Thomas Friedman, 2001: Colin Powell Will Dominate Bush
The following excerpt is taken from my upcoming book, Hot, Fat, and Clouded: The Amazing and Amusing Failures of America’s Chattering Class, which will be released in April and which is now available for pre-order.
Thomas Friedman is forever calling things things. He introduces his readers to the concept of 21st century trade thusly: “These global markets are made up of millions of investors moving money around the world with a click of a mouse. I call them the Electronic Herd, and this herd gathers in key global financial centers – such as Wall Street, Hong Kong, London, and Frankfurt – which I call the Supermarkets.” He elsewhere informs us that he is “a big believer in the idea of the super-story, the notion that we all carry around with us a big lens, a big framework, through which we look at the world, order events, and decide what is important and what is not.”
Friedman is correct that it is wholly necessary to conceptualize our data into understandable frameworks in order that we might better understand it. But the framework into which Friedman has forced the world is almost entirely dependent on wordplay, on convenient structural similarities between unrelated terminology, on rhymes and sayings. In 2000, the columnist composed a “super-story” regarding Colin Powell, whose nomination for secretary of state was expected to be confirmed later in the week.
One way to think about Mr. Powell is this: He spent thirty-five years of his life with America Onduty, as a military officer. But for the past two years he’s been associated with America Online, as a member of the AOL corporate board. So which perspective will Mr. Powell bring to his job as Secretary of State – the perspective he gleaned with America Onduty during the cold war or the perspective he gleaned with America Online in the post-cold war?
No serious discussion of Powell’s record or policies follows; no new information is provided; it is never acknowledged that perhaps Powell is capable of thinking of the world in both the terms of a military officer and the terms of an information-age corporate advisory board member even though Powell has clearly served as both of these things. After all, Friedman has already coined the term America Onduty, contrasted it with the term America Online, and provided some allegedly clever distinction between the two mentalities represented thereby. We are informed, for instance, that those who fall under the category of ‘America Onduty’ enjoy the film A Few Good Men and see the world in terms of walls and nation states, because, you see, a character in that very film delivered some line to that effect and it seems to have made an impression on Friedman. Those associated with the ‘America Online’ mentality, by contrast, enjoy the film You’ve Got Mail because such people as these understand that the world is now integrated, and that the receiving of e-mail is a wonderful metaphor for the relatively recent dynamic whereby things occurring elsewhere now effect us all directly and with complete immediacy (“When a Russian financial crisis occurs, we’ve got mail”). Wrapping up the column, Friedman restates the question: “So which lens is Mr. Powell wearing – the one he developed with America Onduty, or with America Online?”
Even such an insufferable framework as this would be of value to the extent that it truly assists in helping Friedman and his citizen-readers to understand Colin Powell and the mentalities that inform him, to draw useful conclusions from this understanding, and to make wiser and better-informed decisions in terms of the manner in which they vote, contribute, advocate, purchase, and otherwise interact with the various entities into which man’s efforts are organized. If the public understanding is increased by dividing Powell’s consciousness into that of America Online and some variant of that brand name and then characterizing in turn each of these mentalities by reference to concepts from popular films, then there’s really no problem here other than that the whole America Onduty thing is fucking stupid.
Suppose, however, that such frameworks as these do not seem to grant Friedman any particular insight into a particular subject, and in fact seem to lead him and his admirers astray. This might indicate to us that such frameworks are not actually useful, and that those who compose such frameworks may perhaps not be worth listening to, and that to the extent that they contribute to the national understanding they have damaged it in so doing, and that to this same extent they are responsible for the astounding errors that have been made in our country’s recent past. Suppose all of that!
Friedman’s frameworks provides him with nothing. What he does is fine for writing a reader-friendly column in a pinch, but his cute semantic tricks do not translate into accuracy as much as we might hope that they would. He was not able to provide any useful predictions regarding Powell, for instance, although he certainly tried, announcing in another column that “it was impossible to imagine Mr. Bush ever challenging or overruling Mr. Powell on any issue.” Moreover:
Mr. Powell is three things Mr. Bush is not – a war hero, worldly wise and beloved by African-Americans. That combination gives him a great deal of leverage. It means he can never be fired. It means Mr. Bush can never allow him to resign in protest over anything.
Of course, Powell did indeed leave the administration under circumstances that we may ascertain to involve either firing, resignation, or some typically Washingtonian combination thereof – after having first been overruled by Bush on several decisions involving the most significant question of that presidency. To Friedman’s credit, his failed prediction was based on the standard media narrative of the time as well as popular assumptions made solely on appearances, which is to say that it was sourced.
Elsewhere in this column, Friedman notes that it “will be interesting to see who emerges to balance Mr. Powell’s perspective.” That person, who ended up not so much balancing Powell’s perspective as smothering it in its crib, was Cheney. The vice president was not exactly a “war hero,” “worldly wise,” or “beloved by African-Americans,” which is to say that he was in many ways Powell’s opposite number – which is to say in turn that Friedman’s assumptions regarding what sort of person would have the greatest degree of influence over Bush were not just wrong, but almost the exact opposite of the case.