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Headache Hysteria

From the Scrapbook

Aug 1, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 43 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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The Scrapbook was amused last week when it was revealed that Republican representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota suffers from migraines and occasionally takes medication for them. Not amused by the migraines, of course—from which The Scrapbook occasionally suffers, too, and which are no fun—but by the fact that Bachmann’s rivals and detractors should have resorted to such a transparent, not to say sexist, device to undermine her presidential candidacy.

On the matter of migraines, at any rate, it didn’t work. The congresswoman was obliged to release a letter from the attending physician of the House, attesting to Bachmann’s good health and the fact that he and a neurologist had evaluated her and (as reported by Philip Rucker and Sandhya Somashekhar in the Washington Post) “found that the headaches were ‘infrequent’ and well controlled.” Translation: Like millions of Americans, Bachmann gets migraine headaches, but they would not interfere with her ability to serve in the White House. 

The next paragraph in the Rucker/Somashekhar story, however, is one of those passive-voiced/anonymously sourced/brow-furrowing cow patties that make the Post’s political reporting so interesting to follow: 

The assessment was issued in response to reports that surfaced this week in which former aides, quoted anonymously, said the attacks are frequently incapacitating, raising questions about whether Bachmann is fit to serve as commander in chief.

Note, please, that the initial report in the Daily Caller quoted former aides who were never identified, and who might or might not have ever witnessed Michele Bachmann in the throes of a migraine headache. That’s the beauty of anonymous sources: They can say anything they want about anything they like because there’s no way of verifying, or successfully refuting, what they’ve claimed. Would “former aides”—would anybody out there—have ulterior motives for “raising questions” about whether a presidential candidate “is fit to serve” as commander in chief? The question answers itself.

What truly amuses The Scrapbook, however, is the reaction within feminist ranks, and generally on the left, to this episode. There was none. Which is astonishing, considering the circumstances. Here you have a female candidate for president, a lawyer and three-term member of Congress doing very well in public opinion polls, who is suddenly assailed by unconfirmed reports from unidentified sources that she suffers from the vapors and, in the White House, might be collapsed on her divan when the red telephone rings. Suppose such an anonymous allegation had been made about the “health” of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, or House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. We can well imagine the uproar.

Indeed, we have witnessed many such uproars—and the Bachmann-migraine story reminded The Scrapbook of a minor episode in Washington history now 41 years old. In 1970, Dr. Edgar Berman, a prominent surgeon, author, humanitarian, and close friend of Hubert Humphrey, was sitting on a panel of the Democratic National Committee’s policy council when Representative Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii) declared that women’s rights should be the Democratic party’s “highest priority.” But Dr. Berman begged to differ—and went on to explain that the effects of “raging hormonal -influences” during menstruation and menopause should preclude women from senior executive positions in government. “All things being equal,” he concluded,

I would still rather have had a male JFK make the Cuban missile crisis decisions than a female of similar age who could possibly be subject to the curious mental aberrations of that age group.

As might be expected, Patsy Mink’s equilibrium was swiftly unbalanced, even raging, and after several days of protests from feminists and assorted Democrats, Dr. Berman was forced to resign from the DNC council—and with reason. Yet after reading all the whispers and doomsday scenarios and troubling blind quotes about Michele Bachmann and her headaches, The Scrapbook felt a certain nostalgia for the days, some four decades ago, when the left was quick to defend the right of a woman to seek the highest elective office in the land without scurrilous attacks on her biological fitness for command.

Carl Bernstein, Media Ethicist

There are three wars going on, a major bombing in Oslo, the Justice Department has been smuggling thousands of guns to foreign criminal gangs .  .  . oh, and the United States is about to default on its $14 trillion debt. 

But judging by the American media, the biggest story going is the unlawful behavior of British tabloid reporters in the News of the World voicemail hacking scandal. By loudly denouncing the conduct of foreign reporters, American journalists get to discuss how sacred and noble their own conduct is relative to those shifty Redcoats on Fleet Street. The problem is that the ethical conduct of the American media is nothing to celebrate, and in any event, no one really deserves credit for proudly deciding not to break the law.

Well, except when one of the most storied journalists in modern American newspapering builds his career on it. Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame, has been everywhere denouncing the scandal in the harshest possible terms. “Murdoch’s enterprise has acted like thugs, not like reporters, somewhat like a mafia outfit,” he recently told -MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell. 

The trouble is, had there been voicemails in Bernstein’s day, we feel pretty confident that he would have hacked them to get the story. The indispensable Mickey Kaus, who blogs for the Daily Caller, cracks open his copy of All the President’s Men to find the relevant passage:

Bernstein had several sources in the Bell system. He was always reluctant to use them to get information about calls because of the ethical questions involved in breaching the confidentiality of a person’s telephone records. It was a problem he had never resolved in his mind. Why, as a reporter, was he entitled to have access to personal and financial records when such disclosure would outrage him if he were subjected to a similar inquiry by investigators?

Without dwelling on his problem, Bernstein called a telephone company source and asked for a list of Barker’s calls. That afternoon, his contact called back and confirmed that the calls listed in the Times had been made.

Well, you know what they say about those who live in glass TV studios. .  .  . Nevertheless, Kaus further notes that when writing about the scandal for Newsweek Bernstein “buries a defensive paragraph”:

When Bob Woodward and I came up against difficult ethical questions, such as whether to approach grand jurors for information (which we did, and perhaps shouldn’t have), we sought [Washington Post] executive editor Ben Bradlee’s counsel, and he in turn called in the company lawyers, who gave the go-ahead and outlined the legal issues in full. Publisher Katharine Graham was informed. Likewise, Bradlee was aware when I obtained private telephone and credit-card records of one of the Watergate figures.

Just to clear up any confusion, it’s okay for a reporter at the Washington Post to break the law if he tells his editors. It’s not okay for reporters at News of the World to break the law if they inform their editors. Got it? Good.

While Richard Nixon’s behavior in office was certainly deplorable, that doesn’t mean it was a wonderful day for the country when Woodward and Bernstein set the template for a generation of journalists to come. In Britain, journalists are frequently unethical, vicious, and ideological, but they don’t try to hide their motivations. Thanks largely to the worship of Woodward and Bernstein, American journalists are frequently unethical, vicious, and ideological—with an extra dollop of nauseating sanctimony on top.

Breeding Like Beckham

Last week’s London Guardian took a brief respite from its attempt to lynch Rupert Murdoch and turned its attention to David and Victoria Beckham. What did the soccer phenom and the former Spice Girl do to deserve the paper’s ire? Well, it turns out that Mrs. Beckham just gave birth to the couple’s (dramatic pause) fourth child!

Running the headline “Beckhams a ‘bad example’ for families,” the Guardian intones:

David and Victoria Beckham may have been overjoyed to welcome their new daughter, Harper Seven, last week but, according to a growing group of campaigners, the birth of their fourth child makes the couple bad role models and environmentally irresponsible.

As the world’s population is due to hit seven billion at some point in the next few days, there is an increasing call for the UK to open a public debate about how many children people have.

It’s tempting to dismiss the Guardian’s criticism as simple enviro-Malthusian drivel, but it’s actually much worse: It’s authoritarianism dressed up as enviro-Malthus. As it happens, the United Kingdom—in fact, all of Europe—has already had the “debate” about fertility rates that the Guardian calls for. And the anti-child, environmentalist Guardianistas won!

Today the average woman in the United Kingdom has 1.9 children, less than the number needed to keep the country’s population from shrinking (absent immigration). The U.K. has been below the replacement level—that is, 2.1 births per woman—since 1974. Even when it comes to “aspirational fertility”—that is, the number of children they would have in an ideal world—Brits say that only 2.4 children is ideal. And that number, too, has been falling over the last 40 years. (No European country has a fertility rate above replacement, and in several of them even the “ideal” number is now sub-replacement.)

Seen in this light, the Beckhams and their four children aren’t “encouraging irresponsible behavior.” They’re dissidents who have chosen to live differently than the reigning ethos demands. 

The Guardian’s chastisement demonstrates that, like other forms of authoritarianism, the environmental movement will not tolerate dissent even on matters which have been settled in its favor.

Must Reading

Elsewhere in this issue, you should check out Helen Rittelmeyer’s review of Naomi Schaefer Riley’s The Faculty Lounges. Riley, as it happens, has had a productive year, also publishing, with coeditor Christine Rosen, a terrific collection of essays called Acculturated. Highlighting recent trends in popular culture (unsavory ones, for the most part, if that doesn’t go without saying), the book features the likes of Kay Hymowitz writing about YouTube and Eliot Spitzer and Joe Queenan on pro sports. 

Not to mention wonderful stuff by such other Weekly Standard contributors as Judy Bachrach, Emily Esfahani Smith, Bill McClay, and Pia Catton. And worth the price of admission all by itself is the essay by the Scrapbook’s colleague Jonathan V. Last on video games as a vehicle for sociability.

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