Mark Halperin's Misguided "Dick" Slur Against Obama

The political commentator erred in speaking disrespectfully of the president. His far greater sin: being so cowed by conservatives that he’s offended by Obama’s mild poke at the GOP.

William B. Plowman / AP Photo

Here’s why Mark Halperin is a disgrace. It’s not because he used a mild obscenity to describe our president on Morning Joe, disrespectful as that was. Rather, it was the circumstances of the slur. Right now, the Republican Party is threatening to blow up the world economy unless Democrats agree to savage cuts in spending while refusing any of the revenue increases that all serious economists say are necessary to actually address the national debt. Obama, whose greatest fault in office has been a misplaced faith in the GOP’s capacity for reasonableness, went on television and chided the party for this stance. Apparently, this struck Halperin as unreasonable. His response embodies all that’s rotten and shallow about D.C.’s pundit class, which fetishizes bipartisanship even as it only demands it of one political party.

This is not to say that Halperin, a Time magazine columnist and MSNBC contributor, should be fired; he shouldn’t, at least not over this. The word “dick” didn’t just slip out of his mouth accidentally—indeed, he waited a beat or two, eyes sparkling with a self-satisfied sense of his own naughtiness, before he said it. But he did apparently think someone was going to cut his microphone. Besides, we have to get beyond constantly banishing people over small public slips, whether we’re talking about Nir Rosen, Octavia Nasr, or Rick Sanchez. The more we live in public, and the more news is replaced with facile banter, the more opportunities journalists and politicians have to inadvertently reveal sides of themselves that should remain hidden. We have to find a way to deal with this without destroying careers over inevitable momentary lapses.

So Halperin should be forgiven for insulting the president. He shouldn’t be forgiven, though, for his role in perpetuating the idiotic assumptions of the establishment clique that lefty bloggers sometimes call The Village. The former political director of ABC News, Halperin is the founder of the hugely influential political tip sheet The Note, which is where Washington insiders and those who aspire to become Washington insiders go to read about themselves. “We try to channel what the chattering class is chattering about, and to capture the sensibility, ethos, and rituals of the Gang of 500, which still largely sets the political agenda for the country,” he told David Grann in a 2004 New Yorker story. He’s as good a symbol as anyone of our political class’s smug insularity, its obsession with process and symbolism, and utter disinterest in policy. He creates and then reifies conventional wisdom.

Grann’s piece nailed The Note’s political ethos: “The Note’s principal allegiance is not to ideas but to the cult of the scoop and to the notion that success trumps all other values. And those who treat politics too seriously, who do not see the world with the cool detachment of the pros, are suspect.” Throughout the Bush administration, The Note maintained a fawning appreciation of the White House’s PR operation, at one point writing about a campaign to rehabilitate Saudi Arabia’s reputation, “The scheme you came up with is so clever, we think it should be used as a case study in political campaign management schools.” Halperin has always treated earnestness and outrage as pathetic and vulgar.

It’s true that, at one point in 2004, he tried to see his way out of the extreme relativism and cheap postmodern obsession with narrative that infects modern campaigns. In an internal memo, he wrote that Bush’s distortions were far greater than Kerry’s, and should be treated as such. “We have a responsibility to hold both sides accountable to the public interest, but that doesn’t mean we reflexively and artificially hold both sides ‘equally’ accountable when the facts don’t warrant that,” he wrote.

The memo was leaked to the Drudge report and the right went ballistic. Since then, Halperin has been desperate “to prove to conservatives that we understand their grievances,” as he said in 2006. In slavish interviews with Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, he apologized again and again for the media’s purported liberal bias. “I'm proud of where I work, where we understand that we've got to not be liberal,” he said.

That’s an understatement. He’s part of a political class that has become so cowed by conservative attacks that it makes anti-liberalism its lodestar, constantly imputing strength to the right and weakness to the left. Hence The Note’s initial insistence that the Terri Schiavo melodrama was a boon to the GOP: “The Republican leadership seems to have succeeded in framing the discourse around a moral question.” Or its declaration, eight days after Hurricane Katrina, that Bush “clearly won the last news cycle in raw political terms” in part because “Leader Pelosi and Leader Reid are ‘in charge’ of the Democratic political ‘strategy’ on Katrina,” apparently a self-evident absurdity.

Because Halperin is so determined to bend over backward for the right, he can’t come to grips with the central fact of modern politics—the death of Republican moderation. Today’s GOP is a congeries of Birchers, fundamentalists, nativists, and gold bugs that considers longtime conservatives like Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch unacceptably left-wing. Right now, it is playing a game of chicken with all of our financial futures, counting on the widespread fear that it really is crazy enough to unleash financial Armageddon, and the knowledge that the Democrats are not. The president tried, in a very mild way, to address his opponents’ dangerous intransigence. What kind of political journalist regards that as wildly inappropriate? Halperin has given us the answer.