Civil War: The Nation’s Alterman & Vanden Heuvel vs. TIME’s Joe Klein

April 15th, 2006 8:44 PM

You really couldn’t script this any better: Three prominent liberal media members (the third is a player to be named later!) challenging another over what Democrats stand for. And, the beauty is that these folks are actually blogging their disgust with one another for all to read. Go get some popcorn, because this is literally a three ring circus!

Our story begins on Tuesday, April 11 at a breakfast sponsored by HBO and the Council on Foreign Relations. Early the following morning, the Nation’s Eric Alterman posted at his TIME blog his discontent with something TIME’s Joe Klein said at the affair: “It was a useful discussion with many useful tributaries and give and take with the audience and we all felt better for it. That is right up until the very last moment when, after someone brought up the question of the whether the Democrats will be able to present an effective alternative to Bush in the next election, Joe Klein shouted out, ‘Well they won’t if their message is that they hate America—which is what has been the message of the liberal wing of the party for the past twenty years.’”

Seems like a sound and impartial observation by Klein. However, Alterman wasn’t pleased: “Excuse me, but I think this is worth some attention. It’s not about Klein per se, who after all, is best known to most Americans as the guy who lost his job at both Newsweek and CBS News for purposely misleading editors, readers and viewers in order to increase his own personal profit as the allegedly ‘anonymous’ author of ‘Primary Colors.’” Get the sense that this is going to get good? It does:

“What is important, however, is the fact that Time is America’s highest circulation newsweekly. And since it fired Margaret Carlson, Joe Klein, believe it or not, is its most liberal columnist. That’s right. The most liberal columnist at the America’s largest weekly newsmagazine pretends that the message of liberals for the past twenty years has been that they ‘hate America,’ just as if he were reading from talking points issued by Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter. (Don’t get me started.)”

Actually, Alterman did get started, and continued by requesting a revolt by liberals in the blogosphere to demand that TIME replace Klein with someone more liberal.

Thankfully, it didn’t end there, for Klein struck back with his own blog at HuffnPuff on Friday entitled “The Crucial Difference Between Liberals and Leftists” (this is gonna be good!): In his recent account of a breakfast book party at the home of Tina Brown and Harry Evans, Eric Alterman misquoted me slightly but significantly. What I actually said was ‘the hate America tendency of the [Democratic Party's] left wing’ had made it harder for Democrats to challenge Republicans on foreign policy.” Sounds reasonable, Joe. Please continue: “Alterman had me castigating the ‘liberal wing’ of the party, which I was careful not to do. There is a crucial difference between liberals and leftists, especially on foreign policy--even though Republicans (and leftist-wingers) have successfully conflated the two over the past few decades.”

Everybody paying attention? “The default position of leftists like, say, Michael Moore and many writers at The Nation, is that America is essentially a malignant, imperialistic force in the world and the use of American military power is almost always wrong.” No argument there, Joe. Please continue: “Liberals have a more benign, and correct, view of America's role in the world and tend to favor the use of military force if it is exercised judiciously, as a last resort, and in a multilateral contect--with U.N. approval or through NATO. The first Gulf War, the overthrow of the Taliban and the Kosovo intervention met these criteria; Bush's Iraq invasion clearly did not.” Well, one could argue whether this is a “correct” view, but let’s accept it for now.

Fortunately for our entertainment pleasure, Alterman wasn’t at all pleased with Klein’s explanation, and quickly responded (suddenly I feel like the Dorfman character in “Animal House” -- “Boy, this is great!!!”): “‘Michael Moore and many writers at The Nation’ are not a ‘wing’ of the Democratic Party: They are not even in the Democratic Party, as far as I know.” Really? Then why was Michael Moore at the 2004 Democratic Convention? Alterman continued: “(I also don't accept that they ‘hate America,’ well, except Alexander Cockburn.) I know Moore was a vocal supporter of Ralph Nader in 2000 as were the people at The Nation to whom--I assume--Klein refers.” Interesting distinction, Eric. Do you know a lot of Republicans that voted for Nader? Regardless, he continued: “When one speaks of the ‘left wing’ of the party--that is, people who are running for office which was the clear context of the discussion--one is clearly referring to the likes of Ted Kennedy, Russell Feingold, Barney Frank, and the late Paul Wellstone. Those are the people whom everyone at the assembled breakfast understood Klein to be smearing, as he has done repeatedly in Time and elsewhere.”

At this point, one has to assume that they were serving alcohol at this breakfast. Sober or not, Alterman concluded: “If you disagree with [Klein] you're stupid (and you Hate America.) That's Time's most liberal columnist.”

Now, I know you must be about laughed out. In fact, if this was a Marx Brothers movie, Zeppo or Allan Jones would be about to sing a song so that you could catch your breath for the next round of jokes. However, without such a luxury, The Nation’s editor, Katrina Vanden Heuvel, also responded to Klein in a blog entitled “The Crucial Difference Between Joe Klein and Reality.” Hold on to your seats: “I'm not sure exactly what Joe Klein is smoking these days when he writes that ‘many writers at The Nation’ are part of ‘the hate America tendency of the [Democratic party's] left wing.’ We have a range of writers, scholars, public policy analysts who write on US foreign policy but none of them would fit the ‘hate America’ label.”

Have you been able to compose yourself well enough for her conclusion, or do you need a couple of seconds more? I’ll wait. Take your time. Ready? Here goes: “Klein seems to be trying to score cheap political points by dismissing the left so as to establish his own hawkish centrist credentials. Or perhaps he understands America less than he would like his readers to believe because he is uncomfortable with the American tradition of principled dissent and with the The Nation's faith in the common sense of the American public as a source of democratic accountability.” You gotta love her.

Now, I sincerely wish this soap opera was over, but we have yet to hear from the player to be named later. Signing in is Pulitzer Prize winning author Jane Smiley, who posted a blog response to Klein entitled “Let’s Pile on Joe”: “I'd like to know, what is an 'America-hater'? How come the words 'America-hater' always come up when we're talking about people on the left and never come up when we're talking about, say, that percentage of the US population who believes that the world is going to end and they are going to be 'raptured up', leaving those Americans who disagree with them behind to suffer indescribable torments on, I suppose, American soil?” She continued:

You are willing to specifically designate the writers of The Nation as ‘America-haters’. I read every issue of The Nation. Many times those writers do deplore things that are happening in America, like the rise of the anti-choice movement or the loss of American influence for good in the world because of a failed, misconceived, and tragic war in Iraq, or the closing of the separation between the church and state in America, but does wanting America to do the right thing and avoid the wrong thing qualify as ‘America-hating’?”

Jane was just getting warmed up:

“And speaking of that, wouldn't you call someone who referred to the Constitution as ‘just a god-damned piece of paper’ an America-hater? I would--George W. Bush, who made that remark (according to Karen Kwiatkowski, who posted it on this board) is an America-hater in my book. And Grover Norquist, who wants to drown and strangle the Federal government in a bathtub qualifies as an America-hater, too. And Tom Delay, who set out to corrupt the government beyond repair--well, that's a good example of ‘America-hating’. And Sam Brownback, who is taking instruction in right-wing Catholicism and hopes to turn the US into a christian theocracy, according to Rolling Stone--there's ‘America-hating' in spades.”

Hmmm. A Pulitzer Prize winning author quoting Rolling Stone? Regardless, Smiley concluded: “So, Joe Klein, I wonder if you've noticed in the last five years that in the name of patriotism, the right wing has decimated the treasury, broken the army, wrecked the bureaucracy, silenced the media, gelded the opposition party, handed the public lands over to private interests to exploit as they please, dirtied the air and water, impoverished the working class, damaged the schools, outsourced the jobs, and laid waste to the public health. You haven't said much about that, but that's what I call America-hating.”

Wow. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if liberal media representatives had fights like this on the Internet every week?