Edsall’s irony

Tom Edsall is the master of dead-pan sarcasm. When he said “David Broder IS the voice of the people,” he was making fun of Broder and pulling Jebediah Reed’s leg.

I ignored the silly Radar/Tom Edsall flap in hopes it would go away. But since neither Jebediah Reed nor Atrios seems willing to let it go, perhaps it’s best if I add my two cents.

Reed reported that Edsall, in the context of discussing David Broder’s opposition to the initiative process, said of Broder “He is democracy. He’s the voice of the people.” He says that Edsall’s remark “was not said archly.” (By that, presumably, Reed means that Edsall didn’t start his remark with {snark} and end it with {/snark}.

But it’s an obviously absurd thing to say, right? Broder is rich, famous, inside-the-Beltway pundit, neither a typical American nor someone (such as a political boss) in close touch with non-elite opinion. So either Tom Edsall is an idiot, or he was being sarcastic.

Since anyone who reads Edsall’s stuff knows that he’s not an idiot, the natural inference is that he was being sarcastic, making fun of the fact that of course people like Broder, who believe intensely in their own wisdom, distrust the machinery of direct democracy. But Reed, instead of saying something like, “You must be joking,” just took it down and reported it straight.

I’ve known Edsall for close to 40 years. (I was still in high school when he covered a campaign I worked on: Parren Mitchell’s first run for Congress.) He has the best dead-pan I’ve ever encountered. It’s a normal conversational gambit (for him) to say something transparently absurd with a completely flat affect. He never winks: like the old Spy magazine or Le Canard Enchaine, he makes his audience do the work of figuring out what’s real and what’s gibberish. And he never takes it back: if someone rises to the bait, he will continue to pretend to defend whatever absurd assertion he made, piling absurdity on absurdity until it’s no longer possible to believe it. (He’ll say something like, “Karl Rove is the greatest friend poor people ever had,” and, if challenged, invent increasingly silly “facts” to support his claim.)

Many people find Edsall’s irony disconcerting; it’s certainly unusual. But it’s a tic that anyone who knows Edsall (who, while not a celebrity journalist, isn’t exactly an obscure figure in DC journalistic circles, either) is familiar with; it wouldn’t have taken more than five minutes for Reed to call someone who covers politics for the Washington Post and say, “What’s the story with Edsall? He just told me David Broder is the voice of the people,” whereupon his source would have straightened him out.

What’s striking here is the enormous gullibility of both Reed and Atrios. Both are so eager to find supporting evidence for the “Washington reporters are elitist and completely out of touch” thesis that, confronted with a choice between the interpretation that Edsall was a fool and the interpretation that Edsall was being sarcastic, they rushed to believe the version that made the regular press corps look bad. (Ironically &#8212 in a different sense &#8212 Edsall was the first reporter I ever heard criticizing the White House Correspondents’ Dinner for reflecting an improper degree of amity between reporters and politicians. That must have been back around 1976.)

Now if Edsall were a politician, you might reasonably criticize him for saying something certain to be misunderstood. But Edsall is old-fashioned enough not to regard reporters as part of the story. He’s more interested in covering the news than in making it, and doesn’t regard maintaining his own image as part of his job.

Moral of the story: if something is too weird to be true, it probably isn’t.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com