indeed, today's school of journalism is not Hildy's inner-city diploma
mill. It's an elite graduate school that requires four years' grounding
in a reputable liberal arts university. While matriculating, today's
new improved reporters studied the great works of Western letters --
Shakespeare, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and guys like that. They
learned that good prose is more than just an inverted pyramid and an
edit from the bottom. They cherish the symmetry of a perfect sentence,
the sublimity of a vivid description and, above all, the power of
characterization to illuminate and uplift a narrative.
In their pre-journalism studies, reporters also pondered what might be
termed the "Raskalnikov dilemma." The hero of Dostoyevsky’s "Crime and
Punishment," Raskalnikov, presents one of the defining problems of
modern literature (and by extension, journalism): Must the author
provide a likable protagonist as a means to engage the reader and
justify the telling of the tale?
Dostoyevsky's answer was obviously, "Nyet." His protagonist starts the
book by murdering a little old lady. Only much later, after anguishing
over the murder for 400 pages, repenting his crime and healing his soul
with love for a saintly prostitute named Sonia, does Raskalnikov earn
the reader’s sympathy. But he’s still not a guy you'd want to have a
beer with. In the whole book, Sonia is the nearest thing to a "likable
protogonist," except... well, she's a whore.
Academics resolve Raskalnikov by explaining that, in serious
literature, requiring a "likable protagonist" is a bourgeois hindrance
to artistic expression. Popular fiction, however, is less flexible.
Your pop-fiction writer, pandering to a public composed largely of the
(bourgeois) sales staff of a publishing house, pretty much has to cough
up at least one huggable main character in Chapter 1. Or else!
So, what about journalism? Certainly, it's not the cutthroat tabloidism
of Walter Burns' day. But is it literature -- or just pop fiction?
During the Clinton era, America's new wave of college-bred journalists
-- bless their hearts -- bravely opted for literature. They wrote a
presidential narrative that Tennessee Williams would've been proud to
call his own -- crawling with sleazy sex, bickering spouses,
backstabbing staffers and tawdry courtroom theatrics, all presided over
by the Adulterer-in-Chief.
Trouble was, America wasn't quite ready for tabloid crypto-lit. The
more the press flogged its version of "Crime and Punishment," the less
Clinton resembled Raskalnikov. Stubbornly and cheerily, readers ignored
Bill's dark side, seeing him instead as a sort of lovable rascal, like
Jay Gatsby or Rhett Butler.
This debacle taught the media that, despite their Master's degrees,
they were safer sticking -- like Hildy Johnson — to bourgeois pulp. So,
as Clinton's narrative wound down, reporters started seeking a "likable
protagonist." They chose Dubya over Al Gore, probably because they were
pretty sure Bush couldn't pronounce "Dostoyevsky," much less read
"Crime and Punishment." Eventually, by morphing Dubya from a dyslexic
lightweight into madcap fiction ("Bertie Wooster Runs for President"),
the U.S. Media cleansed the Clinton stain and reclaimed the affection
of their audience -- while totally befuddling the rest of the world.
Ironically, the following thumbnail of Raskalnikov’s murder plan, which
I found in my "Reader's Companion" sounds -- if you read it closely --
more like the Bush presidency than the Dostoyevskian Clinton years:
"Though it has been carefully planned, it has been planned as a sort of
daydream, which [Bush] himself hardly believes in, and the plan is
finally carried through on impulse... with a mixture of devious cunning
and neurotic blundering."
David Benjamin (email@example.com), journalist and novelist, has been editor of the
Mansfield (Mass.) News, Tokyo Journal and other periodicals. His books
include The Life and Times of the Last Kid Picked. Born and raised in
Wisconsin, he now lives in Paris.