The Atlantic outgasses Dubya.

Media criticism.
Jan. 21 2004 6:14 PM

Gas Attack

The AtlanticMonthly serves something more noxious than Bush's State of the Union.

The Atlantic wonks around the clock.
The Atlantic wonks around the clock

Presidents discharge so much self-congratulatory and specious gas during their State of the Union addresses it's a wonder that their words don't blast out the door to fill the Rotunda and hoist the Dome from its moorings. Yet we endure the State of the Union address because the president commands a constituency, because his writers know how to turn a phrase and make an argument, and because he stands in a position to set fire to his gas. But mostly we endure the State of the Union because, as in the case of President George W. Bush's last night, the spiel rarely lasts more than 54 minutes.

None of these palliatives apply to the Atlantic Monthly's "State of the Union" package, produced for the January-February issue "in partnership with the New America Foundation" for the second year in a row. This 33,000-word barge grinds bottom for 40 pages, unimpeded by wit, verve, originality, or any of the other attributes we associate with successful political rhetoric or good magazine journalism. If you can imagine a dozen 750-word New York Times op-ed pieces, each bloated by a factor of three or four or five, suffused with the earnestness of a parson, and constructed with the flattest language available, then you've still not comprehended the pomposity of this special section.

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My quarrel isn't with the State of the Union package's ideas, as much as I might disagree with its inventive new proposals to redistribute income and expand the government's role in everyday life. I'm an idea omnivore who reads across the political spectrum. What irks is the package's deadly presentation, the conceit advanced by the editors and writers at the Atlanticand the New America Foundation that they alone have the intellectual courage to confront the country's problems. Writing about rationing health care for the package, Don Peck puffs himself and his piece up with the observation, "These are hard questions with high moral stakes." Nathan Littlefield, agonizing over the deficit, writes, "No one is asking the hard questions about what kind of society we would like to be." No one? Not even the guys in sweater vests at the Brookings Institution? This isn't goo-goo preaching, this is the voice of God.

A God who appears to be self-contradictory and duplicitous. Paul Starobin checks in with a piece about the productive uses of political rage, proclaiming the good news that liberal rage is on the uptick. The body bags coming back from Iraq are "generating antiwar wrath at the powers that be in Washington," he writes. Alas for Starobin's argument, the results from Monday's Iowa caucuses indicate that antiwar wrath isn't great enough to move Howard Dean to anything better than third place. Starobin's idea of an "articulate" and "imposing" representative of liberal rage is novelist Jane Smiley, who wakes up some mornings in the paradise of Carmel Valley, Calif., seething about the Republicans and their "toxic patriotism, toxic religion, and toxic racism." Not to disenfranchise rich people who live in nice places, but in previous decades we'd dismiss somebody like Smiley as a limousine liberal.

A few pages before Littlefield frets about the $45.5 trillion shortfall between the government's projected outlays and revenues, Jennifer Washburn proposes that the government spend an additional $15 billion on low-income college students. But in the language of the piece, this isn't spending, it's "investment." Laurie Rubiner accomplishes universal health care by requiring all U.S. residents to buy insurance—"with government help if necessary." Her proposal would add another $80 billion in government outlays but is silent about the billions spent by residents coerced into the program. One also assumes that the program would be means-tested, and people who can afford health insurance but won't buy it would be shot or sent to jail.

Maya MacGuineas, New America's fiscal wizard, proposes to pay for all this Good Government with a new tax system. (For ideological reasons, I cannot adopt her loaded language of "reform," "progressive," "regressive," "loopholes," "fairness," etc.) The magic bullet in this system is a consumption tax that grows as you spend more, with no taxes charged to those who make $25,000 or less. You don't have to be an accountant to identify it as a massive income redistribution plan.

The only relief from these soft-left pitches, none of which would look out of place on the Institute for Policy Studies' menu, come from Shannon Brownlee and Francis Fukuyama. In a concise and sprightly 850 words, Brownlee calls for a national database of medical outcomes to reduce health care costs. If we knew what interventions and therapies work, and what ones don't, we could save up to $1.5 billion a year. Fukuyama, meanwhile, does that Fukuyama thing, explaining the need for a "standing U.S. government office to manage nation-building." I don't agree with Fukuyama, but at least his piece doesn't read like a monologue by a second-rate professor who has just set his pipe down to share a few giant thoughts.

The State of the Union compendium shares a deceit with the New America Foundation. Ted Halstead, New America's founder and one of the contributors, loves to talk about how his foundation's message is "beyond left and right," when his organization rarely ventures beyond the sort of ideas you'd encounter driving the New Deal/Great Society Freeway. This is not to say that New America has wasted its money subsidizing the journalism of such stars as Kate Boo, Margaret Talbot, and Peter Bergen and bright young things Jonathan Chait and Brendan Koerner. But Halstead's "beyond left and right" slogan is a fund-raising shuck, and any claim that his State of the Union package teems with unorthodox and viable policy solutions should be investigated for fraud. (If the fraud unit opens a file on Halstead, it should subpoena his fellow State of the Unioner George W. Bush, too.)

So, what explains the Atlantic'scollaboration with New America? In the post-Michael Kelly era, might the magazine be abandoning journalism for tendentious think-tank wonkery? That's the niche the magazine occupied before Kelly took over, Scott Sherman observed a year ago in CJR. The magazine "leaned in the direction of policy," Sherman writes, because then-editor William Whitworth felt "there was something indulgent about pure narrative."

Such worries about a bloodless Atlanticare premature. The January-February issue, captained by Managing Editor Cullen Murphy, who has been "trying out" for the job of editor since Kelly died, contains a surplus of smart, reported pieces that stand in absolute contrast to the State of the Union. The line-up staggers: William Langewiesche, Joshua Green, James Fallows, Kenneth M. Pollack, P.J. O'Rourke, and Mark Bowden, plus essays from the wicked pens of Christopher Hitchens, Mark Steyn, and Caitlin Flanagan. (Hey, New America, why don't you give Flanagan one of your fellowships?) Excepting the New America bilge, is there a better magazine on the newsstand this month?

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