More on the 'Kennedys'

By John Tierney

There are Kennedy haters out there who, predictably, thought my earlier post was terrific.  Perhaps just as surely, there are people who brook no criticism of the Kennedys. I received the following comment from a reader in Vermont who took me to task for conflating Max Kennedy with "the Kennedys" and for my lack of even-handedness: 

"[A]re you in possession of some deeply inside information that the entire Kennedy family, all dozens of them, are in support of Max Kennedy's position?  No?  Is it possible some, or even most, of them have been arguing vehemently with him about this?...

This is not an auspicious beginning for your guest stint on James Fallows's always scrupulously fair and even-handed blog.

Is Max Kennedy doing the wrong thing with regard to these papers?  Absolutely.  Do I want to know what law it is that permits him to do this, and see it changed?  You bet.  It absolutely is an outrage. 

But until we know a great deal more about this, the proper headline is "Shame on Max Kennedy," not "Shame on the Kennedys."

Shame on you.

No, I don't have any "deeply inside" information. My information barely meets the "shallow" standard. The blog post was simply my reaction to an interesting news article. You, dear reader, are correct: Of course, it's possible that the rest of the Kennedy family would like to see these records made public; indeed, they may well have given Max a noogie over it during a Kennedy family touch-football game!  But my guess is that, unless Max is somehow the über-Kennedy we've all somehow missed, his position is in accord with that of the majority of family members. [If that's not true, Kennedys, then enlighten us. Please.  Right here. Soon, before my time here expires. Tempus fugit!]
In any case, my earlier post was designed to draw attention to this deplorable situation concerning access to Robert Kennedy's files and, one might even hope, stir action to correct it. How best to do that?  Picture a playground fight. When one is starting a fight against a formidable and daunting opponent, there are two ways to try to even-up the sides: (1) one can try to expand the scope of the conflict by trying to induce people from the surrounding crowd to enter on one's own side rather than the other;* or (2) one can try to to divide the other side -- the old "divide-and-conquer" approach. 

I hope it's obvious that I am not trying to pick a fight with the Kennedy family.  (Woe be unto me!)  But my point here is in response to the reader's comment above.  It doesn't bother me at all that I have painted "the Kennedys" with my black brush here rather than sticking it squarely in Max's eye alone.  If there are members of that family who disagree with Max Kennedy's wholly indefensible position on this matter, then maybe this publicity about his infelicitous position will motivate them to work harder to overpower him. Good.  Let's hope so.  Divide and conquer. 

Of course, the other possibility in a playground fight is that the opponents' allies will unite and beat the crap out of you. [Note to my wife: if I disappear or die under mysterious circumstances sometime soon, ask the Massachusetts State Police to read these posts and -- ahem -- think more "deeply" about the possibilities.]

As for my lack of even-handedness, I'd say this: there's a reason that Jim Fallows is a nationally respected journalist and I am not. I'm a two-bit blogger, who typically goes for the cheap joke rather than a high-minded approach. (See the previous paragraph.)  Be that as it may, I also don't recall Jim promising his readers that his guest bloggers would be fair-minded or judicious. If he did, I won't be invited back.

As a "friend" of mine wrote to me earlier after seeing my name in this august space:

So, let me get this straight: the world renowned Jim Fallows needs a group of people to fill in for him on his blog and he picks John Tierney?

What's the matter?  Does Bucko the Clown have some exclusive non-compete clause in his contract that makes him otherwise unavailable, and so The Atlantic had to get the next best thing?

My friend has a point. 

Note that for this week Jim picked three eminent people -- and me.

Here, just in, is another comment from an unhappy reader:

Mark me down as someone who was distinctly unimpressed with your article about RFK.
. . .

What would you think of a blogger suggesting that the Democrats force open the Reagan archives to find out the truth about Iran Contra and the "October Surprise" on the 100th anniversary of his birth?  I think you'd be repulsed, just as I was by this article.

By the way, Mr. Fallows, if you're reading this: this kind of thing does NOT reflect well on you.

Let me be clear on two points: (1) I am in favor of openness of ALL public records and archives. (Yes, let's find out what Reagan and the lawbreakers in his Administration were up to!  Let's find out more about the crimes of the Cheney/Bush Administration.  Obama's, too!)

(2) Jim Fallows is not in the least responsible for anything I write here in his absence. Be fair: leave him out of this.

On with the playground spat.  
* Perspicacious political-science majors of a (much) earlier era will recognize this as the point famously made by E. E. Schatschneider in The Semi-Sovereign People. A quick refresher:
The outcome of all conflict is determined by the scope of its contagion.  Every change in the number of participants can affect the outcome.  So the most important strategy of politics is concerned with the scope of conflict.  As the scope expands or contracts, the balance of power between the combatants is sure to be altered.

So, you cannot predict the outcome of a fight by looking only at the original contestants. 

Every change in the scope of conflict has a bias -- it is partisan in nature.  A free society maximizes the contagion of conflict; it invites intervention. There has been a long-standing struggle between the privatization and the socialization of conflict.  Secrecy (of the sort that Max Kennedy is trying to enforce) is one way of privatizing conflict. The driving force behind the expansion of conflict is competitiveness.  Those who are "losing" in political or policy competition seek to expand the audience so as to change the result. (That's me.)  So, there is an element of uncertainty about political conflict.  It is always possible for the outcome to be reversed if the audience is expanded.  So, let's be thankful for this Atlantic blog and for the power of the press to shine a spotlight (Bryan Bender's article in the Boston Globe) on a problem and expand the audience. 

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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