Mike Kueber's Blog

February 25, 2015

Bill O’Reilly vis-à-vis Brian Williams

Filed under: Media — Mike Kueber @ 7:44 pm
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If you depend on FOX News for your news, you might be under the impression that Bill O’Reilly has successfully defended himself against liberal attempts to paint him with the same broad brush that took down Brian Williams. As Bernard McGuirk stated this morning on Imus in the Morning, Williams was guilty of the mortal sin of “stolen valor,” whereas O’Reilly had shown unquestionably that his claims of war-zone reporting had not been embellished.

But fortunately, I don’t get all my news from FOX. I also get news from the NT Times, and the Times this morning included an article on O’Reilly suggesting that the charges of “self-aggrandizing rhetoric” by this “professional provocateur…. have since been substantiated by other journalists in Argentina at the time.”

My inclination is to agree with the Times. O’Reilly often brags about covering “war zones,” including the Falklands war zone in the early 80s. Well, the only Falklands war hostilities occurred on or near the islands, not 1,000 miles away in Buenos Aires. O’Reilly admits that he didn’t report from the Falklands because only one reporter was allowed on the Islands, and that reporter wasn’t him.  But somehow O’Reilly want to defend his “war zone” claim by arguing that the war was reported by all but one reporter from Buenos Aires. The response to that argument is that only one reporter, then, gets to claim war-zone reporting on his resume.

O’Reilly tries to work his way around this obstacle by discussing the dangerous post-war rioting in Buenos Aires. That’s fine if O’Reilly wants to claim riot reporting, but not war reporting. The riots in Buenos Aires were of local Argentinians protesting against their government for losing the war in the Falklands. Domestic riots do not qualify for war zones.

And getting back to McGuirk’s comment about Williams’s “stolen valor,” I fail to see any meaningful distinction between Williams falsely claiming his helicopter was hit by enemy fire and O’Reilly falsely claiming that he reported from a war zone. Both are suggesting front-line activity that never happened.

The Times article also pointed out fairly why O’Reilly’s faux pas will not likely lead to his demise, like Williams’s did:

  • There are other differences between the two controversies. The incident at the center of Mr. O’Reilly’s occurred more than 30 years ago; Mr. Williams’s happened in 2003. And his accusers are journalists, not military veterans as they were in Mr. Williams’s case. But the most meaningful point of distinction — and the reason Mr. O’Reilly’s job is almost certainly safe — is that he is not an anchorman, with all of the cultural weight that title carries.”

I agree. Even O’Reilly’s fans know that he is a braggart with an outsize ego. Consistent with that reputation is his oft-mentioned claim of being a Harvard man who grew up in Levittown. But while reading his Wikipedia bio, I learned that is not really true. Although O’Reilly, grew up in Levittown, he went to college at Marist, and then after a few years of teaching, he earned a Masters at Boston University. And finally, more 20 years later and after becoming a VIP, he obtained a Masters in Public Administration from Harvard.

So much for the implication that this poor Irish kid from Levittown was brilliant enough to get into Harvard. As we used to say back in North Dakota, he seems to be a legend in his own mind.

January 23, 2011

Sunday book review #10 – The Next Big Story by Soledad O’Brien

Full disclosure – I read The Next Big Story with a disposition not to like Soledad O’Brien because I recently heard her interviewed on TV justifying her affirmative-action admission to Harvard.  In the interview, she cited her mother for saying that it was better to get into Harvard because you are black than to be excluded from Harvard because you are black.  I think that philosophy is wrong, even if it comes from a saintly mother.

The first story described in the book supported my theory that Soledad was a life-long elitist with a feeling of entitlement.  The incident concerned an 11-year-old Soledad and her 14-year-old sister Estela visiting a local Long Island photographer to have their picture taken for a gift to their mother.  Although the 30-year-old white photographer was “exceeding polite,” he rocked the girls’ world by asking, “Forgive me for asking, but are you black?”  

While Soledad is speechless because the “nice-sounding words make her feel small and embarrassed, my sister is light-years ahead of me.  She starts to shred the guy.  ‘Offend us?  Offend us?  By asking if we are black?’ ….  Estela is totally on it.  I am very impressed that she can articulate her anger so well at fourteen.  She is already able to take apart a grown man.  She’s so much more on top of it than me.  ‘Forgive me if I’m offending you…’  We don’t have to take this crap.  And from a photographer?  Estella gives me the universal body language for ‘we’re taking a walk’ and off we go.”

I don’t know how Soledad defines “articulate,” but I fail to discern anything articulate in Estella’s speech.  Further, I don’t know what is impressive about a 14-year-old girl being able to take apart an exceedingly polite 30-year-old photographer.  And finally, I don’t know what being a photographer has to do with level of insult one should accept.

Only a few pages later in the book, Soledad irritated me even more in insulting her hometown of Smithtown on Long Island.  Although Soledad admits that Smithtown was a wonderful place to grow up, she gratuitously impugns Smithtown by describing recent litigation over the town’s resistance to accept Section 8 housing from non-residents from the NYC environs:

  • This is one of the reasons my town was split into two – a landing place for the American dream had slammed the door shut on anyone new.  That is not what being American is about.  Our communities thrive because they renew themselves with people who bring in new ideas and refresh out culture.  Smithtown could have only gotten better by welcoming people aspiring to make good.  The duality of my home town didn’t have to exist.  They had the choice to embrace new people and encourage change or reject newcomers and limit growth.  My parents had so much to contribute to Smithtown, including six children who appreciated the obvious benefits of where they lived and went on to succeed.  We are proof that a choice to welcome newcomers can help a community thrive.”

The preceding passage is incredible.  Is it disgraceful for a rural city to resist an influx of Section 8 people from the NYC metro area?  Why does Soledad think her parents chose to live in Smithtown instead of NYC?  Does Soledad seriously equate the value added to a city by her family (headed by a college professor and a high school teacher) with that of a family living in Section 8 housing? 

Soledad left Smithtown to enroll like her four older siblings at Harvard.  Instead of directly addressing the role of affirmative action in her matriculation, Soledad mentions it only indirectly – “I am here because I have strong grades.  They like strong grades.  I was a woman and they needed women, a person of color and they wanted people of color.”

After college, Soledad became a “minority writer trainee” for an NBC TV station WBZ in Boston, and the doubts about her qualifications began – “Once you’ve been tagged a minority, the strange process begins.  At times I feel like I have a question mark hovering over my head.  Why are you here?  It is your race?  Do you have any skills, anyway?…  I demand to know what I need to know to get to the next level.”  That sounds to me like a prototypical sense of entitlement.

In 1993, after five years in Boston as a field producer, Soledad moved to an NBC station KRON in San Francisco because her boyfriend lived there.  Although she made less money, she would finally be on the air. 

In 1996, after floundering for three years at KRON (“I feel stuck at KRON.  The news director is clear I’ll never have a chance to anchor.  I feel like I am one woman too many.  I am frustrated because I am not growing my skill sets.”), Soledad landed a local job with newly-created MSNBC anchoring a technology show.  Although the technology show was quickly cancelled, MSNBC offered Soledad a job in NYC anchoring its morning newscast, Morning Blend.

In 1999, Soledad moves to NBC to anchor Weekend Today with Jack Ford and later David Bloom (and a third anchor she never names).  The experience is not a good one because there is only one serious interview a day, and Ford/Bloom fight her for it.  The rest of the time is spent on cooking and fashion.

In 2003, Soledad left NBC to move to CNN, where she became an anchor on American Morning with Bill Hemmer.  She says she moved because she wanted to get back to serious reporting.  Her first big story on CNN was Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.  From that experience, Soledad learned that people will do incredible things to take care of themselves and that this skill is essential because government is so incompetent at taking care of its citizens, especially if those citizens are minorities or disadvantaged:

  • The hurricane hit on Monday.  It’s Friday.  This all makes no sense to me.  By now this place should be abuzz with rescue services, with government relief from a storm.  I feel like I am in another country….  How can this be?  I see the fear, the panic.  Anger rises into a tight knot behind my forehead….  I join the clutch of exhausted CNN staffers.  No one says more than they have to.  I begin to report.”

Don’t you get chills just reading how noble and selfless Soledad and CNN were?  She goes on to say:

  • “The places hit by Hurricane Katrina couldn’t rely on regular services; they required a massive national response, a cavalry of forces only a country can muster.  Yet the cavalry didn’t arrive.  To survive, you had to be ready to help yourself.  If that makes you angry, it should.  It makes me angry, too.  But anger doesn’t get you pulled off the roof of your house when the waters rise.”

A noteworthy incident with Jesse Jackson occurred while Soledad anchored American Morning.  During a lunch, he begins grousing to her about the absence of black anchors on CNN.  Soledad naturally cuts him off and reminds him that she anchors American Morning:

  • “He knows that.  He looks me in the eye and reaches his fingers over to tap a spot of skin on my right hand.  He shakes his head.  ‘You don’t count,’ he says.  I wasn’t sure what that means….  I was angry and embarrassed, which rarely happens at the same time for me.  Jesse Jackson managed to make me ashamed of my skin color….  I am immediately upset and annoyed and the more annoyed I am, the more upset and pissed off….  I am a product of my parents (black woman, white man), my town (mostly white), multiracial to be sure, but not black?…  After two weeks of stewing, I sit upright one day, angry at myself for not telling this man he is wrong….  So I should have called him up and said, ‘What the heck does that mean?’ But I didn’t.  I slunk away.”

Obviously, this was not one of Soledad’s finer moments.  After all these years, she still didn’t have the confrontational fire that he sister Estela displayed while a 14-year-old.  Or perhaps she was acted this way because she was dealing with Jesse Jackson instead of a photographer. 

Only recently, Soledad called Jackson and asked for an explanation.  He responded that he wasn’t aware that she was black.  He thought her brown skin tone came from somewhere other than Africa.  This was a simple misunderstanding that could have been corrected it Soledad had managed to speak up.

As the Katrina debacle wound down, so did the ratings of American Morning.  Bill Hemmer was replaced by Miles O’Brien (no relation), but the hemorrhaging of ratings did not stop.  With no hard news stories, the ratings for American Morning dropped 6% and it was “overshadowed by the personality-driven Fox & Friends.”  Even the ratings for MSNBC’s simulcast of Don Imus grew by 39% and passed American Morning.  Soledad and Miles were told that they were “great reporters but not magnetic anchors” and were fired in 2007.  Soledad was reassigned to long-form documentaries called CNN Presents.

Soledad’s first documentary was a two-night, four-hour special called Black in America.  Following the special, Jesse Jackson’s slight became more prevalent as bloggers openly challenged Soledad on whether she was black enough to report about blacks.  One said, “Can Soledad O’Brien embrace blackness while not looking black, not sounding black, and not being married to a black man?”  Soledad’s response was that, way back in Smithtown, her mom and dad had decided that their kids would identify themselves as black Latinos.  This was convenient because Soledad’s next big documentary was Latino in America

Following Latino in America, CNN created a new unit for Soledad called In America, which was to provide a voice to “voiceless communities” and “marginalized individuals.”  Although the unit was to focus on Americans, the next big story was Haiti, and Soledad refused to miss it:

  • I am dying to go.  The newsroom duties just vanish at moments like this.  I’m a journalist.  I have a perspective on how to tell the human story that is unique.  I won’t go and do what everyone else is doing.  I will add something more.  I need to be there.  But how am I going to get in?  At the moment no one is asking me to go…. I grab my producers and we go from office to office….  I go home that night and want to scream up at the sky.  How unimaginably awful it must be in Haiti.  I want to be there.  I want to help in the way reporters can help.  I want to spread the word of what the people need….  There is an emotional line you cross as a reporter from feeling an embarrassing thrill at the magnitude of the story you are telling to experiencing a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach.”

Naturally, the SVPs from Newsgathering and Programming eventually gave Soledad the green light.  She was “to focus hard on something no one else is doing.  He wants us to come back with something special so the pressure is on.  We are bound for Haiti.”

 Upon arriving at Haiti, Soledad was reminded of the desperate people in New Orleans.  She expects nothing of Haiti, but is amazed at the relief efforts underway.  “This makes it all the more remarkable that our government allowed its people to languish in New Orleans.  I feel as if the Americans here are the same ones who materialized in Louisiana once they realized that the government wasn’t up to the task.”  Based on her comments, you might think Soledad believes people should be able to sit on their hands while goverment rescues them. 

Soledad finishes her book by taking a nostalgic return visit to her childhood friends in Smithtown.  Some have done well; others haven’t.  She doesn’t understand why everyone in America can’t be as successful as she has been. 

Soledad’s success is especially remarkable when you consider that she has been a weak or mediocre performer in virtually every job she has held.  Yet she has the audacity to walk away from that job and demand and receive a better job.  Where do you get chutzpah like that?  To borrow Ann Richard’s joke about Bush-41, Soledad was born on third base and thought she hit a triple.

December 21, 2010

Soledad O’Brien and the American Dream

My favorite Sunday morning TV show is CNN’s Reliable Sources, with moderator Howie Kurtz.  Although the theme of the show is a bit narcissistic – the media talking about media coverage of news – I love it.  Although Howie Kurtz occasionally reveals himself as a liberal elitist, he usually is smart and even-handed with his questions. 

During this week’s show, Howie interviewed CNN reporter Soledad O’Brien for two lengthy segments to discuss her new book, The Next Big Story.  I’ve never been a fan of Soledad because (1) she always seems to be pushing for affirmative action, and (2) I feel like one of the targets for her reverse discrimination.  But during the interview, I found her to be an honest, engaging, and warm person.  Her book has definitely moved to my reading list for early 2011.

Two topics brought up during the interview were especially fascinating:

Mixed-race

Soledad mentioned that the level of her blackness, like that of Barack Obama or Tiger Woods, has been questioned, by Jesse Jackson and others.  Several years ago, when Soledad was an anchor for American Morning, Jesse Jackson complained to her about the lack of black anchors in America, and she interjected to say, “What about me?”  Jackson responded by pinching her skin and saying, “You don’t count.”  Soledad was poleaxed:

  • “I was both angry and embarrassed, which rarely happens at the same time for me. Jesse Jackson managed to make me ashamed of my skin color which even white people had never been able to do. Not the kids in the hallways at Smithtown or the guys who wouldn’t date me in high school.”

The Jackson insult was compounded a short time later when a blogger raised a similar concern – “Can Soledad O’Brien embrace blackness while not looking black, not sounding black and not being married to a black man?”  Soledad’s response – “And what does that mean, not looking black, not sounding — I don’t sound black? Well, I sound like a girl from Long Island who went through voice classes so she could become a TV anchor.  Not looking black? You know, I could show you pictures from my childhood where I have a giant afro.”

Recently, Soledad confronted Jackson about his insult, and he apologized by explaining that he meant no insult – he had thought she was Hispanic.  Well, so did I until this weekend.  In fact, Soledad’s father is an Anglo Australian-American and her mother is an Afro-Cuban-American, so technically Soledad can claim to be Anglo, African-American, or Hispanic.

Affirmative Action

Soledad’s first job was titled, “minority writer trainee” for a TV station in Boston.  When Kurtz questioned her about her basis for getting the job, Soledad conceded that her skin color had something to do with it (duh?), but it was a golden opportunity. 

  • No, it was the conundrum of always, you know, on one hand, what a great gig, and you have an in. And you finally get a skill, which was something that would differentiate you from the rest of the PAs (?) in the group.  But also, clearly, you know, we picked you because you’re a person of color, and we need more people of color, and we want to da- da-da-da. And so I think that there was always that rub.  My mother used to always say, you know, “Better to get into Harvard because you’re black than not get into Harvard because you’re black.”

Yes, Soledad, that’s the rub, and although the cute bromide from your mother has some superficial attraction, it doesn’t hold up under analysis. 

  1. You exemplify the type of person, like Barack Obama and Julian Castro, who benefits from affirmative action – not a disadvantaged person who needs and deserves a break, but rather advantaged minorities who leverage their skin color to put themselves ahead of more deserving people.  According to Wikipedia, your parents met at an exclusive American university (Johns Hopkins).  You dad became an engineering professor and your mom a French teacher.  You and your five siblings were all able to attend Harvard and the siblings are a law professor,  corporate lawyer, business executive, eye surgeon, and anesthesiologist.   Doesn’t sound like you kids were a very disadvantaged lot.  And thanks to Sandra Day O’Connor and the Grutter decision from the U.S. Supreme Court, you have at least another 20 years of college affirmative action to benefit your kids.  Maybe by then, you and your family will see the possibility of living the American dream.
  2. More importantly, I think a self-respecting, self-reliant person would rather get rejected by Harvard because of their skin color than get accepted to Harvard because of their skin color.

 

October 17, 2010

Ross Douthat and Privilege, a book review

Filed under: Book reviews,Education,Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 4:10 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Conservatives may dominate talk radio in America, but not so with the editorial pages of most newspapers, especially the most dominant newspaper in the world – the NYTimes.  For years, NYTimes columnist David Brooks, a moderate conservative, has been severely outnumbered at the Times by a large stable of liberal columnists, including Maureen Dowd, Paul Krugman, Gail Collins, Bob Herbert, Thomas Friedman, Frank Rich and Nicholas Kristof.  I don’t mind reading liberal ranting, just like I don’t mind listening to David Letterman bash Bush-43 every night, but sometimes I wish the NYTimes had more balance.  Well, more balance is in the offing because the Times has hired a 2nd conservative columnist, Ross Douthat.  Ross graduated from Harvard in 2002 and wrote Privilege to describe his Harvard experience (kind of like Buckley describing God at Yale).  I decided to read Privilege, not only because I was interested in learning more about the new conservative columnist, but also because I like the book’s subtitle – Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class

As indicated by its subtitle, Privilege focuses on the education that Harvard provides to students who will ostensibly be leaders of America.  In the book Douthat suggests that, although Harvard has tried to transition from being a tool for America’s aristocracy to being a meritocracy for the masses, its efforts have failed.  Although Harvard aspires to have student diversity that looks like America (Bill Clinton’s words), it has instead replaced one aristocracy with another.

Douthat starts his book with a chapter about his dormitory suitemates.  First-year students are randomly assigned their suitemates, and Douthat’s included two East Asians, two South Asians, a Canadian, two Jews, one African-American, and two Caucasian-Americans.  Despite this forced integration, however, the students quickly returned to “self-segregation” the next year when they were allowed to choose their suitemates.  Harvard allows blocks of eight or 16 students to live together, and this process typically ends the racial and ethnic diversity.

But Douthat argues that Harvard’s racial and ethnic diversity is not real diversity.  If you look beneath skin color, the Harvard student body is remarkably homogenous.  It comprises ambitious achievers – the so-called meritocracy – who come from privileged backgrounds.  Although there are a smattering of kids who come from urban areas or America’s heartland, the vast majority come from exclusive prep schools in the Northeast or West Coast.  [“Exclusive” and “elite” are terms often used in the Harvard lexicon.]  Although Douthat doesn’t use this analogy, he seems to be suggesting that describing the Harvard student body as a meritocracy is like calling a college golf/tennis/lacrosse team a meritocracy.  I’m sympathetic to that criticism, but the answer isn’t to denigrate the meritocracy or equalize the results (affirmative action); the answer is to try to equalize the earlier advantages.     

The next chapter in the book describes Harvard’s “final clubs.”  Although Harvard doesn’t allow fraternities, the eight all-male final clubs seem indistinguishable from fraternities.  They are exceedingly exclusive and admission depends primarily on having connections.  Harvard selects those high-school seniors who are most likely to be successful or influential in their lives; the final clubs pick the Harvard sophomores for the same reason – i.e., the crème de la crème.  Douthat was cut in the second round of the “punching” process and was devastated, but he has since rationalized that this rejection was a good thing.  If you’ve seen the movie, The Social Network, you might have noticed that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s rejection by the Harvard final clubs affected his relationship with suitemate/CFO Eduardo Saverin, who was selected.  I have always resented fraternities (elitist, exclusive) and took a lot of pleasure in seeing their diminishment in the 60s and 70s.  It is not surprising, however, that the quasi-fraternities thrive at Harvard, a lingering bastion of exclusivity and elitism.      

The remaining chapters in Privilege were anecdotal and not as interesting:

  • Chapter Three – discusses the downfall of an acquaintance who was driven to exaggerate her family’s prominence and in the end was exposed as an over-reaching fraud who stole money from the Hasty Pudding club.
  • Chapter Four – explains that Harvard takes very little responsibility for educating undergrads.  If a student want to get educated, fine; if not, that is fine, too.  In any event, most of the education (connections?) occurs outside the classroom.
  • Chapter Five – bemoans the absence of romance at Harvard.  Students are too busy executing their life strategies to take on any complicating baggage.
  • Chapter Six – grumbles about the absence of sex at Harvard.  Social nerds and assertive women haven’t succeeded at hooking up.
  • Chapter Seven – describes the campus war between parlor liberals (moderates) and street liberals (radicals).  Conservatives are mere amusing curiosities.   
  • Chapter Eight – talks about undergrads spending their last summer as students making the transition to successful careers.  Once again, connections and exclusivity.

Privilege is a worthwhile read, and Douthat makes a convincing case that Harvard is not a good place to get an education.  But for an ambitious striver, there is no better place to make the connections needed to get ahead – no better place to bet your ticket “punched.”  San Antonio’s mayor, Julian Castro, graduated from Harvard Law in 2000, and in a recent NYTimes article, he admitted to often comparing his political success to that of his classmates.  One of his predecessors at Harvard Law was Barack Obama, Class of 1990.  They’ve both done well, so the system is working. 

Although I’ve always resented the elitism and snobbery of fraternities (and final clubs), I believe in meritocracy.  And although I understand that the cards may be stacked against kids who grow up without a lot of advantages, I believe those disadvantages can be overcome.  Part of what makes America special is that it encourages social mobility.  When I ran for Congress, I suggested that encouraging social mobility was a valid government objective, and Privilege provides further support.

October 16, 2010

The Social Network – a movie review – three and a half stars

The Social Network dramatizes the creation and early growth of Facebook.  The story, which centers on Facebook inventor Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg), is told through the framing device of two lawsuits against Zuckerberg – the first by two Harvard classmates, the Winklevoss twins, who claimed Zuckerberg stole their idea of an on-line social network at Harvard, and the other by Zuckerberg’s business partner/classmate Eduardo Saverin, who claimed Zuckerberg cheated him out if his share of the company.  

[For those, like me, who are not well educated regarding techniques for telling a story, a framing device is a narrative technique in which a story is surrounded (framed) by a secondary story, creating a story within a story. The inner story is usually the bulk of the work. The framing device places the inside story within a different context.  A popular example of this technique was seeing the sinking of the Titanic through the eyes of the aged Rose.]

Ben Mezrich wrote The Accidental Billionaires, upon which The Social Network is based.  Although Mezrich reportedly relied extensively on Zuckerberg’s business partner/classmate Eduardo Saverin in writing the book, the movie does not portray Saverin as contributing anything substantive in the creation or development of Facebook, and the Winklevoss twins did even less.  In fact, a Harvard Law professor has opined that the Winklevoss lawsuit against Zuckerberg was tantamount to extortion because the “idea” of a social network is not something the law will protect through patent or otherwise.  As Zuckerberg said during the movie, “A guy who makes a new chair doesn’t owe money to everyone who ever built a chair.”

I have not read The Accidental Billionaires, and there are reports that The Social Network has taken dramatic license from the book for movie-making purposes.  The screenplay was adapted by Aaron Sorkin, who I have been a fan of since he wrote the screenplay for one of my all-time favorite movies – The American President – and created one of my all-time favorite TV shows – The West Wing.  Sorkin also wrote A Few Good Men.  It seems that he has a magical touch for movies reminiscent of my writing hero Larry McMurtry, who is responsible for the movies Hud, Terms of Endearment, The Last Picture Show, and Lonesome Dove (and he adapted Brokeback Mountain). 

In my opinion, The Social Network works so well because I found Zuckerberg to be likeable, and ordinary people can relate to him.  The movie starts with a scene in which Zuckerberg’s Boston U girlfriend Erica Albright dumps him because he is neurotic like Woody Allen (“Dating you is like dating a Stairmaster.”), and she sends him off with the following sage comment – “You’re going to be successful and rich. But you’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a tech geek. I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”  The movie ends with a scene in which the billionaire inventor of Facebook in a dark room sends of a “friend request” to former girlfriend Albright and then periodically refreshes the screen to see if she has accepted.  The end. 

How can you not relate to a guy like that?

September 9, 2010

A book review of Grand New Party, by Ross Douthat & Reihan Salam

After hearing that Ross Douthat was named the new conservative columnist for the NYTimes, I decided to learn a little more about him.  What I learned was that he has written two books.  Douthat’s first book – Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class – was written shortly after he graduated from Harvard in 2002.  Because one of my favorite issues is meritocracy in America, I will certainly be reading this book.  (For an interesting, albeit less than favorable review, see http://www.slate.com/id/2114657/.)  Unfortunately, my library doesn’t currently carry the book, but they have requested it.

Douthat’s second book is Grand New Party, How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, published in 2008.  As suggested by the sub-title, Grand New Party describes how the Republican Party can achieve its destiny by saving America as we know it – i.e., “a nation of limited government and strong cultural solidarity, in which the goods of our national life are distributed as widely and equitably as possible, without sacrificing ownership and self-reliance in the process.”  Fortunately, my library had this book in stock.

The book begins by describing the failure of both Republican and Democrat parties to develop an enduring governing coalition in the 40 years since the demise of the Roosevelt coalition in 1968.  According to the authors, the parties have failed because neither has been able to earn the consistent allegiance of the working class – i.e., non-college educated.

Education is the defining issue of the working class because the absence of college degrees has caused them to be especially vulnerable to insecurity and immobility.  The authors postulate:

  • Public disorder, family disintegration, cultural fragmentation, and civic and religious disorder … breed downward mobility and financial strain.
  • Success is increasingly tied to education, and education is tied to stable families, and both are out of reach.
  • Left unaddressed, these problems may only grow worse.  The continued decline of the two-parent family means that more and more working-class Americans, white and Hispanic as well as black, will grow up without the familial environment that’s crucial to success in the information age.

On the current political spectrum, the populist Left proposes increased spending on failing public schools, a more generous safety net for welfare recipients, amnesty and benefits for illegal immigrants, indefinite affirmative action, and environmental regulations that will kill jobs.  The righteous Right has succeeded in exposing the differences between the cultural values of the working class and the liberal overclass, but they have failed to distinguish between pro-market and pro-business and between spending that fosters dependency and spending that fosters independence and upward mobility. 

The second part of the Grand New Party describes the programs that will earn for Republicans the permanent allegiance of the working class.  The programs can be placed into two categories:

  1. Putting families first.  Everything in America starts with strong families.  Over the past 30 years, illegitimacy and family instability breed financial anxiety, which puts further strains on the family.  To break this cycle, we need to strengthen the family:
    • Family-friendly taxes – $5,000 per-child tax credit and wage subsidies
    • Encourage sprawl because suburbs promote improved family life
    • Require universal, affordable health insurance
    • Means-test Social Security
    • Replace income and SS taxes with a consumption tax.
  2. Up from compassion.  The authors commend Bush-43 for his instincts in adopting the theme of a “compassionate conservative,” but they think his language struck the wrong tone.  America should be focused, not on its empathy, but rather on the aspirations of the poor with a drive to succeed.  Instead of feeling pity and condescension, America should facilitate self-improvement.  Examples:
    • School choice – with a weighted-student funding formula for all schools
    • Defusing the crime bomb
    • Immigration – better border control, but full-fledged citizenship and opportunity instead of guest-worker programs.

According to the authors, the Left wants to turn America into Europe, with its welfare state, and they might succeed if the working class believes that the Right wants to turn America into Latin America, with its rich and poor, but no middle class.  The authors believe that the key is to adopt Ronald Reagan’s vision of government, as articulated in his first inaugural address – he declared that his mission was not “to do away with government,” but “to make it work – work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride our back.”

This message is almost identical to one given to me by a UTSA student following a Congressional candidate forum last year.  This student suggested to me that the Republican Party would never be adopted by Hispanics as long as it considered government to be a bad thing.  I agree – we need government, not to redistribute wealth, but to foster opportunity for disadvantaged Americans.