The Atlantic’s Ross Douthat on whether the Rezko trial story is a story.
HH: Joined now by Ross Douthat. He is the Atlantic’s chief political correspondent, senior editor there, also author of Privilege: Harvard And The Education Of The Ruling Class. You know, Ross, I’ve never read that book, I must admit.
RD: You’re missing out, Hugh.
HH: Are you a Harvard guy?
RD: I am a Harvard guy, yeah.
HH: What year?
HH: You’re like Yglesias. You’re one of the kids.
RD: I’m one of the kids. Well, Yglesias is actually younger than me, so I’ll always have that over him.
HH: What house were you in?
RD: I was in Quincy House.
HH: That’s unfortunate. My brother was in Quincy House. I’m a Winthrop guy, but we’ll leave that at that. Enough old school stuff.
RD: Winthrop…you know, actually, I’m married to a Winthrop girl.
HH: Obviously, you married up, then.
RD: I did marry up. I was the only Quincy man to date a Winthrop girl, or at least I like to think that.
HH: I’ve lost the national audience thoroughly now, but I don’t really care. I was talking snootily with Hitchens yesterday about Oxford stuff, so it just happens sometimes. And I just noted you think it’s soul destroying to be a media matters or a newsbuster news watcher. Explain that to people. They’re after Hitchens. If they read his interview with me yesterday, they’ll have part two.
RD: Oh, well, this is just something that’s struck me for a while, in that of all the jobs that a young, idealistic, would-be journalist or political type could take in contemporary Washington, taking a job where you’re at the low end of the totem pole at one of the media watchdog organizations, whether liberal or conservative, and all that you have to do all day is sit around and be as absolutely humorless and irony-free as possible, and just pick out people’s quotes like Hitchens, you know, from television shows, and try and get outraged about them. So in this case, it was Hitchens saying that he compared Barack Obama’s Church, he said it was a nasty, ethnic, racist, rock and roll Church. That’s the kind of thing Hitchens goes on TV and says five times a day.
HH: And on radio often.
RD: He’s trying to be offensive. And of course, some poor…I was just picturing the poor 23 year old fresh out of college who has to sit there and go out and find some quotes from nice, white people saying well actually, Barack Obama’s Church, you know, is a really welcoming place to be.
HH: (laughing) Martin Marty no less.
RD: Martin Marty, no less.
HH: He’s about 90 years old, I think.
RD: I was trying to imagine Hitchens reading this, and reading this item and being like, well, they really got me that time, you know?
HH: It’s a fine post, but speaking of humorless and irony-free, I just went down your blog roll at Atlantic.com, and I’m not on it.
RD: You’re not?
RD: Well, that’s an oversight that needs to be corrected immediately.
HH: Shameless self promotion, shameless self promotion dictates that you add me. Now I want to get to the reason I called. I’m talking to fine political writers, and I consider you and Ambinder among them, about Rezko, Rezkobama. And we have now got a new news feed called Rezkorama up and running, courtesy of Kithbridge.com. And the news is coming fast and furious. How much of a story…you haven’t written about this, yet. How much of a story do you as someone who is charged every day all day with covering Campaign ’08 think Tony Rezko is?
RD: Well, you know, as you say, I haven’t written about it, and the reason I haven’t written about it is because I tend to think that this is the kind of story, and it’s a little bit like Whitewater in the Clinton years. It’s the kind of story that the media gets very excited about, but never quite breaks through to voters, really, and to be becoming the kind of story that actually determines elections, and partially just because I think that there’s sort of a baseline assumption among voters that almost all politicians at one point or another are going to be involved in some moderately shady operation, and partially because, you know, you end up with a scandal that’s often almost too complicated to explain.
HH: Now this is where I wanted to test you out on. Have you bought a house yet?
RD: I have not bought a house yet.
HH: You see, I think every American who has bought a house understands immediately what happened here, which is he got basically a $300,000 loan from Tony Rezko. That’s really…or actually, more. It could be up as much as $600,000 dollars, and that Tony Rezko is dirty. That, to me, is a very simple scandal, Ross. Do you think that’s too complicated for people to get?
RD: Well, but it’s the next step beyond that, right? So you say okay, so he got a loan from a guy who’s dirty.
RD: So you tell me, Hugh. As a homeowner, what does this tell us about Barack Obama?
HH: It’s illegal under the Senate rules to accept a favor. Did you not know that? That’s the key. I sit on a commission out in Orange County. I can’t have anyone buy me lunch, and it’s a little Orange County commission. And so they have a cup of coffee rule. The Senate’s got a rule that, you know, lets you take books, and occasionally a lunch, and go on a junket, but you can’t take anything of value from people. And a loan of that amount clearly…it’s like Duke Cunningham stuff. That’s why everyone got Duke Cunningham, was because they looked at his house, they looked at his salary, and they said that doesn’t add up, and of course, a defense contractor bought it for him. You don’t think that breaks through?
RD: Well, I mean, when you phrase it like that, Hugh, I have to say it does seem like it should break through.
HH: I also noted today over at American Thinker, Rezko’s got a bunch of…I’ve got to get Claudia Rosett on this, a bunch of money from an Iraqi who’s living in London who had ties to Saddam, who’s a billionaire. All of a sudden, we’ve got oil for food…now that gets complicated.
RD: Well, that gets complicated, although on the other hand, that’s a case where you have something where even if it’s complicated, because it goes to issues of national security, and it goes to issues where Obama is weak, where you don’t have to be able to necessarily explain it to voters directly for it to break through and make a difference.
HH: So take us inside the Atlantic, which is establishing itself as sort of nose in the air blogging central. And I say that with a great deal of admiration. I’m there all day long reading you and Ambinder. But it’s high end blogging, it’s not throwing trash at people. Do you guys talk about this? Or do you all act as free agents, deciding what interests you and then writing about it?
RD: We talk about it a little. I mean, I do have Ambinder down the hall from me, and Andrew Sullivan’s office is around the corner, and he probably comes in about three days a week.
HH: You’re being generous, aren’t you?
RD: No, no, I’m not being generous.
RD: No, one of the reasons, one of the things that I think Andrew was at Time, and then he came over to the Atlantic, and one of the things I think that he said when he came to the Atlantic was that he wanted to get out of his shell a little bit, and out of…you know, Hugh, you’re a blogger. You know how it can get when you’re alone at your desk with nothing but the internet.
HH: Yeah, but unfortunately, I’m also a radio talk show host, and so…
RD: Well, exactly. Right, you have that outlet all the time.
HH: Yeah, so you’re right. You’re right. It could be limiting. It could be limiting.
HH: Well, tell Andrew I said hi. He’s a real fan of the show (laughing).
RD: I know, I know. Your interview with him after the Conservative Soul lives in blogosphere legend.
HH: Ross, we’re out of time. I want to follow up on this, because I think you’re like my canary in the coal mine. When I see you and Ambinder writing about Tony Rezko, I’ll know it’s broken through. Ross Douthat, good to talk to you.
End of interview.