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Covering Washington like Kabul

Covering Washington like Kabul

On his New Yorker blog, George Packer takes aim at the "devastatingly unremarkable" bloviation of Beltway journos. He cites Washington Post columnist (and "dean" of the Washington press corps) David Broder’s analysis of a recent Sarah Palin speech as "[showing] off a public figure at the top of her game — a politician who knows who she is and how to sell herself." He also offers up the New York Times‘ Adam Nagourney’s coverage of a recent Republican leadership conference: "Here in Honolulu, the strains within the party over conservative principles versus political pragmatism played out in a sharp and public way."

These two characterizations from two top writers for the United States’ two leading papers, Packer argues, are but purple guff — in the words of Michael Kelly, examples of how the "idea of image" is "faith in Washington." The journalists follow the same, strange, well-worn routine. They take the mundane comings and goings of major political figures, interpret them according to prevailing partisan winds, and write them up in the overheated, undercooked language of a harlequin novel. The result is airy nonsense that fervently insists on its trenchancy. 

Packer further demonstrates the absurdity of this journalistic convention by satirically recasting the Palin passage about Afghan President Hamid Karzai: "Speaking at the presidential palace in Kabul, Mr. Karzai showed himself to be at the top of his game. He skillfully co-opted his Pashtun base while making a powerful appeal to the technocrats."

The point is that Washington coverage of major political figures is not just bizarre stylistically, but dead substantively. To discuss for hundreds of words how Palin is at the top of her game is to spend hundreds of words not discussing her actual relevance to the fractured conservative scene. Foreign correspondence on major political figures needs to be more explanatory than illlustrative — and it would be better if coverage of Washington were more like the clear-eyed, clean-written analysis of Kabul.

Yet, Washington is — we all must agree — as complicated and tribal and strange a town as any. Contrary to Packer, I see it as increasingly covered as if it were, with the conventional-wisdom reporting shifting away from personality-focused atmospherics towards structure- and process-focused explanation.

It is a matter of necessity. It once used to be that you understood the presidency by understanding the president, at least according to the corps. Clinton was a man of appetite and a bleeding heart — ergo the klieg-lit campaigns, the Lewinsky affair, the Brady Bill, the low-income tax cut. Then, the press corps put George W. Bush on the couch. The stubborn Texan-by-way-of-Connecticut was always trying to prove himself to his father, the correspondents said, hence the invasion of Iraq and the wartime tax cut.

But you’d look like an idiot trying to explain Obama’s Washington by explaining (the rather Vulcan) Obama. To be sure, the press corps has limned his psychology — most brilliantly in the New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza’s profile of Obama’s sharp-elbowed navigation of the Chicago machine and most obviously in the Obama-as-poker-player stories. Both Broder and Nagourney have filed the profiley fluff Packer derides. But both Broder and Nagourney have also written granular pieces on the strange conventions and rules of the White House and Hill. 

It seems the deans of Washington journalism are increasingly treating their home city the way Packer treats Kabul — and it is a very good thing indeed.