Why is writing an editorial like pissing yourself in a blue serge suit?

Now that the publication of n+1‘s fifth issue is imminent — assuming the $3000 that went missing after a fundraiser doesn’t force a scheduling change — I’ve finally read all of issue four. (We have established that I am the most disorganized person in the universe, yes? Yes.)

As always, there’s a great deal to enjoy and pore over, but the piece I keep telling friends about is Philip Connors’ “My Life and Times in American Journalism.”
 

Connors begins his journalistic career subbing for vacationing reporters at the Fargo Forum. He detests the job so much that he fakes a broken arm to get out of it. He follows this abortive entree up with a couple unfulfilling stints fact-checking and gophering at magazines.

Exactly one good thing emerges from his magazine work: an essay for the Nation against a cyanide heap-leach gold mine proposed near the headwaters of Montana’s Black Foot River. Yet when the article appears, it disappears into the ether. By then Connors has fled back to Missoula. There he works on a novel and ekes out a living baking bread.

“I’d finally given up on journalism,” he writes.

I wanted to devote myself to art, to real writing, to an eccentric vision along the lines of David Lynch. I might have been content to live for years hand-to-mouth in that heady mixture of squalor and beauty, within walking distance of eleven bars [Ed. note: preach it, brother], had an old flame not dropped back into my life.

The old flame reginites. Connors packs up and moves to New York City, only to break up with his lover and find himself alone in a Hell’s Kitchen sublet with the owner’s four cats and his own mounting bills. Journalism starts to look like a good idea again.

I could narrate the whole piece — it’s that engaging; the interview with Nelson Aldrich is priceless — but it’s considerably more eloquent in Connors’ own words. I’ll quote a bit about his time at the Wall Street Journal. In order to land a job there, Connors excises the following sentence from his Nation essay: “Even a newspaper as sympathetic to corporate plunder as the Wall Street Journal once called Plum Creek the ‘Darth Vader of the [timber] industry.’” Follow the “more” tag for a brief excerpt and the rest of the joke posed in the subject line of this post.

One day, about eight months after I was hired, I learned of a job opening on the Leisure & Arts page. It was listed on the company’s internal website, a copyediting job, repairing split infinitives and run-on sentences and the like. I figured I could do that. More important, I knew the job would double my salary and probably halve my chances of lung cancer [due to print fumes]. I had my résumé and cover letter polished by the end of the day.

I was confident of my chances until I learned that, in order to get the job, I would have to sit for an interview with Bob Bartley, the editorial-page editor of the paper, who also oversaw hiring for the Leisure & Arts page, which he otherwise supervised with benign neglect. Bob Bartley, who has since passed away, was among the most influential American journalists of the second half of the 20th century, although he name was not widely known outside of New York and Washington. He was fairly soft-spoken, and his posture was poor. He rarely smiled, but when he did he looked like a cat who’d just swallowed your canary.

His abiding obsessions were taxes and weapons. He thought taxes should be cut always and everywhere, except for poor people, and he thought America should build as many weapons as possible. The more weapons we had, in his view, the less likely we were to need them. But he believed that we might need them to bomb other nations that were trying to get them too, because those nations couldn’t be trusted not to use them, the way we could. In order to further thwart the nations that, unlike us, couldn’t be trusted not to use their weapons, he thought we should spend however many trillions it took to build a missile-defense shield, that sci-fi sort of umbrella that would protect America from the rain of other nations’ missiles….

Bob Bartley had been writing editorials about these ideas for more than thirty years.

Someone once made a joke about editorial writers. Why is writing an editorial like pissing yourself in a blue serge suit? Because it gives you a warm feeling, and nobody notices what you’ve done.

Bob Bartley was no trouser-wetter, though. From what I could discern, he never had warm feelings, and people in power tended to notice what he wrote. The arena in which he’d had his greatest influence was tax policy. He was a ceaseless proponent of trickle-down economics: by cutting taxes for rich people and raising them for poor people, he argued, more money would end up in the hands of not only rich people but, because the rich people would spend it on maids and yachts, in the hands of people who cleaned houses and sanded the decks of yachts. Because everyone would be making more money, the government would generate more money in taxes, even though the top tax rates were lower. Since bloating the government with more taxpayer money was actually a bad thing, an evil outcome of good policy (I know, I know, it all gets very confusing), the government would be obliged to funnel the extra tax revenues to bomb-building projects — in effect throwing the money away, since it created wealth, in the form of weapons, that could only be used once, if at all, and then only to destroy, never to create more wealth, which was supposed to be the essence of capitalism, wealth creating wealth — while at the same time cutting programs for poor people, which would make the poor people angry at the government and entice them to vote for Republicans, just like the rich people did, ensuring Republican rule forever.

Despite the baroque strangeness of some of his ideas, Bob Bartley had once won a Pulitzer Prize.

When I first joined the paper, Bob Bartles was in the late, hysterical stages of his obsession with Bill Clinton. Bob Bartley’s editorial pages had printed enough editorials about Whitewater to fill 3,000 pages in six thick anthologies (now available on CD-ROM!). Bob Bartley was proud of these books, even though no one read them. He thought Whitewater was comparable to Watergate; he was hoping to bring down a president, like Woodward and Bernstein had, and win another Pulitzer Prize. But despite his 3,000 pages of editorials, Whitewater ultimately degenerated into an ontological squabble about whether fellatio is actually sex, and the president did not resign and was not forced from office, although Bob Bartley was adamant that he should have been, because Bob Bartley did not approve of extramarital fellatio. At least not for Democrats. When a reporter asked him whether he would’ve attacked Newt Gingritch or another prominent Republican faced with similar charges of sexual misconduct, Bob Bartley admitted that, “We would have defended them. That’s the way it is.”

I was nervous when I went to Bob Bartley’s office for my interview. My internship at the Nation featured prominently on my résumé. While the work I did there was utterly harmless to the spread of corporate capitalism — fact-checking articles on a labor movement that was doomed no matter what anyone said; researching articles on “the hoax of global warming,” which Bob Bartley agreed was a hoax — the Nation was known to say kind things about socialists. Bob Bartley detested socialists.

Bob Bartley held my résumé in his hands. I feated he would ask me about socialism, taxes, trickle-down economics. Then I would face a choice: I could either tell him what I thought about these things, whereupon he would refuse to hireme to work on the Leisure & Arts page, or I could betray my own principles, barter away my soul, and lie. I’d been here before, and I knew which path I’d choose.

He did not ask me about any of these things.

Pick up the magazine for the rest.


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