Skip to content Skip to footer

Yellow Journalism, Purple Prose

The Bush style and the Obama style are different. But the all-important substance is the same.

Frank Bruni is upset because President Obama’s unemotional war rhetoric reminds him of his messy kitchen, when it should be reminding him of gourmet comfort food, the flag, and guns.

Bruni, who used to be a food critic for the New York Times, was elevated (to great fanfare) to the op-ed page as the Gray Lady’s First Openly Gay Columnist (TM). His function is to spread the joy of neoliberal identity politics in the absence of any true liberalism, either at the paper of record or in the country as a whole. As such, he frequently uses food imagery in his centrist-leaning political columns; his latest is no exception.

Since he is soon to replace Maureen Dowd as hump-day columnist (she’s down to one op-ed a week since her move to the Times magazine) Bruni is obligingly copying her style as well as her increasingly shallow content. Notice, for example, those trademark one-sentence paragraphs, hitting the reader with all the impact of a stalk of wilted celery: (sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)

There are things that you think and things that you say.

There’s what you reckon with privately and what you utter publicly.

There are discussions suitable for a lecture hall and those that befit the bully pulpit.

These sets overlap but aren’t the same. Has President Obama lost sight of that?

To be a writer who counts the white space between sentences as consumable content, or not to be? That is the one-sentence question.

Now he boldly tiptoes, much like Obama evolving toward marriage equality, into slightly bigger paragraph mode:

It’s a question fairly asked after his statement last week that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with Islamic extremists in Syria. Not having a strategy, at least a fixed, definitive one, is understandable. The options aren’t great, the answers aren’t easy and the stakes are enormous.

But announcing as much? It’s hard to see any percentage in that. It gives no comfort to Americans. It puts no fear in our enemies.

OK, I take the Maureen Dowd slur back. Bruni is actually beginning to rival Tom Friedman in turgid Manichean froth. If you can’t comfort Americans while making the rest of the world writhe in agony, then what good are you?

Speaking at a fund-raiser on Friday, he told donors, “If you watch the nightly news, it feels like the world is falling apart.” He had that much right.

But it wasn’t the whole of his message. In a statement of the obvious, he also said, “The world has always been messy.” And he coupled that with a needless comparison, advising Americans to bear in mind that the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the rapacity of Putin, the bedlam in Libya and the rest of it were “not something that is comparable to the challenges we faced during the Cold War.”

Set aside the question of how germane the example of the Cold War is. When the gut-twisting image stuck in your head is of a masked madman holding a crude knife to the neck of an American on his knees in the desert, when you’re reading about crucifixions in the 21st century, when you’re hearing about women sold by jihadists as sex slaves, and when British leaders have just raised the threat level in their country to “severe,” the last thing that you want to be told is that it’s par for the historical course, all a matter of perspective and not so cosmically dire.

Where’s the reassurance — or the sense of urgency — in that?

So much for the style. Now let’s deal with Bruni’s substance, which dutifully adheres to the war-mongering propaganda being churned out 24/7 in pixels and over cable: Video (probably faked) of one murder (all too real, but the actual date and circumstances remain unclear.) Crucifixions, drumming up the fundamentalist Christian vs. fundamentalist Islam outrage. The “rapacity” of Putin, vs the rabid exceptionalism of USA. Women being sold as sex slaves! — Bruni absolutely has to include this War On Women wedge issue, carefully designed to ignite the tribal fighting spirit in fatigued anti-war Democrats.

And what Bruni calls “cosmically dire” is actually pretty tame, compared to such historic atrocities as the Holocaust, the Rwanda genocide, the casualties in both World Wars, the Mongol conquest, the Napoleonic Wars. And on, and on, and on since the dawn of humanity.

This columnist doth protest too much, methinks. He is beginning to sound like a Richard Harding Davis wannabe. Remember the Maine?

Is the president consoling us — or himself? It’s as if he’s taken his interior monologue and wired it to speakers in the town square. And it’s rattling.

When he came along, many of us were fed up with misinformation and “Mission Accomplished” theatrics and bluster. America had paid a price for them in young lives.

And we were tired and leery of an oversimplified, Hollywood version of world affairs, of the Manichaean lexicon of “evil empire” and “axis of evil.” We longed for something less rash and more nuanced.

More nuanced than Bruni’s “cosmically dire,” maybe? I don’t know about you, but what I “long for” is not more genteel war propaganda, but a slashing of the Pentagon budget, the dismantling of the surveillance state, the prosecution of Wall Street bankers, the banning of money from politics, universal health care, and ad infinitum. The problem is not unenthusiastic warmongering or lukewarm jingoism. The problem is corruption and greed and the death of democracy.

But there’s plenty of territory between the bloated and bellicose rhetoric of then and what Obama is giving us now. He’s adopted a strange language of self-effacement, with notes of defeatism, reminding us that “America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything”; that we must be content at times with singles and doubles in lieu of home runs; that not doing stupid stuff is its own accomplishment.

Bruni dog-whistles his support of Hillary Clinton, who also recently derided Obama’s “don’t do stupid stuff” foreign policy. Bruni is a centrist through and through. His definition of liberalism is celebrating rich and famous females and shilling for charter schools. But now back to manly-man shilling for war:

In The Washington Post on Sunday, Karen DeYoung and Dan Balz observed that while Obama’s no-strategy remark “may have had the virtue of candor,” it in no way projected “an image of presidential resolve or decisiveness at a time of international turmoil.”

And no matter what Obama ultimately elects to do, such an image is vital. But in its place are oratorical shrugs and an aura of hesitancy, even evasion, as he and John Kerry broadcast that the United States shouldn’t be expected to act on its own. Isn’t that better whispered to our allies and negotiated behind closed doors?

Echoing Hillary Clinton to some degree, Senator Dianne Feinstein just complained that Obama was perhaps “too cautious.”

Yeah, that whole tan suit debacle of a press conference was a real kick in the veneers of the style-conscious, wasn’t it? And better yet, if wonder woman icons like DiFi and Hillary complain, then Frank Bruni can definitely be counted upon to exclaim, “You Go Girl!”

I love the way that Bruni, in this age of unprecedented government secrecy and unaccountability, suggests that the president needs to make his public bullshit simultaneously strident and reassuring, confining all his unpleasant truths to rooms where little ears cannot hear them. Actually, the truth is that this president is a lot more bellicose and rapacious than he lets on. Don’t forget that although he has killed an estimated two thousand or so civilians with his predator drones, he is very modest in not wanting to reveal the gruesome details. He has acknowledged being very good at killing people only to his most intimate circle of friends and advisers.

The Bush style and the Obama style are different. But the all-important substance is the same.

The probable reason that Obama was able to enjoy a game of golf immediately after acknowledging the beheading death of a journalist is that he is so used to such images that he has been rendered numb by them. Plus, he is not exactly a fan of journalists. He either subpoenas/threatens them, censors them, stalks them, even jails them without trial when they’re foreign and he can get away with it. This is a man who has seen the photos of Abu Ghraib and refuses to release them. This is a man who has read 6,000 pages of torture porn so graphic that even a redacted version is considered too inflammatory for the delicate sensibilities of Americans whom Bruni imagines only wanted to be lulled and soothed and comforted by a paternalistic, yet testosterone-fueled, commander-in-chief.

Here is my published Times comment to the “Obama’s Messy Words” column:

“But there’s plenty of territory between the bloated and bellicose rhetoric of then and what Obama is giving us now.”

Since when did the bellicose verbiage ever go away? Have you watched CNN lately, with its brand-new made-for-Doomsday soundtrack setting the tone for the bombast-on-crack of the chickenhawks?

There’s plenty to criticize Obama for (drone killings, the war on whistleblowers and journalists, CIA torture censorship, etc), but his perceived lack of a verbal middle ground between bloodthirstiness and sangfroid is the silliest complaint I’ve heard all day. Are you sure this column wasn’t ghost-written by Maureen Dowd?

Obama was right to criticize the paranoid sabre-rattling of people who’ve never been to war, nor have any intention of sending their own kids into battle. The Cold War’s Cuban Missile Crisis was indeed scarier than ISIS. We don’t have nukes aimed at us…. at least not yet, despite the hysteria of the Neocons.

September 1st is the 75th anniversary of (the start of) World War II. With so many of our leaders and columnists slavering for a reprise, it makes me grateful when Obama, despite his many other faults, sounds so bored.

What would you have him say? That it’s a tepid war instead of a cold war? Maybe World War 2.5 instead of 3?

With his recent escalation of bombing in the Middle East and his coming confab with NATO to discuss military action against Putin (who has nukes) I hope against hope that his actual deeds will, for once, match his bland words.

​​Not everyone can pay for the news. But if you can, we need your support.

Truthout is widely read among people with lower ­incomes and among young people who are mired in debt. Our site is read at public libraries, among people without internet access of their own. People print out our articles and send them to family members in prison — we receive letters from behind bars regularly thanking us for our coverage. Our stories are emailed and shared around communities, sparking grassroots mobilization.

We’re committed to keeping all Truthout articles free and available to the public. But in order to do that, we need those who can afford to contribute to our work to do so — especially now, because we only have hours left to raise over $9,000 in critical funds.

We’ll never require you to give, but we can ask you from the bottom of our hearts: Will you donate what you can, so we can continue providing journalism in the service of justice and truth?