Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Bentsen ledes: pukey!

I really don't like the ledes on the Bentsen obits. (I didn't write one, incidentally, so I am just complaining.) Everybody focuses on his dressing down of Sen. Quayle as "no Jack Kennedy" - but the really pukey ones do it right in the first graf, and the pukiest in the headline.

To me this is the ascendency of image over reality, style over substance. If we are the first draft of history, then the first draft is going to be savagely rewritten because summing up Bentsen's career - and I carry no brief for him - with this one quote is like summing up Churchill's with that old chestnut (told so many ways I suspect it never happened) "Bessie, you're ugly. And tomorrow morning I will be sober.""

Back to Bentsen's line - let's not forget that it was ineffective politically. The Bush 88 ticket was elected in a landslide, although of course Quayle was ever after considered a political lightweight. (Bentsen did not start this - his doubtless carefully rehearsed mot merely put an exclamation point after.) So all this, in the end, was a mere entertainment, a sideshow to both the furtherance of the Bush dynasty and to the career of somebody who had a substantial 20+ year career in government at the highest levels.

Here's LAT:

Lloyd Bentsen, 85; U.S. Senator Zinged Quayle in '88 VP Debate
By Dennis McLellan, Times Staff Writer

Lloyd Bentsen, the former four-term U.S. senator from Texas who was the 1988 Democratic vice presidential nominee and served as President Clinton's first secretary of the Treasury, died Tuesday. He was 85.

This is unfair to McLellan, who doesn't mention the quote til graf 5 - it's the anonymous headline writer who is to blame.

Here's WaPo's Joe Holly, where the hed is at least OK, but Holly has succumbed to rhetorical overkill and news judgment underkill:

Lloyd Bentsen; Texas Senator, Vice Presidential Candidate
By Joe Holley

Lloyd Bentsen was a U.S. senator and a Treasury secretary, but the Texas Democrat will always be remembered for a polemical flick of steel that drew blood in a 1988 vice presidential debate.


Here's AP, atop a 1200-word quote-fest (Prez: "Lloyd Bentsen was a man of great honor and distinction." (yawn))

Former Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen dies at 85
By WENDY BENJAMINSON, Associated Press Writer

HOUSTON - Former Senator and Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, a courtly Texan who as the Democrats' vice presidential nominee in 1988 famously told rival Dan Quayle he was "no Jack Kennedy," died Tuesday. He was 85.

Etc etc. Honorable mentions to the NYTimes David Rosenbaum (incidentally, another dead NYTimes obituarist with a byline, fast becoming their specialty) and the Telegraph's anonymous obituarist, both of whom at least saved the obligatory quote for graf 2.

Conclusion: I'm really happy I didn't have to write this one. I probably would have put the damn quote up too high for my own liking. And here is the possible riposte to my kvetch-o-gram: maybe there wasn't much there there anyway.


Alana Baranick said...

I think it all goes back to how a person is remembered and who's doing the remembering.

To his constituents, Bentsen was a longtime public servant with a list of achievements longer than Rapunzel's hair.

To casual political watchers like me, who never heard of him until he became the running buddy of Michael Dukakis - another pol I never heard of until he threatened to become the leader of the free world - Bentsen is best known for the Quayle quote.

What I hated was that the young news readers on CNN and its Headline News, who probably don't recall the famous debate, read only part of the quote and didn't set it up properly. Anyone, who couldn't fill in the gaps themselves, would have a hard time understanding what was so cool about that zinger and how masterfully Bentsen delivered it.

So when Dukakis makes his final exit, how will we remember him? By the photo of him riding an Army tank? As a relative of the famous actress with the same surname? As a great man or as a fool?

steve miller said...

To me, it is an amusing sidelight and works better as an anecdote than as a lead. You don't have to lead with it.