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The Captain Ahabs of the Washington Post

From the Scrapbook

Oct 25, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 06
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The Captain Ahabs of the Washington Post

Dick Cheney, last week in California

NEWSCOM

One of the stranger stories of recent times is the accidental shooting, on a hunting expedition in 2006, of Texas lawyer Harry Whittington by Vice President Dick Cheney. As everyone must know, Cheney aimed and fired his shotgun at quail on the wing and stray buckshot sprayed Whittington, who was standing nearby, in his face and chest. His injuries were serious, but not life-threatening, and Whittington recovered. 

By all accounts, this was a tragic accident with a happy ending. Whittington, who is 82 years old and still carries some shot fragments in his body, seems to have made a full recovery. There is no evidence that alcohol was involved, or that either Whittington or Cheney was negligent or in violation of hunt protocol—although then-White House press secretary Scott McClellan did mistakenly suggest that Whittington might have been at fault for not announcing his proximity to Cheney. In any event, Whittington’s behavior has never suggested anything remotely approaching a grievance against the man who (accidentally) wounded him. Indeed, on his release from the hospital at the time, he told reporters that “my family and I are deeply sorry for all that Vice President Cheney and his family have had to go through this week.”

Which speaks to the strangeness of the story: While it was plainly evident that the shooting of Whittington was not deliberate, and involved neither malice nor malfeasance nor incompetence, the 2006 White House press corps couldn’t let go of it. Were Cheney and Whittington old hunting companions, or casual political acquaintances? What had Cheney ingested on that day, and when did he ingest it? Why was there an hours-long delay between the incident and any announcement to the media? Was there a second gunman on the grassy knoll adjacent to the motorcade?

The White House released all available information, and Cheney himself was interviewed on Fox News to explain the sequence of events and take responsibility (“I am the guy who pulled the trigger”) but that wasn’t enough: The press, as often happens, was convinced that scandal existed where it clearly did not, and that something—anything—would turn up to throw Dick Cheney in the worst possible light. That can only explain the recent decision of the Washington Post to dispatch a reporter named Paul Farhi to Austin to interview Harry Whittington and write a “Style” front-page story that consumed one-and-a-half pages of newsprint in the paper’s October 14 edition.

Farhi made two discoveries: that Whittington’s wounds may have been more serious than reported at the time, and that a lead pellet which pierced his larynx has, for medical reasons, never been removed. Other-wise, readers learned nothing new whatsoever​—including the fact that Whittington remains reluctant to discuss the episode and its aftermath, bears no evident ill will against Cheney (with whom he remains in contact), and that he may well have been more traumatized by the hysterical press coverage than the injury. 

So devoid of substance is the story that Farhi is obliged to introduce an element of meaningless suspense: Did Cheney ever apologize in private to Whittington for the accident? Cheney, of course, won’t say—and neither will Whittington. From which the Post can only conclude that .  .  . what? 

The Scrapbook doesn’t know—and, in truth, cannot imagine what the Post was thinking, apart from resurrecting a nonstory from the Bush administration when inquiring minds might be wondering why it isn’t concentrating its energies—and conferring a page-and-a-half of ever-diminishing news space—on, say, the present administration.

The Scrapbook does know, however, that accidents happen, and tragedies don’t always have political ramifications. Everyone is aware that Laura Bush drove through an intersection, at age 17 in 1963, and hit another car, killing a high school friend. Is there any particular reason to obsess on what was clearly a painful incident in Mrs. Bush’s admirable life? When Adlai Stevenson was running for president in 1952 it was revealed that, as a boy, he had accidentally shot and killed a 16-year-old girl while demonstrating the manual of arms with a loaded rifle. He did not know that the rifle was loaded, he was 12 years old, and the episode, which haunted Stevenson the rest of his life, was not a subject on which his opponent Dwight D. Eisenhower or the 1952 press corps chose to dwell in public.

In fact, the Post’s extensive coverage over the past four years of the Cheney-Whittington episode stands in curious contrast to its relative lack of interest in the shotgun death, in 1963, of Philip Graham, the Post’s publisher and husband of its proprietary heiress, Katharine Graham. Philip Graham was deeply disturbed, had been hospitalized during psychotic episodes, and evidently committed suicide. But there was an enormous legal battle after his death over the status of his will—contested by his widow—which, of course, set the course for the Post’s subsequent history, and affected not a few prominent lives and careers. 

Now that Paul Farhi is between assignments, how about the full investigative treatment?

The Culture of Complaint

The Scrapbook has been dipping into the new collection Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary (Public-Affairs) and can highly recommend it. A tip of our homburg to editor Steven R. Weisman for including this letter of complaint from the late senator to Brooks Brothers, dated November 24, 1980:

Sirs: As a customer of thirty-five years standing this spring (I bought my ensign’s outfit from you!), I hope you won’t mind this friendly “return.” [The ensign’s outfit refers to Moynihan’s Navy duty from 1944-47.] As I have gotten older, with less time available for shopping, and somewhat more credit, I have taken to buying socks, shirts and sundries in rather large quantities. Such is your quality control that they tend to go on seemingly indestructible and then collapse in the manner of the one-horse shay [a reference to Oliver Wendell -Holmes’s poem, The Wonderful “One-Hoss Shay”].

In just such a manner a complete wardrobe purchased for India [where Moynihan served as U.S. ambassador from 1973-75] lasted four and one-half years and then disappeared in a fortnight. The point of the tale is that last spring before a trip to the Middle East, I stopped at your downtown store and stocked up on various items. I bought one dozen socks, one of which I enclose. All of them developed holes within a month. Of the kind you will see. This is something I know you would want to know about, and which I would like made up for in whatever manner you think best.

The Scrapbook has written such a letter now and then and must acknowledge that Moynihan’s is a classic of the form: light-hearted as well as aggrieved, testifying to the general excellence of the company’s products (this one regrettable lapse aside), and intimating that as a client of long-standing who buys in bulk, he should deserve some loyalty in return. We like to think a suitably abashed Brooks Brothers executive apologized and credited his account at least for the amount of the socks, if not more. Alas, as with almost all such collections of correspondence, the letter in reply is lost to history.

Coincidentally, we note that a survey of 2,000 Britons publicized in the Daily Mail of October 8 found that “over-50s” tend to “write an average of 2.9 letters of complaint per year, rising to 3.5 for the over-60s, compared to just 1.8 by those in their 20s.” Our guess is that the numbers are lower, if similarly distributed by age, in the United States. 

The letter of complaint, in short, may be a dying form. Instead we have the rise of the retailers’ pre-emptive strike: the extremely annoying “customer feedback” forms that the cash-register clerks foist on us with increasing frequency, not to mention automated email requests following our online purchases insisting that we take a couple of minutes out of our busy day to fill out a survey describing our “customer experience,” because “your satisfaction is our highest priority.” The Scrapbook would like to know who we can complain to about this trend.

 

 

Great Moments in Academese

An abstract from the European Journal of Social Psychology

Studies on dehumanization demonstrated that denying certain human characteristics might serve as a strategy for moral disengagement. Meat consumption​—especially in the times of cruel animal farming—is related to the exclusion of animals from the human scope of justice. In the present research, it was hypo-thesized that the conception of human uniqueness (denying animals certain psychological characteristics) might be a strategy of meat-eaters’ moral disengagement. Three studies compared the extent to which vegetarians and omnivores attribute psychological characteristics to humans versus animals. In Study 1, vegetarian participants ascribed more secondary (uniquely human) emotions to animals than did the omnivores; however, there were no differences in primary (animalistic) emotions. Study 2 showed that omnivores distinguish human characteristics from animalistic ones more sharply than vegetarians do, while both groups do not differ in distinguishing human characteristics from mechanistic ones. Study 3 confirmed the results by showing that omnivores ascribed less secondary emotions to traditionally edible animals than to the non-edible species, while vegetarians did not differentiate these animals. These results support the claim that the lay conceptions of “human uniqueness” are strategies of moral disengagement.

The Scrapbook’s translation: Some European sociologists prove that a belief in human uniqueness—and by extension, we suppose, any affirmation that might be found in Judaism, Christianity, or Islam that man is not an animal—is really part of a “strategy of moral disengagement” aimed at absolving oneself of the crime of eating meat. Vegetarians feel that animals are quite human, whereas the morally inferior omnivores draw a false distinction between humans and nonhumans—for the sole reason (it turns out) that they are greedy pigs.

 

Sentences We Didn’t Finish

"Kishore Mahbubani, the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, is over for tea and I am telling him about what I consider to be the most exciting, moon-shot-quality, high-aspiration initiative proposed by President Obama .  .  . ” (Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times, October 13).

 

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