I Miss Shame

Years ago, I sat nearly alone in an undersized, hard-to-find theater downtown to watch a movie titled “Weiner”.

It wasn’t what you might be thinking. The venue was charming and above-board, I was there with my wife, and the 2016 film was a documentary about former Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner’s ill-fated New York mayoral run in 2013.

Weiner was a lightning-rod for controversy, and some may recall that his campaign effectively ended when — after the politician had just recovered from a similar scandal in 2011 — further (and more recent) evidence of his online sexual depravities surfaced.

It was a fascinating but dark documentary on many levels, presenting a candid, often cringe-worthy look into the politician’s personal and political demise.

A couple of particularly memorable scenes show Weiner, desperate to try and salvage his damaged campaign, in the back of a vehicle discussing with staffers how he should address the unfolding controversy in upcoming media interviews. The challenge, as Weiner outright states, is providing answers that won’t conflict with the numerous lies he had told in earlier interviews. It’s really quite amazing to watch him lay out the web of deception he had created, carefully work his way through it (at least rhetorically), and then formulate creative new talking points that he hopes will allow him to escape accusations of dishonesty and hypocrisy.

As we soon find out, even on liberal-friendly networks like MSNBC, it didn’t work.

What strikes me today, when I look back at that film, is that as much as it said about Weiner’s perversions and lack of character, it also said a heck of a lot about how different of a political environment we lived in back then.

Think about it for a minute. 2013 wasn’t really all that long ago, yet even the most shameless politicians back then — of which Weiner was certainly one (even before the sexual revelations) — were politically scared to death of (and worked exhaustively hard to prevent), coming across as a liar or hypocrite.

Were there exceptions to the rule? Yeah, a few (Harry Reid talking about Mitt Romney’s taxes comes to mind). Still, outright lies and glaring hypocrisy were largely viewed as a political liability that could very well come back to bite you on the ass.

Boy how times have changed.

Less than a decade later, it feels like we’re living in the wild west. Blatant dishonesty and breathtaking hypocrisy rarely deal anything more than a glancing blow (usually not even that) to the political figures who routinely demonstrate them. If an elected leader or even a political pundit doesn’t like a particular fact, no problem. He or she can just deny it, and make up some counter-narrative for their base to consume, adopt, and repeat.

Sure, political opponents will protest all day long, but do they really matter? In today’s intensely tribal landscape, such gripes effectively become background noise, even to the moderates — many of whom are fed up with the daily back and forth, and finding themselves less and less politically engaged.

Less engagement means less accountability for conduct, which is why hypocrisy, also, no long carries the stigma it once did.

Yes, shame is in very short supply in today’s politics, and I truly miss it.

I wrote a lot about this topic during the Trump years (when it was mainstreamed on the right) because it was, and continues to be, particularly disheartening to watch so many people on my side of the aisle, including many I used to respect, abandon all such mindfulness.

I mean, literally, as I’m writing this, video-clips of Ted Cruz are being posted online showing Cruz, at some event today, mocking other Republicans for kissing up to Donald Trump.

You may recall that this is the same Ted Cruz who reduced himself to a longtime, slobbering Trump-sycophant after Trump trashed his wife’s looks, and linked his father to the JFK assassination.

(Frankly, if the senator stays true to form, he’ll probably turn up on Tucker Carlson’s show early next week to humbly apologize for today’s remarks — not for his hypocrisy, but because of the point I’m about to make).

Among those, like Cruz, who work in Republican politics or the right-wing political media, this sea-change toward shamelessness came to fruition mostly out of professional survival. I could write a James A. Michener sized book on all the political and ideological about-faces I’ve witnessed from notable righties since 2015, and there’s really only one reason for it. The MAGA era, and the transformation of the GOP into a personality cult, put these people in the unenviable position of having to either abandon their principles and rebrand themselves around the whims of Donald Trump, or run the very real risk of losing their constituencies and audiences, and having to find work elsewhere.

Most, by far, chose the former.

For many regular folks on the right, the shift came from the deluded but self-assuring belief that we are at literal war with the left. And thus any damage we can inflict on liberals (even superficially, rhetorically, or counter-productively, at which Trump excelled) is both necessary and entirely justifiable… not only politically, but also morally.

Conservative columnist David French refers to this phenomenon as “The Great Rationalization,” and recently wrote a must-read column on how it’s been adopted by a disturbing number of American Christians as somewhat of a religious doctrine.

Many people thought (or at least hoped) this sentiment would erode after January 6 and Trump leaving office, but it’s still very much in play and echoed through reflexive denialism, whataboutism, and other mechanisms indicative of a “desperate times call for desperate measures” view of things.

The lasting result is a long list of conduct and positions deemed wholly unacceptable by the right whenever the left borrows from it, but perfectly appropriate (and even virtuous) when the right uses it.

Of course, the shamelessness is by no means limited to the right. With the Democrats back in power in Washington, it’s been front and center in a big way.

Joe Biden ran for president on a platform of healing the nation — or at least turning down the volume and temperature after four years of Donald Trump. Yet, he has made stoking the political divide a hallmark of his tenure, still blaming Trump and the Republicans for his woes as president, and focusing his efforts on sweeping (and extraordinarily costly) ideological initiatives, some of which occasionally compel him to compare political opponents to historical racists.

With the very real possibility that Roe v. Wade will be overturned this summer, many lefties, who (rightly) decried the violation of political norms under Trump, are now shrugging off the norm-desecrating leak of Justice Alito’s draft, while ratcheting up calls for President Biden to stack the Supreme Court with liberal justices — a move that would alter its number of seats for the first time in over 150 years.

Democrats have been right in their condemnations of, as White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki recently put it, “voices on the right” who remained “silent for years on protests that have happened outside of the homes of school board members, the Michigan Secretary of State … or even an insurrection against our Capitol.” The problem is that she used those words in defense of liberals protesting outside of conservative Supreme Court justices’ homes, with the intent of intimidating those justices into changing their vote on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (to preserve Roe v. Wade).

And while I stopped responding to my Facebook friends’ political posts some time ago (a practice I highly recommend), it’s taken some real discipline not to reply to the many memes I’ve seen (echoed by numerous Democratic politicians and liberal-media personalities) arguing that men should have no say in abortion decisions, with the below picture of the justices who decided Roe v. Wade back in 1973.

I’ve long understood that politics is a contact sport, and that it’s not for the faint-hearted, and all of those other tired old euphemisms. But at least, in the past, political battles were a means to an end. Today, they often feel directionless. Guiding principles have given way to tactics, and lots of times it’s not even clear what exactly is being fought for.

Case in point, again as I’m writing this, here’s a message just in from Elise Stefanik, the third-raking House Republican:

Usual pedo grifters? What does that even mean? There’s a group of pedofiles out there somewhere, who Stefanik knows by name (since she referred to them as “usual”), who are denying Americans of baby formula? If so, this is an outrage. What’s Stefanik and her party doing to stop them?

The answer is nothing, because this is shameless and perverse political garbage that would have faced sharp consequences a few years ago. But in the year 2022, I doubt anyone will remember it three days from now.

God, I miss shame.




The Overturning of Roe v. Wade

Up until about a year and a half ago, I didn’t think there was any real chance of Roe vs. Wade being overturned, at least not in the foreseeable future. But when liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away in September of 2020, and President Trump was afforded his third SCOTUS nomination, his selection of constitutional originalist Amy Coney Barrett opened up a real possibility that it might just happen (should the right case come along).

Monday night, reporters at Politico published a leaked draft majority opinion from Justice Samuel Alito, revealing that the 1973 landmark Supreme Court decision on abortion is indeed slated to be overturned, on a 5-3 vote this summer (as part of the court’s ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health).

Before we get to the ruling itself, it’s important to address the extraordinary significance of the leak. I wholly concur with the views of National Review’s editors who published a piece on this topic early Tuesday morning:

“The legitimacy of the Supreme Court’s vital constitutional duty to pronounce authoritatively what the law is in cases where it is called to do so hinges on the integrity of its process. The Court has thus been admirably disciplined about maintaining the secrecy of its deliberations until rulings are announced. Without that discipline, the Court’s decision-making would be subjected to intense political pressure — the very antithesis of a system that insulates the judiciary from politics so that cases can be decided pursuant to law, without fear or favor. The Court’s vital constitutional role, vindicating a rule of law not men, would be destroyed. Worse, the leak could inspire violence against the Court or the justices.”

It’s a very real concern, and the growing consensus (which I tend to agree with) is that the draft was likely leaked for the purpose trying to influence the outcome of the summer ruling, in some way, shape, or form. As for the source of the leak, there are really only two possibilities: a Supreme Court justice or a law clerk. And for the reasons stated by National Review, I’m also in agreement with those demanding an investigation, and calling for termination if the leaker was a clerk, and impeachment if the leaker was a Justice. Any applicable criminal charges beyond that are also warranted.

As for the ruling itself (which technically isn’t set in stone), contrary to what many Americans seem to believe, the end of Roe won’t mean the end of legalized abortion. It would just remove legalized abortion as a constitutional right, and push abortion laws and restrictions down to the state level where legislatures, governors, and thus ultimately voters will have a say in them.

So, most states will likely pass laws reflecting the abortion views of most Americans, something along the lines of keeping it legal in the first trimester, with restrictions (with possible exemptions) applied after that.

Will some states impose outright bans or at least very strict restrictions on abortions? Probably. And individuals living in those states, who make the decision to get an abortion, would have to travel to another state for the procedure.

Will other states legalize abortions all the way up until childbirth? Unfortunately, yes. In fact, that appears to be what California’s Gavin Newsom is already pursuing.

What a lot of people probably don’t realize is that a number of states are already prepared to deal with the reversal of Roe, and have been for some time. As The Dispatch reported on Tuesday morning:

At least 13 states have ‘trigger laws’ on the books that would implement new restrictions in the event Roe and Casey are overturned, while at least 17 others have laws that would guarantee abortion’s legality.”

Regardless of how you look at it (assuming things will happen as expected), this will be a big win for the pro-life movement and constitutional conservatives, and a big blow to the pro-choice crowd. The battles will now be fought within individual states.

But pro-lifers already had some things to be excited about. The abortion rate in America has been in steady decline for quite some time, despite its longtime national legalization. Pro-life sentiment has strengthened as well. These are tangible, cultural gains that one could argue are more significant than which level of government gets to decide abortion law.

Still, Roe vs Wade was and is bad law and bad constitutional precedent — egregiously broad, overstepping, and needlessly divisive from the beginning. Even liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was personally pro-choice, understood that. I welcome its forthcoming reversal.

What I’m not looking forward to is the next round of reactionary political chaos and hysterics that is already underway.




Chris Wallace and the Failure of CNN+

Last December, longtime Fox News anchor Chris Wallace shocked the news industry when he announced that he was leaving the network after almost two decades, and joining CNN’s upcoming streaming service, CNN+. Wallace didn’t get into the reason behind his departure at the time, but I think most media observers had a pretty good idea of what motivated it.

Just a few weeks earlier, reports emerged that Wallace had joined Special Report anchor Bret Baier and other veteran figures at the network in voicing objections to Fox corporate about the promotion and digital airing of Tucker Carlson’s now infamous “Patriot Purge” special. The multi-part series, which sought to rewrite the events of January 6, was overflowing with wildly irresponsible claims, outlandish conspiracy theories, and outright falsehoods. Some may recall that it was the last straw for longtime contributors Stephen Hayes and Jonah Goldberg, who resigned from the network over it.

Despite the internal strife, network executives maintained their backing of Carlson’s project, though notably — as NPR‘s David Folkenflik described — Fox’s news division distanced itself from Patriot Purge in the days leading up to its release. Both Wallace and Baier ran segments on their respective shows debunking several of the special’s charges without specifically mentioning the series or Carlson by name.

Reactions to Wallace’s departure weren’t all that surprising.

Many loyal Fox News viewers celebrated the announcement, having grown disdainful of Wallace over the years for maintaining his journalistic integrity as a news anchor, rather than reduce himself to a Trump toady in the interest of ratings — a path many others at the network had taken.

Fox’s critics and competitors pointed to the departure of Wallace, a widely respected newsman who many saw as a saving grace at the network, as further evidence of Fox’s dwindling credibility as a news organization.

Some at Fox, like Guy Benson and Howard Kurtz, seemed to share that concern (at least to a degree), framing Wallace’s move as a big loss for their network. Others in the right-wing media, like NewsBusters’ Tim Graham, took exception to such sentiment.

Howard Kurtz wishes Chris Wallace well at CNN, calls it a ‘major loss’ for Fox News.” Graham tweeted a the time. “Is it? Let’s see what happens to the ‘Fox News Sunday’ ratings.”

I explained to Graham at the time that it was a major loss for people like me who want Fox to be a serious news organization. For those who are only concerned with ratings, it likely wouldn’t be.

And sure enough, it hasn’t been. Fox News Sunday has done just fine, viewership wise, in Wallace’s absence.

As Bernie Goldberg (the owner of this website) often points out, today’s cable news industry reflects a business model, not a journalistic one. Thus ratings and key demos — not journalism — have become the sole measure of a cable-news network’s worth… even to someone like Graham whose watchdog organization purports to stand for integrity in the news media.

Last month, while promoting his new CNN+ show, Wallace finally broke his silence on why he left Fox. His reasoning was pretty much what people expected.

“I just no longer felt comfortable with the programming at [the network],” he told the New York Times. “I’m fine with opinion: conservative opinion, liberal opinion, but when people start to question the truth — Who won the 2020 election? Was January 6 an insurrection? I found that unsustainable. I spent a lot of 2021 looking to see if there was a different place for me to do my job.”

Wallace further explained that he wanted to get out of politics, and added, “One of the reasons that I left Fox was because I wanted to put all of that behind me. There has not been a moment when I have second-guessed myself about that decision.”

All things considered, it was a pretty diplomatic critique of his former employer.

As for his new one, CNN, well… we all know what happened. CNN+ collapsed in a fiery inferno earlier this week. Millions of dollars invested in the off-shoot pay-service, and its promotion, did virtually nothing to motivate people to sign up for it. The losses were so bad that Warner Bros. Discovery pulled the plug on the venture in less than a month’s time.

When I first heard about CNN+ last year, I was pretty skeptical that it would find an audience. Yet, I never expected it to fold as quickly as it did. As one would imagine, CNN’s critics have had a field-day with the network’s digital demise. Some of the jokes have written themselves, and others have been quite clever.

Still, I’m not sure I’ve found any of them as amusing as the notion I keep reading online that Wallace has to be regretting his decision to leave Fox.

Why would he be regretful?

Wallace is assuredly disappointed by the collapse of CNN+. He had his own program there, was allowed to take it in a direction he wanted, and from the clips I saw on YouTube and Mediaite, it seemed to be a pretty quality show. He featured some intriguing guests, talked about interesting topics, and asked lots of smart, provocative questions.

But again, Wallace didn’t leave Fox for greener pastures (at least not in the traditional sense). Fox paid him well, gave him plenty of exposure, let him do his show largely as he wanted, and was very much interested in re-signing him. He didn’t jump to CNN as part of some power-play, nor was it out of some over-inflated, David Caruso-esque sense of self-worth.

Wallace left on principle. He sought liberation. He wanted out.

Standing on principle, especially when one’s career is involved, isn’t always easy. If you don’t believe me, ask Bernie Goldberg. Doing what your conscience tells you comes with professional and financial risks — potentially significant ones.

Fortunately for Wallace, he’s made a lot of money in the business, is set for life financially, and has maintained a strong reputation as a credible journalist. Those things weren’t really on the line. He could have retired from the profession after calling it quits at Fox, but at the age of 74, chose instead to try something different. He performed well in the new role (in the little time that he had), but the platform was pretty much doomed from the beginning.

A big problem with CNN+ is that it relied on a damaged CNN brand that already struggles to pull in viewers on basic cable. Adding an additional pay-service on top of that brand, in a saturated, entertainment-oriented market, was a serious gamble. And while I find it commendable that CNN+ built its marquee programming around a more traditional, journalistic model, the sad reality is that while a lot of people say they prefer that type of content over the news-entertainment alternative, they don’t actually mean it. If they did, more news organizations would deliver it.

Like I said, Wallace will come out of this okay, and probably end up on the main network (where I think he can only help the product), but I do feel bad for the hard-working lower-level employees, many of whom will lose their jobs. I get why CNN’s critics and competitors are so giddy over what happened, but there’s a human toll whenever a serious business venture folds, and I hope those folks land on their feet.

 


 

National Review’s Jim Geraghty on “Restitution”.




Worth Remembering As We Move Past the Pandemic…

Back in February, I wrote a piece in which I described how I won’t miss something I called “pandemic priors.” I defined the phrase as “the mindset of an individual that their past or initial views of the pandemic are forever applicable and reliable, regardless of changed conditions… whether those conditions come from new data, new knowledge, new technology, new medical breakthroughs, or something else.”

My broader point (which I repeated multiple times throughout the column) was that when conditions change, so do certain realities. And being that conditions have changed significantly many times over the past two years, those who never altered their positions on issues like lock-downs, mask-wearing, mask-mandates, COVID transmissibility, vaccine concerns, and overall risk assessment were very likely dead-wrong, in their views, at some point during the pandemic.

For example, I’ve seen a number of people point to the recent lifting of mask-mandates on airplanes and other forms of public transportation as evidence that masks never served any real scientific purpose in combating COVID-19 in the first place. That is, of course, absurd. Before the COVID vaccines were created and made widely available, masks were the most effective and practical mitigation tools we had for getting back to some semblance of societal normalcy. We can argue all day about mask mandates, but the science behind mask-wearing has been proven in study after study.

Were masks perfect? Of course not. They were never a cure, some types worked far better than others, they were less effective against later (more contagious) variants, and they became less important as more and more people acquired vaccine and/or natural immunity. Also, to acknowledge you culture warriors out there, masks were sometimes worn to virtue-signal, and their mandated usage — in a number of circumstances — didn’t make sense (for which those who enacted and maintained the mandates are absolutely worthy of scrutiny and criticism). But the practice of wearing masks did help mitigate the spread of the disease, especially during society’s most vulnerable period. And for some people, in certain circumstances, I think it still has a part to play.

Today, however, I want to step back from the pandemic gripes of the living, and recognize those who weren’t as fortunate. By just about every tally now, more than a million Americans (over 6 million globally) have died from COVID-19. To me, that’s an absolutely staggering number.

It’s surreal to look back at news reports from March and April of 2020, and be reminded of how Dr. Anthony Fauci was absolutely skewered by many (mostly on the right) for “fear-mongering” with his “ridiculous” warning that as many as 200,000 Americans could ultimately die from the coronavirus. We ended up quintupling that number, and unfortunately, hundreds are still being added to it every day.

The loss of life is something I think about a fair amount; I’m guessing others still do as well. Yet, and at some point along the way, the COVID death toll feels like it has become little more than background noise while the news cycle has moved on to other things.

Conservative columnist Matt Labash, who hasn’t forgotten about it, recently wrote a piece for his Substack breaking down that number in relatable terms.

“How many is a million?” he asks. “Well think of it as such: the population of the U.S. in 2020, when the plague kicked off, was 329 million. Which means one out of every 329 Americans have died of COVID… How many is that? Picture it this way. If you went to a Jets or Giants game at MetLife Stadium, the NFL’s largest-capacity stadium at 82,500 people, and one out of every 329 people dropped dead by the fourth quarter, that would mean by the time you headed for your car … there would be 250 dead fellow fans.”

He references another number that is just as hard (if not harder) of a swallow: “COVID has deprived an estimated 194,000 children in the U.S. of either one or both of their parents.”

As Labash points out, each of these deaths has a story behind it, and he cites some of the more heartbreaking ones he’s read about over the past two years. The piece is very much worth a read.

Again, back in early 2020, such a human toll was unfathomable. Today, it’s just sort of — well — uninteresting. We’re back to business as usual, with many of our country’s most engaged news consumers far more inclined to twist themselves into emotional knots over topics like Twitter, Disney, and insufficient awareness of white privilege.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t move on from the darkest consequences of the pandemic. Like I said earlier: when conditions change, so do certain realities.

I just think it would be a good thing for our country (and humanity) to better factor those consequences, and how fortunate the rest of us are, into our collective perspective.




Is ‘Soft on Pedos’ the Latest Political Pejorative?

Earlier this week, the U.S. Senate voted 53-47 to advance the nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court. Three Republican senators have announced that they plan to support Jackson’s final confirmation slated for the end of the week: Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Mitt Romney.

Political observers have noted that two Republican senators have had a change of heart on Jackson since last June, after President Biden nominated her to serve as a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. At the time, Lindsey Graham joined Collins and Murkowski in confirming her nomination, while Romney was a ‘no’ vote. After the SCOTUS confirmation hearing — and a new round of questions, answers, and consideration — Graham and Romney essentially switched positions.

“After reviewing Judge Jackson’s record and testimony, I have concluded that she is a well-qualified jurist and a person of honor,” Romney said in a statement. “While I do not expect to agree with every decision she may make on the court, I believe that she more than meets the standard of excellence and integrity.”

It should go without saying that in today’s political environment, a Republican voting to confirm a liberal Supreme Court nominee, nominated by a Democratic president, is not going to go over well with the Republican base… even if that nominee would be replacing another liberal justice. (The same is true of the other side when positions are reversed).

Still, some prominent conservatives took Romney’s decision in stride.

Others on the right had… a very different take.

Charming.

I’d say we shouldn’t expect anything less from an attention-obsessed nutjob like Marjorie Taylor Greene (though we really should since she’s a member of the U.S. Congress, and in better party standing than Liz Cheney), but when you see Fox News regulars (including a panelist from the network’s flagship news program, Special Report) casually imply that Romney’s vote means he’s pro-pedophile, or perhaps even a pedophile himself, I would hope that people would recognize and strongly condemn the absolute perversity of such a remark.

The Dispatch’s Stephen Hayes did just that.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sean Davis, CEO and co-founder of The Federalist, responded to Hayes by accusing him of “running interference for pedophile apologists.”

You can’t make this stuff up. And on a side note, The Federalist famously published columns of support for Roy Moore’s Senate campaign… even after he acknowledged that he dated teenage girls when he was in his 30s … and after allegations came to light that he had sexually assaulted three women, two of whom, the allegations contend, were underage at the time — a charge Moore denies.

Anyway, if all this pedophile talk is lost on you, it’s probably because you didn’t watch Jackson’s confirmation hearing or select coverage of it. Some Republican senators (most notably aspiring presidential candidates) argued that Jackson was weak on criminal sentencing, and they highlighted some child-pornography cases she presided over.

Conservative legal analyst Andrew McCarthy of National Review wrote a thorough and helpful piece detailing those cases and sentences, and reached a much less nefarious conclusion than the one put forth by many prominent right-wing figures (including in the media).

A key point McCarthy makes is that, despite attempts to portray Jackson as exceptionally lenient on such crimes, her sentences were consistent with that of most federal judges, appointed by both Republican and Democratic presidents. He also argued that if legislators (like the ones who questioned Jackson during her hearing) want higher minimum sentences for these crimes, they of course have it within their power to raise them.

I wonder if the folks over at The Federalist think McCarthy, too, is pro-pedophilia, or that he’s “running interference for pedophile apologists.”

Now, to be clear, I personally have no problem with people objecting to Jackson’s nomination on the basis that she’s been too lenient with criminal sentencing (or for a whole host of other reasons, from judgement to ideology). Have at it. I also have no problem with questioning why Romney would vote for Jackson’s confirmation after voting against it, for a different seat, a little less than a year ago (he’s since provided an answer). Lastly, if you think Romney made a terrible decision, by all means argue that.

But if you’re so poisoned by politics, partisanship, and careerism that your inclination is to publicly conflate someone’s judicial confirmation vote with a favorable view of pedophilia, I would argue that you are truly broken as a person.

And if your impulse is to excuse away such conduct, or pretend some broader point justifies the rhetoric and innuendo, I’d say some self-examination is definitely in order.