Eighty-two-year-old Donald Hall, former poet laureate and all-around man of literary distinction, was one of the recent recipients of National Medal of Arts at the White House, and is seen here in a photograph with President Obama:
He and the president are clearly smiling at one another. As readers will note, Hall is wearing a classic Brooks Brothers-style sack suit and Macclesfield tie, slightly hidden by the medal, and his full beard and slightly unkempt hair give him a certain Walt Whitman look. By my reckoning, Mr. Hall appears to be his age but looks hearty enough—which is impressive, since he has been battling cancer since 1989.
This is, by any reckoning, a poignant moment: High culture, personified by the Harvard/Oxford-educated formalist poet of soaring reputation and long tenure, is honored by the civil state, personified by our trim, solicitous president. Unfortunately, that is not the way the Washington Post saw it. This particular photograph was featured in a March 2 online feature called "ComPost," written by reporter Alexandra Petri, on a blog she coauthors with columnist Dana Milbank, with the following headline: "Photo Caption Contest!"
"Donald Hall," wrote Ms. Petri, " ... is not, in fact, a yeti. What does this photo say to you, other than: 'Help! I'm a talking photo!' Say it in the comments ... We'll announce the winner in Friday's chat!" And the comments section, as might be expected, was full of clever observations at the expense of Hall's age, appearance, and presumed mental state.
One of the embarrassments of the nation's capital is that the dominant newspaper in Washington is relentlessly philistine, and routinely second-rate in its cultural coverage. Its free-standing book section was discontinued last year, and its coverage of music, art, dance, theatre, and film is either nonexistent or seemingly aimed at the lowest common denominator in its readership. The jeering, juvenile tone of this Petri joke at the expense of Donald Hall is, sadly, all too typical.
And in the fashion of a monopoly enterprise, bullying as well. As it happens, the 89-year-old ex-editor of the Post, Benjamin Bradlee, occasionally walks past THE WEEKLY STANDARD building, which is between his home and the Post, where he maintains an office. Bradlee, once a dashing boulevardier type, now looks very much like a man approaching his ninetieth birthday, and shuffles painfully along the sidewalk with a slightly bewildered expression on his face. If I were to take a photograph of Bradlee the next time I see him, and offer it to Alexandra Petri and Dana Milbank at "ComPost," do you suppose they would repeat the Photo Caption Contest, and invite readers to send in snarky comments?