Monday, September 25, 2006

The Big Dog Bites Back

by Sara Robinson

Well, Bill Clinton finally did what we've been waiting six long years for a Democrat (..any Democrat...) to do -- opened up a righteous big can of whupp-ass on the head of the MSM, and rub their faces in it, HARD. Hospital spokespeople state that Chris Wallace is still in guarded but stable condition, and is expected to recover in due time.

Over at Salon's War Room
(premium sub may be required), Glenn Greenwald puts this moment in a larger perspective:

The extent to which blatantly false propaganda can be casually disseminated in our political dialogue is genuinely jarring. Bush followers can make these blatantly false accusations and Chris Wallace can repeat them because they usually go unrebutted by a media that is too slothful and shallow to do the most basic research to determine if they were true. That is why Clinton's aggressive responses to Wallace were so welcome -- it is tragically rare to see anyone forcefully attacking the false propaganda that is the staple of our political debates.

It's tremendously important that Clinton argued back on the facts, and made them stick, even when Wallace kept trying to deflect him. But, in showing us his teeth -- and the white-hot fury that would no longer hold still for the bipartisan date-rape promised so long ago by Grover Norquist, and delivered daily ever since -- the Big Dog also took the whole country to school, and taught us a few things that we all need to remember going forward. Among the lessons:

1. We can debate Republicans on the merits -- but we should not let the facts alone carry the message. In a time of strong political passions, passion often carries the day.

Howard Dean got eviscerated in the media for using his outdoor voice, in large part because he was the first Democrat in anybody's memory who'd had the bad manners to do so. The rules he violated were clear, and had been in place for decades: Democrats weren't supposed to get emotional. Emotion is the GOP's gig -- and a huge reason for their success. If the Democrats started getting excited in public, they'll break up that useful stereotype of them as bland, soulless technocrats who don't love America -- and then where will the Republicans be? No, we can't be having that. So let's make sure Mr. Dean pays for his impropriety with his political life.

Well, Clinton put an end to that era yesterday. Let's hope we've seen the dawning of the new era of the passionate Democrat.

2. We can argue with terrifying force -- and still not yell.

Watching Clinton, I kept thinking: I would not want this man to be mad at me. Ever. He was intense, focused, so tightly sprung that he was almost coming out of his chair. He was in Wallace's space, jabbing him on the knee while accusing him and the rest of the media of gross unfairness and inaccuracy. His rage came out of the screen, a threat so large and looming that even very powerful people would not fail to pay attention.

And yet, through all of that, he never once raised his voice. There was plenty of energy -- but it was bound up in the lucid delivery of facts, and a dogged refusal to let go. He didn't waste it on digust, insult, hollering, or making wild gestures (beyond the poking). There was plenty of emotion -- but it was backed up to the hilt by reason, compassion, honesty, and intelligence. He stuck to the facts -- and made them stick.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is how liberals argue. There's the factual stuff we love. And there's the emotional heat many of our would-be constituents thrive on. But we do not compromise the purity of either the facts or the passion by wasting energy on yelling, screaming, name-calling, or personal threats. That's sandbox behavior -- and Americans are coming to realize that our times are too treacherous for politics to be left to the GOP's gang of kindergarten bullies. When the Democrats argue like grownups -- firmly and powerfully focusing our superior control of both ourselves and the facts -- we're telling the nation we can be trusted to handle the country's business in a grownup way.

3. The media cannot count on rolling over on supine Democrats any more.

The worst thing about being a journalist of my vintage is that the narrative arc of our careers has pretty much followed the career trajectory of Bob Woodward. We started out in the post-Watergate euphoria -- young and hungry, committed to our important role, true believers in Truth, Justice, and the American Way. And, over time, we watched ol' Bob and the rest of our peers sell out, cash in, suck up, and give away the franchise. As Glenn Greenwald says above, guys like Chris Wallace get paid more than the president -- but can't be bothered to spend five minutes with Google or Lexis-Nexis unearthing even a few shreds of background history that might put their stories into a larger, deeper context. Only rookies fresh out of college apparently bother themselves with actual research any more. The rank of a journalist is now measured by the degree to which they can get away with just making stuff up.

Corporate media is premised on the belief that consumers don't want that kind of analysis. It's not worth doing, because it doesn't sell airtime. And, conveniently, it also means they can say any damn fool thing about anybody, and nobody's ever going to go back and hold them accountable for it.

Yesterday, Clinton held Wallace and FOX News accountable. He said: This story has a real history, with real people doing things of real consequence. And, for once, I'm going to make you honor that. If you're not telling the whole tale -- all the way back to 1993 -- you're not doing your job. So I'm going to shame you in front of the whole country by doing it for you.

4. Fighting back does not cost us respect. It increases it -- especially when truth, honor, and American values are on the line.

Progressives aren't the only ones completely exasperated by the way Democrats meekly stand down at the merest growl or snarl from the GOP. Decades of shrinking back and saying "Nice doggy...nice doggy..." have not made the dog stop chewing our legs or eating our shorts. In fact, they've left us half-naked, and without a leg left to stand on.

The whole country has now noticed it -- and they're exasperated, too, wondering when we're going to start acting like real red-blooded Americans and start standing up for the merest basics of our own dignity. Most of us wouldn't trust an individual adult who willingly allowed others to impugn their motives, tell blatant lies about them, accept private abuse or public humiliation, or otherwise fail to defend their personal boundaries. And yet the Democratic party has done exactly that. It will not lift a finger to defend itself from decades of public GOP outrages; and yet, somehow, still thinks it can win the respect of the voters -- and with it, the right to lead the country.

In the past year or so, we've started to see the re-emergence of the Fighting Dem -- but Clinton's performance on Sunday was a breakthrough. Because of who he is, FOX couldn't reduce it to a few loony soundbites, or cut the interview short, or pretend it never happened. And so the country got to see what real liberal outrage can be -- elegant, adult, brilliant, furious, and compelling.

Let's not let this moment get by us. Let's watch the replay a few times, take careful notes, and make sure we learn the lessons. And the next time we're confronted with the braying hordes of GOP mutts, we could do a whole lot worse than take a minute, reflect on Sunday's takedown, ask ourselves: "What would the Big Dog do?" -- and do it.

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