Friday, June 23, 2006

Personal Asides: Vice Presidents…Don Wycliffe Blasts Bill O’Reilly

Today I’ll be attending a luncheon for Vice President Dick Cheney who will be here to support David McSweeney for 8th district Congress whom I am very partial to. I must say that I have not been strong for many vice presidents. Not for Gore (Clinton), nor particularly Quayle (with George H. W. Bush) nor George H. W. Bush (with Reagan), nor Mondale (with Carter), nor Rockefeller (with Ford), nor Ford with (Nixon), nor Agnew (with Nixon), nor Humphrey whom I liked but didn’t agree with (with LBJ), nor LBJ (with Kennedy) nor Nixon (with Eisenhower). But I am very high on Cheney whom I think has been the best vice president in history…

The newspaper that dare not speak its philosophy because it has none since most of its editorials on difficult issues meander first this way, then that and conclude with “time will tell”…the newspaper that goes in the pantry and mixes its Op Eds so that there is single theme—a dash of Charles Krauthammer here, a slug of the leftist Mollie Ivins there, a jigger of libertarianism from one who eschews national security ID checks here (the former New Republic editor Steve Chapman), a trace of upper-class Brahmin there (Garrison Keillor), a thimble-ful of its old hair-on-the-chest conservatism once weekly (the excellent Dennis Byrne) here…and a syndicated cartoon that may be either left or right here—because the paper cannot face up to an artist who must draw to the definitive right or left…you know the paper I mean—the one with the liberal editorial page Op Ed editor who had put together a cookbook balanced by a professional gay rights Hispanic…what paper am I talking about? The Tribune, of course…well--.

That paper may endorse down-the-line Republicans as a deal it makes with its marketing gurus but whose staff except for its editorial page editor is largely left-ward…that paper put out a piece yesterday that the staff showed its support for by giving it a banner-line. It was by Don Wycliff who takes the conservative TV talk show host Bill O’Reilly to task. All in all, it was the most vociferous presentation I have ever read from Wycliff who, when he was editorial page editor, spoke and wrote with such a vocal and literary hushed, parsed phrasing that it required a metaphysician to deduce what he was talking about. After he had deemed that I had insulted the Honorable Eddie Burke (the alderman who preens while he surveys his own greatness) Wycliffe called me and spent a great deal of time hemming and hawing—on the one hand we want fresh stuff, on the other hand we don’t want strident stuff, but don’t think we want to dictate but on the other hand you shouldn’t imagine you should shock. So I said what in the hell are you getting at Donald?

We’re thinking that maybe…let’s put it this way: we’re leaning to—well leaning is not the word…let’s say that after we’ve talked it over here—not just us but others who have an equal interest—well, maybe not an equal interest, let’s say a proportionate interest, or proportional—yes, that’s it—proportional interest—that we’d just as soon conclude our relationship now. Not that it has anything to do with what you wrote about Burke which we should have caught—my fault, there—not that it had anything whatsoever to do with that because if there’s anything we want it’s fresh stuff…but--.

Don, I have to go to the gym. So what’s your saying is that we’re fini, right?

In a manner of speaking.

(Now contrast that with the admirably terse Steve Huntley’s way of delivery:

(Tom, you’re gone. Stay in touch. Bye. Click…buzzzzzzz.)

The Don Wycliffe I just described left the editorial page editorship for what his newspaper calls the job of Public Editor. Now the Public Editor is supposed to be the ombudsman, someone with the definitive strength to tell the newspaper where it went wrong. The all-time best ombudsman or Public Editor…who set a gold standard which cannot ever be exceeded…was Daniel Okrent of The New York Times. You can say a lot against this paper but you know where it is from the second you pick it up which makes it in my estimation still one of the great newspapers of the world. Okrent, who is a world-class biographer and author, took the job not as a sinecure but for a year which he announced he would serve and not return. His first piece was to announce something that as brilliant as the The Times has been, it could not face.

He said and I paraphrase: Let’s face it. The Times is a liberal newspaper. Very liberal. That’s o.k. but it’s too damned liberal—so liberal, in fact, that while it shades the news liberal and that’s o.k., it does so with such dishonesty that it employs de-constructionism, the ignoring of facts that refute its case.

Had he talked about how the newspaper goofed up spelling of surnames or failed to correctly identify a photo, he would have done what the paper’s majestically pompous liberals had expected him to do…but he didn’t. He was gone in a year true to his word but I have been searching for him ever since (and now I hear he’s just authored another book).

You cannot imagine, do you, that Wycliffe…the parsing Wycliffe who speaks on the phone with such a whisper that one imagines for a time he has left the receiver on the desk top…you cannot imagine that Wycliffe would have been another Daniel Okrent, do you? Well, let me not surprise you: he most emphatically was not. His view of serving his masters was to acknowledge as little as possible had gone wrong and give the newspaper’s side. It was agony, sheer agony (I imagine the veins standing out in his forehead) to acknowledge error as once in a while he had to. That is the Tribune way.

But imagine a different Wycliffe. He writes: “If intellectual dishonesty could be said to have a face, I saw it Tuesday evening as I watched Bill O’Reilly’s program on Fox news. I watched it without sound.” Then he goes on to say that he read the bullet-points for O’Reilly’s commentary. O’Reilly was angered about the mutilation and murder of two American soldiers. Not unusual, but O’Reilly evidently wanted something done about it. It’s always when one gets to the point of doing something about it that upsets Wycliffe because that resembles a culture clash to the one with which Wycliffe has been most comfortable: the editorial board which parses careful pseudo solutions…such as tossing a life-preserver on a 25-foot line to one drowning 50 feet off shore and saying they went at least half-way…such as suggesting that after a climatic battle the humanitarian thing to do is to shoot the wounded—you know, the decently moderate…that is the m-o-d-e-r-a-t-e Tribune solution.

Wycliffe’s moderate solution is to level blame for the death of the two soldiers. Who’s to blame? Get this: Donald Rumsfeld. He didn’t send enough troops there and in smashing Saddam Hussein he destroyed the Iraq army so the nation’s defenses are weak. Actually, reading this makes one happy that Wycliffe is no longer with the newspaper. Where is he?

He’s the flack for Notre Dame. It’s president, a Father Jenkins, vowed to restore Notre Dame as a Catholic institution. His inaugural address promised to do so. And he followed through. He announced that the porno play lauding homosexuality, The Vagina Monologues would not be allowed to be presented on the Notre Dame campus.

Then Father Jenkins changed his mind and allows it. It is not clear whether his initial public decision was done with the professional counsel of Don Wycliffe…or the second change of mind. But I have my own idea.

In any event, Bill O’Reilly shouldn’t lose any sleep over the atypical tirade by Wycliffe in the bland-blander-blandest newspaper ever concocted under the panoply of God’s heavens…or the namby-pamby foot-stomping fit that the Op Ed department gave a typically weird headline: The impenetrable fog of Bill O’Reilly. If O’Reilly is guilty of anything, it’s slugging with a baseball bat: no fog about him. But he has achieved one thing anyhow.

He has made Wycliffe take a position—the first blunt one seen in many years.

1 comment:

  1. Congrats, Tom, on another well-written, well=argued column.

    I think the strongest point of your piece is the understated observation that individuals and institutions must stand for something and be consistent in their reasoning. I think the troubles plaguing the Tribune company, the Catholic Church, the GOP in Illinois center on a common fault. These institutions (a loosely used word here, I admit)seem to be in a constant crisis of identity and purpose. As you point out so well, the Tribune needs to figure out where it stands and then proudly articulate it positions. Being moderately all things to all people is a recipe for failure and the Trib's current condition confirms this.

    Thank you for allowing me to share my opinion.