Fearful of losing his readers, our hero stoops to parody
During California’s gubernatorial recall, a local writer with a national reputation, Micky Kaus, recorded a couple of minor scoops about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s rowdy youthful days. Kaus used to write for cerebral publications like the New Republic, but for the past several years he has been expressing himself primarily on his blog, kausfiles.com.
I’m no expert on the Web but I have a weird job title in the L.A. Times’ Features department called “popular culture” writer, and the editors figured this was a fit. Would I please snap out a profile of this guy in a couple days?
Kaus was easy to reach, accessible; his writing was all there on the Web for me to research. Not much elbow grease there. The trick was: How to make somebody want to read a story about a goddamn writer. Who cares about somebody harrumphing to maybe 15,000 readers a day?
I needed a novelty, a gimmick—something that would make me believe people would actually read this, or least get past the first paragraph.
So I decided to write the story the way Kaus (and many bloggers) write their Web sites—longer paragraphs, a certain breeze indulgence, smart-ass bold-faced headlines to begin each section. Maybe I’d inject my favorite cheeseburger place.
Technically, I couldn’t make this a real blog—couldn’t time-date each posting, couldn’t put the first sections at the bottom—but I figured some people would get it, and other people would enjoy the breeziness for its own sake. (After this ran an editor said: You oughta structure every story like that. My heart be still.)
See what you think. Anything else I have to say will be in caps:
HE’S CHIEF OF THE IRE DEPARTMENT
By Bob Baker
September 20, 2003
THE IDEA WAS TO MAKE THE FIRST GRAF GO ‘BANG!’ SO THE SECOND SENTENCE ANSWERED THE QUESTION. THE THIRD SENTENCE DREW OUT THE CONTRADICTION OF KAUS’ PAST AND PRESENT. SPRINKLE A LITTLE OF HIS ENVIRONMENT AND HIS SUPPORT OF THE RECALL.
Guess who’s leaning toward Arnold? That liberal-bashing liberal Mickey Kaus, for two decades a respected voice on weightier matters of social policy. Kaus’ demanding intellect has filled the pages of the New Republic and Newsweek, but these days he plies his trade online at kausfiles.com, a daily blog full of punchy boldface headlines, cocksure analysis and occasional self-indulgent rants. He jokes that this means “no deadlines and no editors in exchange for no money and no readers.” But the truth is, his sponsor, slate.com, pays him enough to live in a comfy if sparsely furnished single-guy apartment in Venice, and anywhere from 15,000 to 30,000 people visit kausfiles.com daily. The site has been particularly perky lately because of Kaus’ coverage of the ever-changing California gubernatorial recall, which, unlike most Democrats, he supports.
NOW TO THE SCOOPS:
Does anyone smell a contradiction here? Kaus says he’ll probably vote for Schwarzenegger if the Republican performs well during the remainder of the campaign. Yet Kaus has undercut his candidate twice in recent weeks with scoops casting doubt on Schwarzenegger’s morality, veracity or both. It was Kaus who first posted the existence of a 1977 Oui magazine interview in which Mr. Universe boasted of engaging in group sex at Gold’s Gym in Venice. Schwarzenegger now claims he made up the incident to get attention. (Headline on kausfiles.com: “Schwarzenegger’s Defense: ‘I’m a Huge Liar!’ “) And it was Kaus who last week was first to describe a tape of Schwarzenegger’s 1981 appearance on “The Tonight Show” in which he told how he and a fellow bodybuilder intentionally damaged chimneys to increase their bricklaying business (“KF Global Exclusive — Arnold’s Home Repairs”).
NOW TO THE THESIS. YOU’LL NOTICE THAT SOME OF THESE BOLD-FACED PRECEDES ACT AS HEADLINES, WHILE OTHERS ARE PART OF THE ACTUAL TEXT. IN RETROSPECT THAT MAY HAVE BEEN CONFUSING. I DIDN’T THINK IT THROUGH.
Which raises the question: Could somebody please make sense of Mickey Kaus? Why is a high-level thinker (his 1992 book “The End of Equality” was praised as a refreshing exploration of why traditional liberalism could never resolve poverty) playing on the Web? Why is a Harvard Law School graduate using so many exclamation points (some sardonic, some earnest) in his postings? How are we supposed to differentiate between his attacks on Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and the Los Angeles Times poll and the New York Times’ economic coverage and Sen. John Kerry and a meandering tongue-in-cheek scenario in which Schwarzenegger’s election as governor leads to a shadow presidency, with Maria Shriver actually running for the office?
HERE COMES THE SELF-INDULGENCE
Before wrestling with that question…. Did you know you can get the greatest bacon-pastrami cheeseburger at Blue Cube, a little coffee shop across the street from The Times?
Here’s the answer: The Web is now so ubiquitous that a 52-year-old pundit can find a substantial, satisfying audience of civic-minded people who will adopt him as part of their daily routine. (Only a few years ago, Kaus went to the 30th reunion of his Beverly Hills High class. A classmate asked him what he was doing. “I have a Web site,” Kaus said. “My daughter does too,” the classmate said.) The Web is a perfect place for a brainy, iconoclastic dart-thrower. Since he started kausfiles.com in 1999, Kaus has mused eloquently on everything from campaign finance reform to Israel to the 2000 Florida recount to a dispute over writing credits on “The West Wing.” He has become part of the front line of pundit-bloggers, along with Andrew Sullivan, a gay Catholic conservative, and Glenn Rey- nolds, a University of Tennessee law professor with catholic tastes. “I have a pretty easy life,” he says, maybe 6 1/2 hours a day reading and typing, and the beach waiting a mile away.
HERE’S THE RAP ON HIM, AND A CHANCE TO GO DEEPER INTO HIS POLITICAL VIEWS. THE SECTION ENDS WITH A SLIGHT MENTION OF HIS PERSONALITY SO THAT THE NEXT SECTION CAN PLAY OFF THAT. AS I CONSTRUCT THIS STORY I AM HIGHLY CONSCIOUS OF THE NEED TO KEEP IT MOVING, TO GIVE THE READER A SENSE OF BEING PULLED ALONG AS MUCH BY THE NARRATOR AS BY HIS INTEREST IN KAUS.
Hard-core liberals are glad you’re happy, Mickey, but they ding you … for being a Democrat who focuses only on the misjudgments and hypocrisies of other Democrats, not Republicans. Why not just join the GOP? they snort. “Maybe it’s a character defect,” Kaus answers without rancor, “but when I get up in the morning I do not feel like attacking George Bush” — not because he’s drawn to Bush but because he expects so little. He is, by contrast, obsessed with what he sees as the failure of liberalism. He envisions an activist government that champions not financial redistribution but programs that encourage “social equality” (examples: some scheme of national service for draft-age Americans, universal health care). In person he is self-effacing and good-humored — no sign of the smugness some intellectuals throw off.
THIS SECTION GAVE ME A CHANCE TO QUOTE FROM SOME OF HIS MORE INSIGHTFUL WRITING
But something changes around 10 each night. That’s when Kaus walks into a small unkempt office in his apartment and begins surfing tomorrow’s newspapers and tonight’s blogs, looking for developments that stir him. He composes in a writing voice that is harsher than his spoken one — demanding, impatient. At his best, Kaus cuts to the heart of the matter. Like the time he got angry at former Sen. Bob Kerrey, who had just admitted that his squad killed many unarmed women and children during the Vietnam War. “There is already entirely too much respectful attention being paid to the moral and psychological agony of Bob Kerrey and to the ‘healing process,’ ” he wrote. “The question is what happened to the people who haven’t had the luxury of agonizing for 32 years because they’ve been dead. Kerrey’s agony is a distraction.”
THAT DONE, I COULD GO EVEN DEEPER INTO HIS WRITING ON A PARTICULAR SUBJECT
You know what really ticks Mickey off? The New York Times. The scandal over Jayson Blair’s phony stories, which led to the departure of arrogantly brilliant Executive Editor Howell Raines, was cathartic entertainment to Kaus. He blamed Raines and Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. for an increase in liberal bias in the paper’s articles and headlines. Its coverage of economics frosts him. (The New York Times is determined to make the nation’s economy look worse than it is, he claims — “it’s an institutional need, it’s a partisan need and it’s sort of a left-wing anti-capitalist need.”) Last year, hours after the paper ran a front-page story suggesting that the 1996 welfare reform law resulted in rising numbers of urban children living apart from their parents, kausfiles.com screamed intellectual dishonesty. ” ‘No parent household’ or ‘urban children living without a parent’ makes you think these children are running around in empty houses without adult supervision, which they aren’t. They’re typically raised by their grandparents, which … can be a good thing — if, say, their mother is a crackhead whose problems were only smoked out when she was required to seek work.”
SMALL SECTION ON SOME OF HIS MORE ECLECTIC OPINIONS
Even Pete Yorn isn’t safe: Kaus railed against the term “homeland” when the new federal department was created: “It explicitly ties our sentiments to the land, not to our ideas.” He complained that the popularity of singer Yorn, whose work left him cold, was evidence of the evils of conglomerate control of radio. He started publishing summaries of newspaper series, contending that they were overwrought and overwritten and undertaken only to win prizes. He was so contemptuous of one Los Angeles Times series — a four-part examination of how the media covers Hollywood — that he instructed readers to avoid even his summary of it.
THIS WAS A SUBJECTIVE ASSESSMENT ON MY PART, BUT I CAN DO IT BECAUSE I’M A PSUEDO-BLOGGER, AND IF YOU’VE READ THIS FAR YOU’RE NOT GOING TO QUIT. PLUS, WHEN I ASKED HIM ABOUT MY PERCEPTION OF HIS GRUMPINESS, HE AGREED WITH IT.
Allegation: Sourpuss! Many Kaus postings these days sound, well, grumpy. The Los Angeles Times, in particular, suffers his wrath nearly every day for recall coverage that Kaus dismisses as soft, politically correct, late or tilted toward Bustamante or Davis. He has engaged in discourses about the technical reasons the Los Angeles Times poll shows Davis with more support than other polls do, suggesting at least the appearance of bias. He warned readers a week early that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals might delay the recall and, when it happened, Kaus described the mind-set behind the ruling as “condescending, museum-quality” and “paleo- liberal.” He was offended by the appeals court’s belief that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2000 Bush-Gore ruling could be applied here: “In Bush v. Gore, [the court] was confronted with a state court ruling that allowed, not different voting systems in different counties, but two completely different recounting systems within a single county…. Worse, one of the systems was obviously more permissive.”
Sourpuss pleads guilty! “I have been very cranky lately,” Kaus says with no trace of guile. “I used to be funny and now I’m angry and I can’t explain it. I’ve become crankier, and I hope it’s a phase that passes. It could be recall related, it could be I just lost a groove I had, a whimsical quality that’s in remission.” With that, he laughs. “I am defensive for California in the sense that I’m reacting against all the East Coast pundits and the L.A. Times for saying this is an embarrassment to California. The recall provisions are flawed, but there’s still a lot of good that’s coming out of this.”
WE ARE OBLIGATED TO FOCUS IN ON HIS SUPPORT FOR ARNOLD. WE JUST DIDN’T HAVE TO DO IT VERY HIGH. THIS ALSO ALLOWS US TO GO DEEPER INTO THE SUPPORT-VERSUS-SCOOPS QUESTION.
What’s Arnold got that Cruz doesn’t? Kaus answers with Spanish slang for “guts.” He is drawn to Schwarzenegger as a fiscal conservative who is liberal on many social issues. “I’d like a governor who can cut spending by telling lobbyists, including union lobbyists and lawyers, ‘no.’ Schwarzenegger has at least the potential to do that — and thanks to the Constitution we don’t have to worry much about him using the state as a springboard to becoming president.” He dismisses Bustamante as a panderer lacking the courage to condemn illegal immigration from Mexico. Yet when you ask Kaus what his two Schwarzenegger scoops say about his man, he says: “The commonality is that one of his character flaws is that he tends to see people as marks, people he can con with various scams … and that could be tied together with his reputation as somebody who bullies people below the line on the movie set. It’s troubling. For all Schwarzenegger’s flaws, I still tend to think I would vote for him. [But] I am not so pro-him that I don’t want all the dirt to come out.”
I NEEDED TO DO SOME BIO. I WASN’T ENTHUSIASTIC ABOUT IT. I HAD TO USE A PUN HEADLINE. I AM NOT PROUD OF THAT.
Venice is nothing to sneeze at: We have allergies to thank for Kaus’ presence here. Raised on the Westside (his father was the late state Supreme Court Justice Otto Kaus), he went to Harvard, wrote for Washington Monthly, revered for its contrarian essays on liberal governance, then went to the New Republic. He first dabbled with an Internet column in 1997 for slate.com, after ceasing work on a novel. He moved between the coasts a couple times in the ’90s, most recently returning in 2001, finding that the allergies that plagued him lessened the closer he got to the beach.
THE ENDING, TOO, IS MEDIOCRE, SETTLING FOR A QUOTE, BUT IT HAD THE ADVANTAGE OF SELF—CHARACTERIZATION.
Mickey thinks you should have a blog. “Everybody should,” he says. “I’ll never want to give that up. There will always be ideas you have that nobody else does that you want to get out. Do I want to keep posting three hours a day for the rest of my life? I don’t think so. I’ll want to stop it. But why stop it while it’s still fun?”
I can hear some of you now: “My editor would never let me…” I admit, I’m lucky enough to work for people who don’t blink at a cheap trick like this. But you don’t always have to get the whole loaf. Maybe one element within this story can be swiped and duplicated (or, certainly, improved). You earn the right to fool around like this, and it takes time. Be ambitious, be patient–how’s that for a contradiction?