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<i>Time</i>'s Joe Klein: a Supreme Suck-Up

Joe Klein is the living incarnation of American "conventional wisdom" -- a spineless, slavish watcher of polls who has no problem whatsoever denying today what he said yesterday.
 
 
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I have a personal connection to Joe Klein, the Time columnist and ex-anonymous author of Primary Colors . His son and I used to share an office at the Moscow Times about 12 years ago. There were a couple of cute Russian girls in the office who were best friends and Chris and I each dated one of them. Chris ended up marrying his; my relationship with the other one didn't last very long, although she was one of the funniest people I've ever met: Tanya's big thing was crushing beer cans against her head and singing the Soviet national anthem naked. She was like John Belushi with tits.

I lost touch with Chris after I left the Moscow Times in 1996. Like most politics junkies I went on to read Primary Colors , and saw the movie (Emma Thompson's most horrifying role, with her terminal-cancer victim in Wit a distant second) and halfheartedly indulged in the literary whodunit over the author's identity. When Klein was outed as the writer there was a brief flurry of phone calls between Moscow Times vets chuckling over the news; I even seem to remember a couple of us using the occasion as an excuse to get together to get drunk one last time.

And that was that; I didn't think about the Kleins again until I came back to the U.S. a few years back and started actually reading the elder's columns. I was initially confused because my original impression of Joe Klein, from afar, had been that of a gossipy, bourgeois suck-up to the Clinton administration. When I came home in 2002, however, the columns I saw under his name seemed to have been penned by a gossipy, bourgeois suck-up to the Bush administration.

I was particularly struck by a piece he wrote in November, 2003 ("It's time for extreme peacekeeping" 11/16/03) in which he argued that the Iraq war was not inspiring idealistic, well-educated young people to military service because no snazzy-sounding special "extreme peacekeeper" corps had been created to attract them. Klein noted that young people had been drawn into the military during the Kennedy administration because, in part, of the "panache" of the then-new special forces uniforms:

At a similar moment, in the early 1960s, when the front lines of the cold war had spread from Germany to the Congo and Vietnam, John F. Kennedy announced his support for an augmented counterinsurgency force -- and gave those soldiers real panache by allowing them to wear headgear frowned upon by the traditional military: green berets.

Klein went on to say that the "excellent nation-building efforts" of the U.S. in Iraq (at that time, in November of '03, Klein was still calling war reports "good news") could similarly attract a new generation of special soldiers if only Bush would make the same kind of appeal to that class of youth. The new fighting class Klein envisioned was a kind of turbocharged warrior-yuppie who went to kick ass in Iraq as a professional career move:

Call them Extreme Peacekeepers or the Freedom Corps or whatever, but seek out the sort of people who aren't normally inclined to join the military -- idealistic college students who hope to become doctors, lawyers, politicians or engineers and are eager to do something noble (and burnish their resumes) by serving their country.

So, to translate, here's Klein's take on the army in the post-Vietnam era:

After sending a generation of idealistic young whippersnappers off to war in Southeast Asia with snazzy new unis, we end up killing two million people from one of the poorest agrarian countries on earth, turning huge sections of North Vietnam as well as illegally-bombed Laos and Cambodia into permanent moonscapes, and sending 60,000 Americans home in body bags, with tens of thousands more coming back crippled, poisoned, or psychologically ravaged. We furthermore let it get out that we started the war under false pretenses and kept up the fight long after even the Pentagon knew the whole thing was a hopeless waste of lives and money. Beyond that, we dump deadly poison on 5.6 million acres of a state the size of New Mexico, creating conditions that would leave every hospital in South Vietnam filling storage rooms, for the next thirty years, with two-and three-headed babies in jars. Photographers like Phillip Jones Griffiths would come back decades later with horrifying galleries of thousands of twisted genetic freaks left to lie for years on mats in malarial villages...

And yet, despite all of this, the real reason idealistic young people from the fancy classes have not been rushing into the services in the years since then is because the army isn't offering them their own hat.

This piece lauding the "excellent nation-building efforts" and the "good news" from Iraq was written, incidentally, in November 2003, which is some time after September, 2002, which is the date that Klein now tabs as the moment he came out against the war. He made this interesting announcement in a blistering passage on his blog about a month ago, one in which he blasted "leftists" for criticizing his stance on the war:

The illiberal left just hates it when I point out that the Democratic Party's naivete on national security -- and the left wing tendency to assume every U.S. military action abroad is criminal--just aren't very helpful electorally. The fact that I've been opposed to the Iraq war ever since this 2002 article in Slate just makes it all the more aggravating. But it's possible to have been against the war and to hope for the best in Iraq ... Listening to the leftists, though, it's easy to assume that they are rooting for an American failure.

Ok, to begin with, I'm just absolutely tired of this bullshit coming from people like Klein who insist that "leftists" are "rooting" for American failure.

Let's get this straight: there are no "leftists" in modern-day America. Or, rather, there about ten of them, and you can find absolutely every single one of them at the next antiwar or anti-anything protest in Washington; they all fit in one section of the park behind the White House, where you can find pretty much all of them passing out small stacks of socialist fliers, mainly to each other. These socialists are committed, dedicated, utterly serious political activists, which makes them absolutely atypical Americans, which is why there are so few of them.

The rest of the people that the Kleins of the world are calling "leftists" are mostly cautious consumers who watch a lot of Netflix movies, have maybe read Love in the Time of Cholera once or twice, and whose most aggressive step in the direction of socialism is a vote in favor of increased school spending. They might drive a foreign car, or willingly see a movie with subtitles. If that makes them "leftists," what word are we going to use for real leftists?

It's totally fucking stupid, and Klein is old enough and close to bright enough to see the absurdity of red-baiting the basically timid conservatism of the American TV-watching, net-surfing leisure class. If you gave the people Joe Klein calls "leftists" a choice -- told them they could have an instant Scandanavian-style state-directed economy, but only if The Sopranos was pulled off the air -- how many of them do you think would vote for even that kind of socialism? The A&E network has nothing to worry about, let's put it that way.

Then there's this whole business of liberals who are accused of "rooting" for failure in Iraq. I'm sorry, but the next pundit who whips that one out should have his balls stuffed down his throat. You cocksuckers beat the drum to send these kids to war, and then you turn around and accuse us of rooting for them to die? Fuck you for even thinking that. We're Americans just like you. You don't have the right to get us into this mess and then turn around and call us traitors. Your credibility is long gone on this issue; shut up about us.

Beyond that, what you say doesn't even make any sense. For most of us, if we thought there was any chance this thing could work, we'd have been for it, or at least not so violently against it. Instead, our opposition to the war was based on our absolute conviction that it would end in disaster -- which it incidentally has. But according to Klein, if we see a guy step off the top of the Empire State Building, we're supposed to root for him to nail the dismount. The whole issue is irrelevant and absurd. This is a catastrophe, not a baseball game. "Rooting" is a kid's word; grow the fuck up.

Of course, rooting is what Klein says he himself has been doing. "I've been rooting for U.S. success ever since the invasion," he says, "because, after the overpowering arrogance and stupidity that led to this disaster, we owe some peace and stability to the Iraqis and the region."

It's interesting that he doesn't include himself in that "overpowering arrogance and stupidity." That's because, according to Klein, he's been against the war since that September 2002 column he wrote about Al Gore. Except for one thing -- while Klein in that column did point out many things that could go wrong in Iraq, and suggested that we all give the invasion a good thinking over before we signed off on it ("this should cause us to pause, slow down, talk this over"), he didn't actually say we shouldn't go. In fact, he would say just the opposite six months later, on Meet the Press :

MR. KLEIN: ... This is a really tough decision. War may well be the right decision at this point. In fact, I think it--it's--it--it probably is.

RUSSERT: Now that's twice you've said that: 'It's the right war.' You believe it's the wrong time. Why do you think it's the right war?

Mr. KLEIN: Because sooner or later, this guy has to be taken out. Saddam has--Saddam Hussein has to be taken out."

I bring this up because Klein's latest offering is a piece praising John McCain's "consistency" on the Iraq issue. "McCain, whether you agree with him or not, has been entirely consistent about the war," he writes. About a hundred blogs wasted no time in blowing up that absurd statement (Among other things McCain, who recently criticized those silly Americans who thought the Iraq war would be easy, said some version of "We're going to win and we‚re going to win easily" about a half-dozen times in the first years of the war), but most of those blogs made the mistake of focusing on Klein's habitual factual inaccuracy, instead of the larger issue here.

A few years ago, I remember reading a Klein article about the Kerry-Bush debates in which he praised the Bush team's "flip-flop" attacks against Kerry:

Some [of Bush's campaign strategy] has been quite brilliant: the "flip-flop" assault inflated Kerry's most annoying trait -- his nuance-addled hedging of political bets.

At the same time, Klein ripped Bush for deriding Kerry for being on the "far left bank":

Bush's epithet slinging was a flop in all three debates. Not because the nation has taken a lurch to the left -- Kennedy remains the anachronistic embodiment of a welfare-state liberalism long discarded by the American public. No, it was more likely that the President had overdosed on invective during the long, long course of this election year and the public has become inured to it.

So it's okay for Joe Klein to rip his critics for being "leftists," but it's not okay for George Bush to do it to John Kerry. It's okay for John McCain to be a flip-flopper, and it's okay for Klein himself to be one; but when John Kerry does it, it's "annoying."

I think they're all full of shit -- Klein, McCain, Kerry, all of them. But especially Klein. He is the living, breathing incarnation of American "conventional wisdom" -- and what American "conventional wisdom" is is a spineless, slavish, power-worshipping watcher of polls who has no problem whatsoever denying today what he said yesterday, and is mostly interested in making sure he still has invitations to the right Beltway parties.

The war, you might have noticed, has not budged very many of these people from their places. Many of them now claim to be against the war. But they're the same people they were three or four years ago, and they're still quite openly sneering at the people who really were right all along. They seem to hate us even more, now that we've so obviously been proven right.

Which tells us: if they're going to end this Iraq thing, they're going to try to do it without admitting either that they were wrong or we were right. And we'll take that, I guess -- but Jesus, is it infuriating.

Matt Taibbi is a writer for Rolling Stone .

 
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