By Jonah Goldberg
Friday, July 28, 2017
I think it was President Eisenhower’s press secretary, James Hagerty, who told White House chief of staff Sherman Adams, “I’m going to gouge out your eyeballs with my car keys and skull f*** you.”
No, no, that didn’t happen. Nor did the vastly cruder scene from the Millard Fillmore administration that I was going to go with instead. It involved the postmaster general, a goat, a White House steward, three farmer’s daughters, and an oak barrel full of axle grease.
I bring this up to illustrate that crude language does not offend me, in the appropriate context. If I’m playing poker, hanging out in my cigar shop (as I am right now), or sitting in a van pulling my ski mask over my face before a heist, I can let the expletives fly. But curse around my kid, or kids in general, and I get #$%^& pissed. And while this has never quite been a family “news”letter, as the hooker said to Elliot Spitzer when he released a kangaroo in a cowboy hat from the hotel closet, there are some lines I will not cross, even here.
My second point is that all of the people freaking about newly installed White House communications director Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci’s language are freaking out about the wrong things. Of course, it was crude and all that. But Tom Bevan is right: Former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel’s “colorful language” was part of his charm, at least according to the White House press corps. Lots of people, including a few presidents, used language that would make Paulie Walnuts wince. I used to work for a former LBJ speechwriter. He used to tell me stories about some of the things Johnson said — and did — with regard to his, well, namesake.
In other words, the cursing is not the issue, it’s the context. I recall some conservatives defending Donald Trump’s tweets at Mika Brzezinski on the grounds that Andrew Jackson had a filthy mouth too. Okay, but he kept the blue talk out of his official statements.
The reason why the Scaramucci brouhaha is so dismaying isn’t the less-than-shocking revelation that a guy who refers to himself in the third person as “The Mooch” curses. Nor is it the suggestion that Steve Bannon is one of only a handful of men to master the art of autofellatio (there’s a Wikipedia entry on this topic that I will refrain from linking to, for the children). That bit of rhetorical excess seems the single best illustration to date of the imperative in the Age of Trump to take some statements seriously, but not literally.
No, there are two main reasons the unfolding Scaramucci clown show should arouse concern. The first is that he has no idea what he’s doing and he might just be nuts. This is the White House communications director. But he apparently doesn’t know how off-the-record interviews work. Now, for roughly 99 percent of the American public, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. But, again, he is the White House communications director. I am not ashamed of my ignorance about how to do all manner of things, from how to remove a gallbladder to how to fly a plane. But I expect these skills from surgeons and pilots.
The Mooch also doesn’t seem to grok that a public financial-disclosure form is . . . public. Nor does he know that it’s wrong for him to reach out to his FBI “buddies” in an effort to sic them on fellow members of the White House staff.
Oh, and most communications professionals know that it’s probably a bad idea to explain away your stream-of-consciousness character assassinations with the fact that you didn’t appreciate the fact that journalists are scum:
I made a mistake in trusting in a reporter. It won’t happen again.
— Anthony Scaramucci (@Scaramucci) July 28, 2017
It is certainly true — and even advisable — to have a healthy distrust of journalists. But just as surgeons know that a scalpel — as opposed to, say, a spatula or a snapping turtle — is used to remove a gallbladder, communications professionals know that you don’t say this kind of thing out loud if you want to have good relationships with the press.
I Meant to Do That
Now it is possible that Scaramucci does know all these things and he is simply playing Hamlet to shake things up, expose his enemies, and grab attention. That is the go-to explanation for so many of the things the president does as well. Whenever Donald Trump does something inexplicable by Earth-logic, the immediate response in some quarters is “Brilliant!” And sometimes, this crazy-like-a-fox explanation has some plausibility. Trump is quite gifted in changing the narrative. But sometimes he makes the narrative worse, not better.
Likewise, it seems to me that there’s some merit to this theory of Scaramucci’s behavior. Either way, this is a good example of making the narrative worse. And, again, he’s the communications director.
But even that malpractice doesn’t get to the heart of it. Making the narrative worse is bad, but it’s the content of that narrative and the manner by which he is crafting it that is so grotesque. Scaramucci made no effort to confirm the truth of his accusation against Reince Priebus. He simply accused him of committing a felony. That’s outrageous. And so are his repeated efforts to conflate truly egregious and criminal leaks of classified information with utterly typical and legal leaks about White House intrigue. The leak that enraged The Mooch was about him having dinner with Sean Hannity, former Fox News co-president Bill Shine, and President Trump. In his paranoid fever, Scaramucci assumed it was Reince Priebus who went to the press — and maybe it was. But that is not an illegal leak. And it’s certainly not a disclosure of state secrets.
Indeed, the narrative Scaramucci seems Hell-bent on crafting is that all White House leaks are treasonous. “What I want to do is I want to f***ing kill all the leakers,” Scaramucci told The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza.
Undermining the president, according to Scaramucci, is unpatriotic. And the traitors aren’t just the leakers, but the reporters who report them. “You’re an American citizen,” he told Lizza. “This is a major catastrophe for the American country. So, I’m asking you as an American patriot to give me a sense of who leaked it.”
Think about this for a moment. Scaramucci suggests that he was betrayed by Lizza because he believed this conversation would be off the record or on background. That means he thought he was leaking to the press about the internal dynamics of the White House. Ergo, Scaramucci is a leaker (something we knew already, by the way). There’s nothing inherently wrong with leaking. This White House — like all White Houses — does it on purpose all the time, the president himself perhaps most of all.
So, the problem isn’t leaking per se, it’s disloyalty to the president. There’s also nothing wrong with a White House trying to punish disloyalty. That’s part of politics.
But Scaramucci defines political loyalty to the president as a patriotic duty, not just for the White House staff but for journalists too. And in his mind, patriotism justifies smearing political rivals and making baseless accusations of criminality.
There used to be a word for this sort of behavior: McCarthyism.
Now, as a lifelong anti-Communist — never mind a National Review guy — I am happy to concede that McCarthy was on the right side of the argument. But he undermined the cause by the demagogic and dishonest way he tried to win the argument. He made up evidence, wildly exaggerated, and accused anyone who disagreed with him or his tactics of being traitors. The Left wanted to make any concern about Communist infiltration of the government into a disreputable “witch hunt.” McCarthy helped them make that claim more easily. But the truth is that, despite whatever witch-hunt atmosphere there may have been, there were actual witches to be worried about.
Consider the difference between these two contexts. During the Cold War, the Soviets were determined to overthrow the United States of America, at least in theory. In practice, they were definitely determined to undermine American interests at home and abroad. Treating people who were sympathetic to the Soviet cause — never mind actively engaged in helping them — as less than patriotic is to my mind entirely justified.
But here we have a man who thinks McCarthyite tactics are justified to support Donald Trump. Scaramucci says he’s doing this to advance the “president’s agenda” to make America great again. But it seems more obvious that his first priority is to curry favor with the boss and solidify his own power.
Also, let me just say that loyalty to a person isn’t how we define patriotism in this country. Patriotism is about adherence to ideas and principles. Rich Lowry would be the first to insist it’s also defined as loyalty to historic concepts of nationhood. That’s fine. But it’s not defined by loyalty to man. Not here.
And that brings me to the second reason why this is all so disturbing. Trump apparently approves of what Scaramucci is doing and how he’s doing it.