Wash­ing­ton’s press birds on a wire

The Washington Times Daily - - COMMENTARY - BY WES­LEY PRUDEN Wes­ley Pruden is editor in chief emer­i­tus of The Times.

If Robert Mueller con­cludes, after a $100 mil­lion in­ves­ti­ga­tion into whether Don­ald Trump and his cam­paign col­luded with the Rus­sians to rig the 2016 elec­tion, that there was no “there” there, then what? Will the lib­er­als then or­ga­nize a lynch mob to go after Mr. Mueller? He can’t count on es­cap­ing a lit­tle tar and feath­ers, if not the rope. The Democrats are al­ready drool­ing in an­tic­i­pa­tion. Their me­dia al­lies are feed­ing them a steady diet of ap­pe­tiz­ers. Pres­i­dent Trump is widely ac­cused of try­ing to in­tim­i­date the spe­cial prose­cu­tor. On any morn­ing there’s no room on the front pages of The New York Times and The Wash­ing­ton Post for any­thing but ap­pe­tiz­ers.

The press mob after the pres­i­dent could be eas­ily turned against Mr. Mueller un­less he comes across with what the mob wants. Mr. Mueller has been in Wash­ing­ton long enough to know how this game is played. He can’t help but feel in­tim­i­dated.

The press thinks of it­self as a reg­i­ment of res­o­lute in­ves­ti­ga­tors of in­de­pen­dent mein, trained by Sgt. Joe Fri­day (“just the facts, ma’am”), but the in­ves­ti­ga­tors are mostly birds on a wire, one flies off and all the oth­ers fol­low, then one re­turns to the wire and all the oth­ers fol­low him back.

This week there’s a feast of worms to at­tract the early birds on the wire, with enough even for the late-com­ers. The Great Rus­sian-Trump Col­lu­sion is al­ways good for a head­line or a tweet about trivia, per­haps ex­cit­ing enough to tempt CNN to in­ter­rupt its end­less cov­er­age of the miss­ing Malaysian air­liner, but there’s the con­tin­u­ing fall­out of Pres­i­dent Trump’s with­drawal from the Paris global-warm­ing pact, and the trial of co­me­dian Bill Cosby for us­ing the prospect of a job in tele­vi­sion (with an as­sist from the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal sci­ences) to per­suade a lady to come across with a lit­tle en­hanced com­pan­ion­ship, and there’s James Comey’s more or less promised block­buster about what Pres­i­dent Trump said to him over the cof­fee cups. The week should be an un­usual triple-header on the front pages, the evening news and the usual bang-and­shout on cable-TV.

Most of the big birds on the wire will ex­haust them­selves fly­ing back and forth be­tween the wires. Men, the wise man said, think in herds, and it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only re­cover their senses slowly, and one by one. And of all the off­spring of Time, as an­other wise man said, Er­ror is the most an­cient, and is so old and fa­mil­iar an ac­quain­tance that Truth, when dis­cov­ered, comes upon most of us like an in­truder, and meets the in­truder’s wel­come.

A Scot­tish jour­nal­ist named Charles Mackay even wrote a book about this phe­nom­e­non in 1841, “Ex­tra­or­di­nary Pop­u­lar Delu­sions and the Mad­ness of Crowds,” in­spired by the great Dutch tulip mad­ness early in the 17th cen­tury. Soon after the tulip, an ex­traor­di­nar­ily beau­ti­ful flower to be sure, was im­ported to Hol­land from Turkey, the Dutch imag­ined that ev­ery­one could get rich in the tulip trade. Ev­ery day brought a new and more spec­tac­u­lar spec­u­la­tion, like The New York Times dis­cov­er­ing that Don­ald Trump once pulled the hair of the lit­tle girl in the desk in front of him, or The Wash­ing­ton Post learn­ing from an anony­mous source that the Don­ald once broke wind dur­ing the prayer at the only time he ever at­tended a church ser­vice. (Pres­by­te­ri­ans of that day were starchy, in­deed.)

Soon tulips were ex­pen­sive far be­yond the dreams of the poor and even the rich and pow­er­ful. A sin­gle bulb might be ex­changed for 8 fat swine, 12 fat sheep, 2 tons of but­ter and a thou­sand pounds of cheese. Ev­ery town of sig­nif­i­cant size had a tulip ex­change. Farm­ers, me­chan­ics, foot­men, maid­ser­vants and even chim­neysweeps dab­bled in the tulip trade, like tele­vi­sion an­chor­per­sons, even unto the sweet­hearts of the cable, de­mand­ing mil­lions of dol­lars to switch net­works, the bet­ter to barter ex­ag­ger­a­tions. Many grew rich, but even­tu­ally the bubble burst. Only the el­e­gant tulip sur­vived.

There’s a les­son here for spec­u­la­tors of ev­ery stripe. Play­ing the game of “can you top this?” are men pos­ing as wise men who com­pete to see who can say the most un­likely things about the man who in­vites scorn with a loose lip. David Ger­gen, who has ad­vised Pres­i­dents Nixon, Ford, Rea­gan and Clin­ton (and of­ten badly, as the mod­est Mr. Ger­gen him­self might at­test) is typ­i­cal of the Wash­ing­ton wise men about to ex­haust their ad­jec­tives.

Mr. Ger­gen is be­side him­self over the pres­i­dent’s scorn of the Paris agree­ment. He thinks the pres­i­dent was al­ready in “im­peach­ment ter­ri­tory,” and walk­ing away from Paris was “one of the most shame­ful acts in our his­tory.” But he’s not alone in Tulip ma­nia. There should be a big mar­ket in Wash­ing­ton for Mi­dol, wait­ing for some­one to ex­ploit op­por­tu­nity.


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