Esquire on What America Needs: Politicians Who Can Do Things, Doesn't Matter Much What


I have praised and lamented Esquire (a magazine I pay to receive, and mostly quite like) for its political coverage in the past, but the overriding spirit that makes its political journalism generally its worst aspect is that it tends to treat politicians and politics with a thoughtless spirit of veneration, one expressed not only unquestioningly on the part of the writer, but as if the writer can't imagine that any reader would question it.


A huge feature in its November issue (featuring Sexiest Woman Alive, so-called, Penelope Cruz who stars in a bizarrely misconceived story that mixes profiling her with some superdated and unenlightening coverage of a bullfight, whose symbolic power is somehow believed to still pulsate decades post-Hemingway) by Mark Warren is called "Help, We're in a Living Hell and Don't Know How to Get Out."

The "we" are dozens of members of the House and Senate that they interviewed; in a perfect Esquire touch, they reveal that they actually started off trying to get tough with politicians, who they generally can't help but love, and not even generally in a purely partisan way. But:

I had initially planned to ask for no more than ten minutes of their time, basically just to ask them why they were so bad at their job, but fairly quickly it became obvious that these were going to be richer and deeper conversations than I had bargained for. And along the way, something unexpected happened: I became less angry and more sympathetic to the thresher that all of these people find themselves caught in. They are not whining. They are crying for help. After only a few interviews, I stopped asking, "Why are you so bad at your job?" because it occurred to me that it was a cheap question, the kind of question that's not interested in an answer, which is just the sort of cultural deformity that got us into this mess. It's a terrible job, being in Congress in 2014.

And so the story became, for thousands of words, with lots of different politicians' voices across party lines, a lament about how politicians can't get things done. The story is surprisingly lacking in any discussion of what must or should be done; perhaps they think that all right-thinking, watch-wearing Esquire readers all agree, but it's a little disconcerting to have a often thoughtful magazine write thousands of words about our alleged political crisis with so little content. (Except they seem to agree with politicians that it's sad they have to raise money all the time, and sad that other people are permitted to raise money against them, apparently thinking it a given that all incumbents should be re-elected all the time with no effort, which would tend to be the result of a moneyless politics.)

You learn a lot about some specific other congresspeople their colleagues are willing to go on record slamming—Harry Reid and Ted Cruz most prominent—and how the filibuster is obstructionist, and how people holding up votes is bad, and how it's bad that some congressmen don't move their families to D.C. because it cuts their time to GOVERN!!!

But there's no real hint of why any of it matters or why it's an unalloyed good that our legislators need to legislate more, or longer, or more successfully (except that some executive or judicial branch appointments aren't being made efficiently enough).

It's an annoying but all too prevalent centrist view of government: c'mon, let's get over partisanship, ideology, what people might want, what is just or efficient or affordable–we've got this really big, enormous, cool, expensive government—it needs to govern more!

And do so with what Warren calls "humility and civility" but it's clear he doesn't mean humility about their power, but merely humility in dealing with their colleagues, who, claims Sen. Patrick Leahy with little credibility, in the old days would never have "dreamed of giving your word and not keeping it" which apparently certain villains now do, though he doesn't say who or about what.

And all reasonable people are supposed to nod, and purse their lips, and say, dammit, they may be Republican, they may be Democrat, they may be from the north or the south, but they are legislators and it's a damn shame they don't legislate more.