Thursday, July 15, 2004

Listen to What I Mean, Not What I Say

Last week in a column under the head "A Push for Bush" Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times began:

Since President Bush hasn't called me to ask how he can get re-elected, I'm afraid this will be gratuitous advice. But what the heck. . . .
Now that John Kerry has found a running mate, Mr. President, you need to lose one. Dick Cheney has to fake chest pains.

As this excerpt suggests, Kristof's tone is "columnist conversational" -- and thus it all seems a little tongue-in-cheek -- but much of the column is a common-sense explication of just why it would be good for Bush to drop Cheney and how it could be done.

The reader thinks, "Oh, Lord."

Then, at the end, we get a double kicker:

(For the president's eyes only: Mr. President, you're probably wondering why you should take advice from a columnist who criticizes many of your policies. You may even imagine that I'm an ardent Kerry supporter. But look at it this way: I want to be read, and if Mr. Kerry wins, he'll adopt boring, reasonable positions, and I'll be stuck with nuanced analyses that even my mother won't read. In contrast, you may not always be great for this country, but you're terrific for sputtering pundits.)

(For my regular readers only: Don't feel betrayed by this column. I'm not actually being as helpful to the president as you may think. Mr. Bush has shown that he pays close attention to all my advice because he consistently does precisely the opposite. So Mr. Cheney is now guaranteed a spot on the ticket.)

What do these two grafs add up to?

1) A joke based on the conversational style of the column suggesting that we are "overhearing" a postscript intended only for the president. It's consistent with the idea the column is "intimate" communication. (Never underestimate the appeal of the epistolary novel, which is one way of viewing the conversational columnist).

2) The quite reasonable point that bashing a politician whose personal style is distinctive and whose positions are repulsive makes it easier to write a certain kind of column. And that kind of highly flavored column is what a certain kind of reader likes.

3) This "eyes only" comment is a twist. The sudden cynical honesty is a surprise. The bane of any newspaper story, either straight news or columnizing, is the reader who gets the point in the first graf and quits reading. I wondered where the column was going, what the surprise would be. And here one is, right on schedule. My point is that the more "literary" the column, the more likely it is that the reader assumes the column will have a payoff at the end, either stylistic/rhetorical or in terms of content, that will make reading to the end necessary, or at least worthwhile. Never underestimate "style." I always waited patiently through those last four commercials for the fillip at the end of Seinfeld.

4) The second parenthetical comment doubles the joke, and doubling or topping or exaggerating the joke is "Writing 101," as Dave Barry once told me when I pointed out something similar in one of his columns.

5) More to the point, Kicker One suggests the columnist lacks core values, that he puts his own employability above the welfare of the country. Those who read Kristof regularly would get the irony and would understand that Kristof does NOT want Bush elected. Does Kristof trust to irony? Yes and no. He does not trust the reader to understand that Kristoff is not really an opportunist. That's the point of the final aside to his faithful readers in which he says that his real strength is that whatever he recommends, Bush will do the opposite. And that statement he does mean, though the mechanism is a little more complicated than he suggests. The last paragraph implies a rather more subtle point. If enough columnists and commentators discuss the possibility of Bush dropping Cheney, making clear how cynical and manipulative such a move would be, it does reduce the likelihood of Bush being able to do it for many reasons, including but not limited to the denials Bush and Cheney must utter as the idea is repeatedly broached and the priming of the indignation Cheney supporters would feel if Cheney were dropped.

So, once again, in the world of the columnist, by indirection we find directions out.

(Update: And today Kerry spells it out:

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry said Thursday that if Bush replaces Cheney, it will be the latest in a string of broken promises.

"It will mean that the president's word once again doesn't mean anything, that he himself is the flip-flopper of all flip-floppers because he's been touting how important Dick Cheney is," Kerry told broadcaster Don Imus. "The fact is that George Bush would be declaring an act of desperation, a sudden move that goes contrary to everything he's said."

Bonus link: More Cheney cartoons that you can shake a @#!!&$ at.

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