The Scrapbook is not ordinarily in the business of transcription, but a recent interview with novelist Jonathan Franzen—seen on the website of the Guardian newspaper in London—prompts us to reproduce one passage in full.
Franzen is the 51-year-old writer/activist who gained some celebrity a decade ago when one of his books was chosen to be an Oprah Winfrey “book club” selection, and Franzen responded by publicly disparaging her taste in literature, and worrying that his status in what he called “the high-art literary tradition” might alienate Oprah fans.
It is no small accomplishment to make Oprah Winfrey seem sensible and gracious, but Jonathan Franzen managed to do it. In the Guardian interview, however, he succeeds, against all odds, in making himself appear even less appetizing than in the Oprah episode. Sporting a few days’ growth of beard, a self-consciously soft, condescending tone of voice, and the kind of ragged wardrobe that fairly screams “high-art literary tradition,” Franzen discusses his homeland from the vantage point of a foreign capital and manages, in a handful of sentences, to personify the smug, disdainful branch of alienated American intellectuals.
His interlocutor, a Pakistani-born filmmaker named Sarfraz Manzoor, introduces the subject of American belligerence and hypocrisy about “freedom.”
Sarfraz Manzoor: The United States fetishizes freedom and forgets that, actually, there are greater freedoms to be had by having bonds.
Jonathan Franzen: In the last decade America has emerged, even in its own estimation, as a problem state. That is, there were many criticisms one could make as early as the treatment of the Indians—it goes way back—and our long relationship with slavery. There have been some problems with the country at many points; in the Cold War we were certainly culpable. But the degree to which we are almost a rogue state and causing enormous trouble around the world in our attempts to preserve our freedom to drive SUVs, or whatever. . . . It does make one wonder what is it in the national character that is making us such a problem state, and I think it’s [this] kind of mixed up childish notion of freedom. And perhaps it was really, truly, who left Europe to go over there? It was all the malcontents; it was all the people not getting along with others.
At this point, Manzoor asks Franzen if he is more “comfortable” in America these days. Franzen visibly flinches, and snickers:
Ha, ha—no! It was possible while I was writing to look forward to some possibility of significant change. . . . Now people left of the middle feel puzzled and sort of anguished because we don’t have an object for our anger, but the right is still as angry as ever. I mean, that’s the worrisome thing about our upcoming elections. . . . The right is still just as angrily motivated as ever, and the Democrats are in disarray and feeling, well, we have power but the system itself is so screwed up, and we are relatively the adult party, so we are, you know, we are responsible for trying to make an unworkable system work. It’s this kind of—ugh!—discouragement and dull throbbing anxiety.
To be sure, this is boilerplate to anyone who has spent quality time on an Ivy League campus, or is a steady reader of, say, DailyKos or the New Republic or Huffington Post.
But what intrigues The Scrapbook is the fact that Franzen stopped by the White House this past week for a “delightful” chat with President Obama. The subject of their private meeting, of course, was not disclosed; but we would guess that there was discussion of America’s status as a “rogue state,” the “childish” nature of our notions of freedom, the “malcontents” who settled this continent, the “screwed-up . . . unworkable system” that elected Barack Obama—and the “dull throbbing anxiety” that people like Jonathan Franzen (and the president?) must now be experiencing about democracy.
One more happy consequence of this election is that President Obama, presumably, will discard his irritating metaphor about the economy being driven into a ditch, with Republicans at the wheel—who must now be content with riding in the back seat while Democrats do the hard work of pulling the car out of the ditch. And so on, and on, seemingly ad infinitum.
In the president’s defense, The Scrapbook is willing to concede that, as metaphors go, we’ve heard worse (even if we recognize its premise is faulty) and it was probably effective the first or second time Obama used it. But after month upon month of relentless repetition—talk about driving something into the ground!—it is The Scrapbook’s sincere hope that this particular rhetorical tic will be consigned to the scrapyard, or join the cash for clunkers program, or whatever.
For presidents do have the habit of grasping at favorite phrases or imagery, and never letting go. There was a time, during the late 1990s, when The Scrapbook felt as if its skull might explode if Bill Clinton spoke one more time about building a bridge to the 21st century. And a generation earlier, Richard Nixon would get a faraway look in his eye when describing “the lift of a driving dream.” Even after he said it the thousandth time.
Barack Obama, for his part, is no slouch at expressing himself, even in the absence of his beloved TelePrompTer. So we’re cautiously optimistic that the car-in-a-ditch line will disappear this week, to be succeeded by a fresh, new, up-to-date metaphor that incorporates the election results: A locomotive careening off the tracks? An ocean liner sinking beside an iceberg? The 2009 Obama convertible flipped into a ditch, wheels spinning?
The Bipartisanship Canard
President Obama, in recent speeches, has abandoned his oft-told tale about how House Republicans rejected his economic stimulus before he had a chance to discuss it with them. But the White House hasn’t given up on spreading this canard. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs brought it up recently, and the Washington Post, no doubt fed the story by the Obama administration, repeated it in a profile of John Boehner.
The story, as Obama used to tell it, goes like this. When he went to the Capitol to talk to House Republicans about the stimulus a week after his inauguration in 2009—January 27, to be exact—they’d already issued a statement opposing it. So his mission of bipartisanship was undercut by partisan Republicans, whose decision was based on politics, not the needs of the country.
Some of the story is true: Obama did indeed talk to Republicans that day. The rest is false. Republicans didn’t issue a “statement” expressing opposition to his stimulus. Nor was the supposed statement put out just as Obama’s motorcade was leaving for the Capitol. And Republicans did offer ideas that might have led at least some of them to vote for the stimulus.
Here’s what really happened. The day before the meeting, House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Appropriations Committee chairman David Obey unveiled the Democratic stimulus package—with zero input from Republicans. And word that Boehner and minority whip Eric Cantor were urging House Republicans to vote against the Pelosi-Obey bill leaked to the press a few hours before Obama arrived at the meeting. The next day, the bill passed the House over united Republican opposition.
This turned out to be the Obama bill. According to Republicans, the president could have told Democratic leaders to alter the bill to include some of their suggestions. Had he done so, a significant number of Republicans probably would have supported it. In any case, the Pelosi-Obey version was unchanged. And Obama didn’t express any dissent when it was passed.
Gibbs, at his press briefing on October 19, said reporters should ask Republican leaders about bipartisan relations with the president. “You’ll have to ask John Boehner, who, as I have used the example before, put out the statement opposing the stimulus as the president was about to load the motorcade to go to Capitol Hill to talk to the Republican caucus about the Recovery Act,” Gibbs said.
A week later, the Post said White House staffers were “still angry” about Boehner’s instant opposition. This account said Boehner had “snubbed” Obama by “denouncing” the stimulus. “That helped set the tone for his two-year effort to block Obama at every turn,” the Post said.
In Obama’s Washington, some canards never die.
From Strength to Strength
The Scrapbook has finished reading, cover to cover, the just-arrived third issue of the Jewish Review of Books. The first two issues were terrific, but this one may be the strongest yet. The combination of range and quality is what’s most striking. Adam Kirsch on Lionel Trilling and Judaism is deft and insightful; Abraham Socher, the journal’s editor, writes a fascinating review-essay on one of the most intriguing but also problematic movements in the Jewish world today, “The Chabad Paradox”; Anthony Grafton’s “The Bible Scholar Who Didn’t Know Hebrew,” on Elias -Bickerman, is a fascinating combination of biography and intellectual history. And there’s more—on the remarkable struggle for Soviet Jewry, on modern Israel, on Kafka and André Schwarz-Bart. Not a page that’s not worth reading.
Go to jewishreviewofbooks.com to take a look, and then subscribe to this handsome, thought-provoking, and important addition to the American and Jewish worlds of ideas.
Sentences We Didn’t Finish
"It’s going to entail . . . a real close look at the lay of the land, and to consider whether there are those with that common sense, conservative, pro-Constitution passion, whether there are already candidates out there who can do the job—and I’ll get to be their biggest supporter and their biggest helpmate if they will have me—or whether there’s nobody willing to do it, to make the tough choices and not care what the critics are going to say about you, just going forward according to what I believe the priorities . . . ” (Sarah Palin, asked whether she’ll run for president, on Entertainment Tonight, October 28).
Election News Online
This issue of The Weekly Standard went to press the Friday before Election Day. But you don’t have to wait a whole week for our brilliant analysis of the election -returns. Read us all next week online. Visit weeklystandard.com early and often!