Making the click-through worthwhile: HBO shocks us all by offering us one of the greatest television miniseries of all time — and one that conservatives should be giving a standing ovation; the mainstream media’s biggest institutions flunk their latest test in the form of author Michael Wolff; and the Democrats finally begin laying out criteria to separate the real presidential candidates form the aspiring celebrities.
The Triumph of HBO’s Chernobyl
How often do conservatives get to celebrate an offering from HBO with full-throated rousing cheers and applause?
HBO’s miniseries Chernobyl is every bit as good as you’ve heard. The show is not fun to watch, unless you take a certain grim satisfaction in watching Soviet Union officials squirm in their seats, so terrified of the consequences of telling the truth that they assent to brazen lies that will lead to the painful deaths of hundreds and perhaps thousands of their countrymen. The Soviets experienced the biggest and most catastrophic nuclear disaster in human history and their first (and second, and third, and fourth) instinct was to not tell anyone and hope no one noticed.
Almost everyone in the Soviet system comes across as callous, shrugging off the painful deaths of good men and women as simply a requirement of ensuring the state’s good reputation. Mikhail Gorbachev appears in a few scenes, alternating between deer-in-the-headlights terror and grumpy irritability that he has to deal with it all. Chernobyl is that rare docudrama that is simultaneously a horror movie, and it’s way more terrifying than most offerings in the horror genre because it’s all true (or as accurate as the brilliant creator-writer Craig Mazin could determine, given contrasting historical accounts). The radiation is one of the monsters bedeviling the characters on screen. The other monster is the Soviet bureaucracy, full of blind denial, insane priorities, moral cowardice, and a depraved indifference to human life. And according to those who lived through the era, the attention to detail in portraying mid-1980s Soviet life is amazing.
The nearly all-British cast, and their use of their native accents, initially threw me. The series has everyone speak English, but radio broadcasts, emergency telephone-call recordings, the TV news, are in Russian, and I don’t know if the mix works as well as the creators intended. But if the first half-hour of the first episode doesn’t engross you, stick with it. The explosion is deliberately underplayed. Towards the end of the first episode, one of the managers of the plant insists the radiation levels are not dangerous, then mid-sentence becomes overcome with sickness and vomits right onto the table in front of local officials. But the episode really picks up near its close when an old apparatchik speaks up at the local government’s emergency meeting.
This is the moment when we would expect a sagacious old man, veteran of the wars and wise with experience in matters of life and death, to offer the confused and frightened local officials guidance and perspective they desperately need. Instead, the old man declares that as good Communists, they have a duty to not evacuate or even inform the residents of Pripyat that they should stay indoors; that scaremongering would only distract the people from their duties to the state. The room bursts into applause. All of us watching at home know that everyone in that room just simultaneously committed mass murder and collective suicide. They’re doomed — and the system they serve was perhaps always doomed. Chernobyl is an epic five-part comprehensive denunciation of the Soviet Union, and with it the intrinsic systemic dishonesty that was required to keep the Communist system in power.
But it’s worth keeping in mind that shameless dishonesty in order to avoid embarrassment is a human trait, not just a Socialist one. In almost any governmental system on earth, those running the system can blur their sense of their personal interest and the national interest.
A bad leader will prioritize his image above all else and see every issue through that lens. A bad leader will deny the seriousness of threats because speaking honestly about an emerging danger would require admitting being wrong earlier. A bad leader will insist that a failing solution is really working. When challenged, those types of leaders focus on finding scapegoats instead of solutions.
This approach to leadership is also futile; the Soviet government’s obsession about not being humiliated led to one of its greatest humiliations.
The Media Chooses to Learn Nothing from the Michael Wolff Debacle
Yesterday, after examining one particularly implausible claim in Michael Wolff’s new book, I wrote, “the mainstream media’s treatment of Wolff’s new book will be a good indicator of whether those institutions that once touted Fire and Fury learned anything from experience.”
We have our answer: Not much.
Axios runs an excerpt about the Kavanaugh fight, depicting Trump lamenting that not enough Protestants are on the court.
Are Wolff’s sources reliable? Does Axios trust that they exist? Eh, as Fred Armisen said in his impression of Wolff on Saturday Night Live, “You read it, right? And you liked it? You had fun? Then what’s the problem? You got the gist, so shut up. Even the stuff that’s not true, it’s true.”
NPR acknowledges the author’s serious credibility issues, but concludes, “If nothing else, Wolff has performed a kind of service in Siege by taking us back over this rocky ground and reminding us what a long strange trip it has already been.” You will never see a kinder assessment of unreliable reporting.
The New York Times writes a review and an article about the book. The Atlantic writes about the book with more skepticism, but still repeats some of Wolff’s biggest claims, and mostly laments that White House tell-all books haven’t damaged Trump’s reputation much. Newsweek eagerly repeats the book quoting Steve Bannon, predicting Trump’s downfall.
This is an embarrassing display of credulity towards a man who falsely claimed Trump and Nicki Haley were having an affair. It appears that if a story makes Trump look bad enough, no one needs to check it out.
The Democrats Prepare Steps to Pare down their Field of 24 Candidates
The Democratic National Committee makes a decision that won’t be popular, but will be necessary. Starting in September, the presidential primary debates are for serious candidates only.
The DNC’s outline for its September debate — the third of at least a dozen promised matchups during the 2020 nominating fight — decrees that candidates can participate only by reaching 2% in four approved polls released between June 28 and Aug. 28 while also collecting contributions from a minimum of 130,000 unique donors before Aug. 28. That donor list must include a minimum of 400 individuals in at least 20 states. The qualifications would remain the same for an October debate, though the party hasn’t set the deadline for measuring fundraising and polling.
It’s a rare day when I disagree with Jay Nordlinger. Jay’s attitude towards presidential candidates is generally the more, the merrier. In theory, I’d agree with that, but in practice it is clear that in recent cycles, a good chunk of the people running for president aren’t really running for president. They’re running for more media appearances, a post-campaign cable-news gig, maybe hoping to be picked for vice president or a future cabinet post, a bigger book deal some years down the road, and maybe status as the de facto leader of one faction within the party. In short, a bunch of these candidates are running because they want to be celebrities.
If one third of the field is aspiring celebrities, another third are narcissists who might as well be running on the Dunning–Kruger unity ticket.They haven’t done the homework. They haven’t really thought through how they would enact their wish-list of policies. Half of their ideas would require rewriting the Constitution, not that they checked. Some of them barely understand how a bill becomes a law. They’ve practiced their talking points in front of the mirror, and they’ve convinced themselves that they’re ready to sit at Abraham Lincoln’s desk. Hey, all the paid staffers and sycophants around them assure them that they’re ready to make life-and-death decisions! Half these candidates don’t need a campaign manager, they need a psychiatrist.
And yeah, the 2016 Republican primary shaped my thinking on this matter. I liked a bunch of the candidates, but my thinking was that if you wanted a potential president who had walked into the biggest and most insurmountable mess, and left the place in way better shape than he found it, then the best option was Bobby Jindal, based upon how he had helped lead Louisiana from the depths of post-Katrina despair. Yeah, I know, you hated his response to the State of the Union, he’s short and skinny, he talks too fast, he’s too wonky. Some ninny on Twitter said he was “too foreign.” The only thing he’s got going for him is that he gets the farshtunken job done, which ought to be voters’ top priority, instead of all of this shallow, vapid, does-his-focus-group-tested-slogan-inspire-me BS. Any schmo can come along and promise you the moon, and anybody can check the right boxes on an interest group’s questionnaire. It’s candidates’ records that show what they’re really capable of achieving. The fact that so many voters resist this criteria is a reflection of their persistent, pervasive obliviousness and gullibility.
Jindal never appeared in the prime-time debates and never got a real look from primary voters for a variety of reasons, but high among them is that Jim Gilmore and George Pataki and Lindsey Graham looked in the mirror and saw a president smiling back at them. Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee convinced themselves that GOP voters who hadn’t picked them in earlier cycles were going to somehow fall in love with them anew. Ben Carson convinced himself that people liking his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast meant they wanted him to be commander-in-chief.
A debate stage that’s crowded with wannabes, also-rans and never-weres squeezes out the lesser-known but promising candidates who deserve a fair hearing from primary voters. A presidential campaign is not supposed to be a book tour with more speeches than usual.
ADDENDUM: Preorders for Between Two Scorpions continue at a healthy pace, so for everyone who has preordered, thank you so much. For everyone who hasn’t . . . you might as well get it over with, because you know I’ll be nagging you about this all summer long.
And for those of you who will be near Hilton Head on June 17, stop on by and see me!