As non sequiturs go, Dana Milbank’s selective outrage in his June 19 editorial, “Debasing the Presidency” may go down as one of the great howlers in journalism history.
Published in my paper on Friday, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch gave it the title, “Tucker Carlson and the Montana outhouse.” In it, Milbank cries foul over the awful partisanship taking place in politics today and makes a silly, unconvincing attempt to link a scatological prank in Montana to Daily Caller editor and cable news personality Tucker Carlson. He writes:
“What does conservative pundit Tucker Carlson have to do with an outhouse in Montana?
“More than you might think…
“Outside the Montana GOP convention in Missoula stood an outhouse labeled ‘Barack Obama Presidential Library’ . . .”
And so on. Milbank continues with Mitt Romney’s refusal to condemn Donald Trump over another “birther” remark and how the Daily Caller’s Neil Munro interrupted President Obama at a recent news conference to ask why he was favoring “foreigners over American workers,” a clear swipe at Obama’s immigration directive.
Milbank’s objective in such a column seems to be to juxtapose an obvious prank, one unaffiliated with the Montana GOP, to Carlson’s reporter shouting at the president as if one event caused another. It is not only sloppy editorializing, but it is feigned outrage.
Disagreeable attitudes directed at an incumbent from the opposition party is nothing new and Milbank is either naive or disingenuous to insinuate that it is an innovation derived from today’s political culture. Perhaps he has never heard of Thomas Jefferson, whose scribe James Callender likened the sitting president John Adams to a hermaphrodite. It’s no outhouse in Montana, but negative politics is slightly older than the Internet Age.
Milbank, although not alone in this matter, by hiding behind phrases like “affront to the office” is essentially arguing in favor of a special status to which the president is entitled by virtue of his office. Inside voices, please!
As a partisan, he may also be reacting negatively to the fact that some people in the other party might not like the Democratic president. Was Milbank similarly offended by songs during the Bush administration celebrating the hypothetical death of Dubya?
This is only part of what’s wrong with modern American politics. Naturally, we should all welcome a more sedate and mature political environment. It’s just that Milbank’s complaint is one of convenience. What he says in this column is no different from what hordes of Republican stenographers at Fox News and on talk radio did for eight years under Bush. Hiding behind phrases like “presidential” and “dignity of the office” is a commonplace way for media types to justify why their favored candidate or officeholder should be beyond reproach.
Consider: Was there something “presidential” about the way Obama seemingly spiked the bin Laden football a year after the raid and in the middle of a campaign year? Was it “presidential” for George W. Bush to joke about the missing WMD’s at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner? Of course not, but that usually doesn’t matter to each side’s partisans. One man’s braggadocio is another man’s statesmanship.
Lacking a monarchy or literal aristocracy, Americans have imputed the presidency with an aura in its place. But a fallible human being, any president would succumb to the excesses that come with power. As the example of Jefferson proves, even the founding generation was liable to take discourse a little far off the edge.
But for a man like Milbank he may want to strip a little of the veneer from the presidency and consider whether the people in his place, the media, have substituted the dignity of the office for responsible journalism.