So over the weekend I read All In, Paula Broadwell’s slobberific biography of General David Petraeus. It was nothing special, just a typically crappy piece of fawning, noncritical journalism, full of passages like the following:
At Petraeus’s change of command in Baghdad in the summer of 2008, Secretary Gates claimed that “history [would] regard Petraeus as one of the nation’s great battle captains . . .” Petraeus’s success on the battlefield, his status as a military intellectual and his will to succeed allowed him to shape not only doctrine but also organizational design, training, education and leadership development in the Army and, in many respects, the broader military . . .
You can pretty much guess the rest of the plot from there. Every environment Petraeus enters is instantly bettered by his majestic personage. We see him passing through destroyed hamlets in Afghanistan, the weight of the world on his rugged shoulders, scratching his figurative chin as he worries which strategies to choose “so that villagers could once again live in peace and prosperity.”
We see Petraeus giving stirring speeches, working past midnight until aides tear him away from his desk, and stoically receiving compliments from grateful colleagues (Gates later tells him: “You have stepped forward as the indispensable soldier/scholar of this era . . .”).
The book is so one-sided that it is almost supernaturally dull, and I was forgetting about it just minutes after I put it down.
Then it hit me – it was an interesting book, after all! Because if you read All In carefully, the book’s tone will remind you of pretty much any other authorized bio of any major figure in business or politics (particularly in business), and it will most particularly remind you of almost any Time or Newsweek famous-statesperson profile.
Which means: it’s impossible to tell the difference between the tone of a reporter who we now know was literally sucking the dick of her subject and the tone of just about any other modern American reporter who is given access to a powerful person for a biography or feature-length profile.
All In, for instance, will instantly remind you of Time’s notorious 1999 triple-profile of Bob Rubin, Alan Greenspan and Larry Summers, a worshipful front-pager with the classic headline, “The Committee to Save the World.” Remember that one? That was the piece that started off with the Jay McInerney-style second-person “You slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder” intro, in which the reader is thrust into the brilliant-but-adventuresome mind of then-Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin as he scans the seas for bonefish from a beach in the Caribbean:
The phone rings. You are on vacation in the Virgin Islands. You have been dreaming about the fishing for the better part of two months, and you are about to head out to chase the Christmastime bonefish running offshore and to spend a day on the water, with the sun leaching six months of Washington baloney from your brain. The phone rings, and because you are Secretary of the Treasury, you answer.
That piece went on to describe the “Three Marketeers” with language ripped from comic-books – check out these “Economic X-Men”-type capsule bios:
Greenspan, the data-loving analyst with government roots sunk back into the financial and moral chaos of the Nixon Administration, and a shaman-like power over global markets. Rubin, the Goldman Sachs wonder boy who ran the firm’s complex and dangerous arbitrage operations and then led it to rocket-ship international growth. And Summers, the Harvard-trained academic who is invariably called the Kissinger of economics: a total pragmatist whose ambition sometimes grates but whose intellect never fails to dazzle.
You half-expect that last line to keep going: “Summers, the Harvard-trained academic . . . a total pragmatist, a Kissinger of economics whose intellect never fails to dazzle, and who can shoot frickin’ laser beams out of his eyes . . .”
These fawning profiles aren’t rare, they’re the norm. Take for instance this past summer’s lay-off-the-police Newsweek profile of NYPD chief Ray Kelly, who is described by publisher Tina Brown as having a “pugilist’s mug and a lion’s heart,” and is shown gamely trying to fend off idiotic accusations of civil rights abuses from naïve New Yorkers who just don’t seem to remember 9/11 often enough (“These questions would not surface — and did not surface — in 2002,” Kelly seethes). Then there’s the New Yorker’s creepy profile of budget director Peter Orszag from a few years ago, which began with a description of poor Jon Stewart cringing before Orszag’s tallness and “bulletproof” resume, and went on to describe Orszag as “more than just the budget director. He is the unlikely guardian of Obamaism itself.”
And then there’s almost every authorized profile ever done of every president in our lifetime, from HBO’s loving take on Bush I (“41″) to Bob Woodward’s first volume on Bush II (the still-disturbing “Bush at War“) to the now-notorious Vanity Fair Obama spread released just before this past election, and penned by the usually excellent Michael Lewis, in which the White House reportedly had veto power over quotes used. Glenn Greenwald (who also blasted our own Rolling Stone Obama piece) reacted thusly:
Ample ink is spilled over debating whether the US media is biased in favor of Republicans or Democrats. It is neither. The overwhelming, driving bias of the US media is subservience to power, whoever happens to be wielding it.
The real scandal in the Petraeus episode isn’t that a would-be journalist was sleeping with her subject, it’s that lots and lots of other journalists are doing the same thing – metaphorically, anyway.
Decades ago, when people like Sy Hersh were the go-to-profilers of influential people, journalists reflexively distrusted power, and any reporter, male or female, who wrote a blowjob profile (that’s what we call them) of a politician or tycoon was looked down upon as a hack and a traitor. But these days, you can’t tell the difference between your average profile of a Senator or CEO or a four-star general and an ESPN feature about a day in the life of Lebron James. We’re supposed to make heroes out of sports stars, but what’s everyone else’s excuse? At least Broadwell did it for love. Well, maybe it wasn’t even that . . .