With Congress in recess, the White House on vacation, and Iraq relatively quiet, the pundits served moldy leftovers on Thanksgiving weekend. Issue 1 was Janet Reno's decision whether to appoint an independent counsel to investigate Clinton's and Gore's fund-raising phone calls. The pundits and political guests unanimously agreed that Reno wouldn't.
Susan Page (CNN's Late Edition) expressed the consensus that such a decision will set off "World War III between congressional Republicans and the White House," and that Reno will surely appoint an independent counsel to investigate the alleged link between campaign contributions and Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt's rejection of an Indian casino license. Once authorized, that independent counsel will follow the money back to the White House and investigate the phone calls anyway, Page explained.
Offering the only new spin on the independent counsel was Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, guesting on CNN's Capital Gang. He insisted that Reno must appoint, comparing the sneaky Chinese donations to the rampant spying and other efforts to influence American politics by the Soviet Union after World War II. The U.S. government concealed the extent of the Soviet penetration, injuring democracy and fueling conspiracy theories in the process. Unless government comes clean about the Chinese influence-peddlers, the tragedy will repeat, Moynihan said.
The pundits combined the ongoing Asian economic meltdown with the Pacific Rim economic summit to frame Issue 2. Mark Shields (PBS's NewsHour With Jim Lehrer) and Alan Murray (Washington Week in Review) marveled at the difference between Vancouver and earlier Pacific summits. In the old days, U.S. officials would arrive at the meetings and concede the 21st century to the Asian tigers. Then they'd submit to public browbeatings from the tigers for running such huge trade deficits. Roles were reversed at this summit, Shields and Murray noted. Asian countries are pandering to the United States for bailouts and Asian capital is flowing into U.S. markets.
Several pundits recited the economic arithmetic of the Asian meltdown: 1) Desperate Asian economies will dump goods here, benefiting U.S. consumers--but hurting U.S. workers--and reducing our inflation. 2) U.S. exports won't fall because Asia isn't an important export market for U.S. goods. 3) Japan is rich enough to bail itself out. Pat Buchanan (The McLaughlin Group) denounced the "crony capitalism" of Asia and predicted that the coming International Monetary Fund bailout will run into the hundreds of billions of dollars. Kate O'Beirne (NewsHour) called the bailout welfare for undeserving corporations. Al Hunt (Capital Gang) represented the pro-IMF caucus, citing the success of the Mexican bailout.
Iraq dropped to Issue 3 after three weeks at No. 1. Suffering issue fatigue, the pundits could only repeat themselves. George Stephanopoulos (ABC's This Week) still thinks we have no alternative but to assassinate Saddam. Bill Kristol (This Week) still thinks we have no alternative but to commit ground troops. George Will (This Week) still thinks that the diminished U.S. military gives us no alternative at all. In such a situation, description substitutes for opinionizing. "Saddam blinks and so does the White House," said Margaret Carlson on Fox News Sunday.
Repetitive Pundit Syndrome took its toll on O'Beirne. On NewsHour, recorded Friday night, O'Beirne made sense when she argued for a unilateral strike against Iraq. Her logic? Saddam's neighbors "want to appease whoever they think--between the United States and Saddam--is going to be the ultimate victor." Therefore, a show of force will rally the region to our side. By the next evening on CNN's Capital Gang, O'Beirne had fused her two salient NewsHour points--the IMF smells like corporate welfare and a unilateral strike against Iraq is warranted--into a Unified Bill Clinton Theory. She said the president reliably says the correct things about foreign policy and economics, and then reliably blows it by deferring to the internationalists at the United Nations and the IMF. O'Beirne's theoretical overreach proves that pundits--like truck drivers--can only work a fixed number of hours before they become reckless.
Yuck Yuck: We should back the Republican proposal to rename Washington National Airport in honor of Ronald Reagan, said Bill "Shecky" Kristol on This Week, just to "annoy" Democrats like Stephanopoulos every time they land in D.C.
Surfacing: The pundits plumbed the upcoming global-warming treaty conference in Kyoto for its political content. The American left has gone international to win a "phony treaty" that curbs greenhouse gases, Kristol alleged, because they can't accomplish their goal domestically. He added the non sequitur that nerve gas is more of a threat "to our children than global warming." Page predicted that no breakthrough would emerge from Kyoto because Stuart Eisenstat was attending as lead U.S. representative instead of Gore.
Bob X: Rowland Evans, Robert Novak, and Iraq-bound guest the Rev. Louis Farrakhan all pretended to be reasonable people on CNN's Evans & Novak. After Farrakhan left the set, Novak congratulated himself and Farrakhan for exhibiting such good talk-show manners. Predicting that he would "get a lot of heat" for treating the minister with respect, Novak said that Farrakhan was "more measured and a lot less confrontational and provocative than a lot of the politicians we talk to regularly on this program."
Yes, yes, the measured and polite Farrakhan. Has Novak never attended one of the minister's rallies? Farrakhan is always circumspect in the first act. But when the groundlings grumble for red meat in the second act, Farrakhan abandons the smiling visage and the angel-of-peace routine and spews. If Evans and Novak want to capture the real Farrakhan, "Pundit Central" suggests that they accompany him to one of his rallies. His transformation from reasonable man to demagogic bigot is as frightening as it is predictable.
-- Jack Shafer