Sometimes little things crack open and reveal big things. For example, what started as a small dispute–over the historical record of a presidential speech from four decades ago–has now metastasized into a raging controversy over a new book about Roger Ailes and Fox News, written by the veteran author Zev Chafets.
And that controversy over Chafets has, in turn, opened up a window into the practice of “journalism” by some young “journalists” of our own time. Indeed, the controversy has shined a deeply unflattering light on the author of yet another book on Ailes and Fox, forthcoming from author Gabriel Sherman. As we shall see, the evident sloppiness of Sherman’s research could lead one to think that the mere publication of his book will go beyond controversy. Its publication would, in and of itself, be a scandal.
I’ll come back to that big story in a bit. But first, the small story, which is, in fact, important in its own way.
On March 21, one Gordon Stewart, a small newspaper publisher in Putnam County, New York–where he is in direct business competition with another small newspaper publisher, Beth Ailes, wife of Roger Ailes–took to the pages of Politico to attack Chafets. Stewart described Chafets’ brief mentions of him in the pages of his book, Roger Ailes: Off Camera, as “ignorant, arrogant and fraudulent” and “breathtakingly bogus.” What was Stewart’s beef? Why was he so vociferous against Chafets? After all, the points in question were made by Chafets in passing; the subject of the Chafets book is Ailes, not Stewart. Stewart is, at most, a minor character.
It seems to me that Stewart chose to go after Chafets so strongly because he, Stewart, sees the opportunity to attack Chafets as a “twofer”–that is, as an opportunity to attack the Ailes family as well.
After all, the Chafets book was regarded by many–especially those in the camp of rival biographer Sherman–as too friendly to Ailes. And so Stewart, perhaps, wanted to dump on the Chafets book as a way of helping the Sherman book. Is all this inside baseball? Sure it is. But it’s still interesting, because it reveals much about the way reporters and writers can sometimes serve larger business and political agendas.
And so, for example, it helps Stewart, up in Putnam County, if he can inflict damage on Chafets and thus the Ailes family.
Yet there’s more to Stewart than that. I met him in the late 70s, when we both worked for President Jimmy Carter–he in the White House speechwriting shop, me as a senior outside adviser, strategist, and pollster to the President.
For years now, I have been bemused and bewildered as Stewart sought to retroactively inflate his role in the Carter administration. In particular, he insists on inflating his role in one particular incident, Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech of July 15, 1979, commonly referred to as the “malaise” speech. Some may say that it was not Carter’s greatest speech, but it is indisputable that it is his best-remembered speech–still a focus of interest and controversy. And in any case, it was an important event, a hinge in the Carter presidency, and so, for better or for worse, its history should be remembered accurately.
And so I was particularly annoyed to see, back on July 14, 2009, that Stewart had chosen to commemorate the 30th anniversary of that speech in a self-glorifying op-ed for the New York Times.
Yes, Stewart was a member of the Carter White House speechwriting staff, reporting to chief speechwriter Hendrik “Rick” Hertzberg. But in truth, he was more of a helper, and perhaps a stage-manager–but certainly not a principal author–of that famous speech. Matters of presentation and delivery are important, of course, to any politician, and so if Stewart had been content simply to define himself as a stage-manager, I would have had no complaint. And yet when I read this passage, below, describing the speechwriting process as it played out in July ’79 at the presidential retreat in Camp David, MD, I was taken aback. Because not only was it wrong and misleading, but Stewart knew it. Yet here’s what he wrote:
“Meanwhile, mostly secluded in a cabin, sometimes working day and night shifts, my colleague Hendrik Hertzberg and I wrote and rewrote what we had no idea would still be known 30 years later as “The Malaise Speech.”
Once again, it is simply incorrect to assert, as Stewart did, that he and Hertzberg co-authored the speech. I know, because I was there. The original draft of the speech was contained in a memo that I delivered to the President in the beginning of July; it was the last installment of a series of memos that the President had received, at his request, over a many-month process. And everyone involved knew that I, at the President’s direction, was the point person. In other words, it was a lengthy and deliberate policy-development process.
So I was the author of that original draft, with the invaluable help of Wayne Granquist of the Office of Management and Budget. In the subsequent speechwriting process, my friend Rick Hertzberg and I collaborated closely together as Rick brilliantly melded the original draft with new input from Stuart Eizenstat, Carter’s domestic policy adviser, and others. And most of all, from Jimmy Carter himself. Yet that original draft remained the heart and soul of the speech Carter delivered.
Yet four summers ago, as I kept reading Stewart’s op-ed, I read with growing amazement the way in which Stewart incorrectly promoted himself to not only co-author, but also to author of the most important part of the speech. As Stewart put it:
“I recall scribbling faster than it seemed possible to put legible words on a pad, but the end result was: ‘On the battlefield of energy we can win for our nation a new confidence, and we can seize control again of our common destiny.’ The speech had found its central argument. The policy steps fell into place.”
As I said, I was annoyed at the time, but being involved in other things–and knowing that everyone intimately involved knew the truth about what really happened, contrary Stewart’s claims–I chose to simply let the matter go. Yet now, as I see Stewart’s fantasy resurfacing, I have felt the need to speak out and set the record straight.
Yet one who had a differing account, at the time, was Hertzberg, Stewart’s then-boss, who has long been a top writer for The New Yorker magazine. Three days after Stewart’s op-ed appeared in the Times, Hertzberg wrote his own account in The New Yorker, which gently, but nevertheless effectively, excluded any writing role for Stewart. Here’s how Hertzberg chronicled the moment:
“I was the designated writer for the speech that emerged from this curious process. In truth I was more stenographer-typist than author, smoothing and coordinating bits of draft from various people, including Caddell, Stuart Eizenstat, and Carter himself.”
Typical of Rick, he downplays the importance of his own role.
Later in the same piece, Hertzberg noted that Carter had done a good job in delivering the speech, and wrote generously of Stewart:
“Much of the credit for that must go to Gordon Stewart, who had been a theatre director in a previous life. (He was the original director of “The Elephant Man” on Broadway until felled by a collapsed lung.)”
Those of us who know Rick Hertzberg well and admire his fluid writing style can savor Rick’s deft way of reminding the reader that Stewart was, in fact, a stage-manager, not a speechwriter.
In that vein, Hertzberg continued with his account of those days:
“Gordon showed chutzpah beyond the call of duty. First he insinuated himself into the makeshift studio at Camp David where Carter was practicing the speech. That was pretty ballsy right there. But then, having crashed the President’s rehearsal, he proceeded to direct the man.”
We can note some of these words and phrases that Hertzberg used to describe Stewart: “chutzpah beyond the call of duty,” “insinuated,” “ballsy,” “crashed the President’s rehearsal.” Hertzberg is describing Stewart as acting like a stage manager, for sure, but not as an author. That was all on the record four years ago–Stewart taking credit for something he didn’t do. As noted, I should have weighed in at that time, too.
However, last week, when I saw that Stewart had trashed author Chafets for picayune inaccuracies in his Ailes book, I said to myself, “Enough is enough. If Stewart is going to dump on Chafets for tiny mistakes, then I should let everyone know that Stewart has been telling a whopper for years.” And so on March 22, at Fox News Opinion, I wrote of Stewart:
“For years, now, he has been claiming that he did something that he did not, in fact, do. Nor, in fact, did Stewart have anything meaningful to do with it. To put it bluntly, Stewart is either misremembering or fantasizing about what happened. But either way, I can’t let his incorrect narrative become part of the historical record.”
Okay, so enough about Stewart. I suspect that he attacked Chafets out of a desire to hurt Beth and Roger Ailes. And I suspect that now, Stewart will be more circumspect in the future. Indeed, since I have all my files, including my personal files, on the “Crisis of Confidence” speech, I will in due time publish the inside account of what really happened in that fascinating and fateful summer of 1979.
But now here’s an interesting little twist to this tale–a twist that levers open that bigger window into the sloppy and shoddy “journalistic” practices of our time.
There’s a person named Gabriel Sherman, a writer for New York magazine and a fellow at the New America Foundation–a left-of-center think-tank to which George Soros and others in the Soros family have contributed–who is writing a book on Roger Ailes and Fox. In other words, Sherman and his book are in competition with Zev Chafets and his book.
Moreover, by many accounts, Sherman seems bent on publishing a hit job on Ailes and Fox.
Okay, fair enough, it’s a free country, and Sherman can write any book he wishes to write–although someone ought to be examining why it is that such writers can use tax-deductible foundation money for their obviously partisan ideological ends.
Yet perhaps Soros & Co. should have looked more closely at Sherman and his work. Why? Because Sherman has been dogged by accusations of inaccuracy, and he seems to suffer not only from inaccuracy, but apparently also, as I have learned, from incompetence.
One thing is sure: Sherman is not short on chutzpah. In the wake of the publication of my column on Stewart last week–in which I never mentioned Sherman at all–Sherman called me on the phone and said, “Hi, Pat.” There’s some chutzpah right there. I have never met Sherman, I never gave him my number, and, indeed, as a general practice, I don’t take calls from people to whom I haven’t given my number.”
But then, as I tried say, “I don’t want to talk to you,” Sherman bulled ahead, saying, “I know that Roger Ailes put you up to it”–referring to my March 22 Fox piece. Now of course, Sherman doesn’t know any of that, because it’s not true. As the reader can surely tell, I have strong feelings about the accuracy of the historical record; that’s why I wrote the piece.
After that, I ended the conversation.
For his part, Sherman didn’t give up. In fact, he is the one pushing hardest to keep this story alive, I presume because he believes it will help gain traction for his own book.
Yet as Sherman struggles to gain that traction, he is making mistakes–bad mistakes. In a pair of tweets from March 27, Sherman wondered aloud, to the world, where I was getting the information from about Stewart. Sherman first asked:
“So far I haven’t been able to find an example what Caddell is accusing Stewart of.”
That is, my accusing Stewart of inflating his role in that 1979 speech. And then Sherman added in a second tweet:
“If anyone has seen an interview where Stewart has “claimed to be the author” of the malaise speech, please send along. Thanks.”
When I saw those tweets, I couldn’t believe my eyes: Sherman was asking where I got the idea that Stewart had claimed to be the writer–or any kind of major player–in that speech? Really? Seriously? Can Sherman be that obtuse?
Well, once again, for the record, I might have gotten the idea that Stewart was exaggerating his role from Stewart’s own op-ed in The New York Times, dated July 14, 2009. The Times might not be nearly as important as it once was, but it’s still a pretty big paper, and Sherman, a resident of New York City, ought to be more familiar with it, and what’s in it. And if not, there’s always Nexis and Google to help out.
Okay, so enough on that. Now let’s focus on Sherman himself, and what he’s up to.
We might ask: What sort of book is Sherman writing? Is he really so unable to do basic research that, instead, he has to “crowdsource” a factual question through Twitter?
Indeed, such cluelessness, or laziness–or, perhaps on the side of the equation, purposefulness and relentlessness–ought to make people wonder about every article that Sherman has ever written.
What possible reason could he be doing this? Could he be simply ignorant–or intentionally ignorant?
But wait! It gets better! On Thursday, March 28, Sherman actually e-mailed me and wanted to know, yet again, where I got the idea that Stewart had once claimed to have written the 1979 “crisis of confidence” speech. Here’s the money quote from Sherman’s e-mail: “Can you point me to the published accounts where Stewart claimed to be the author of the speech? I have not be able to locate any references.”
As my grandkids would say, “Like, duh. Dude, do your homework.”
For the sake of the historical record, here’s the entirety of the e-mail:
From: Gabriel Sherman
Date: March 28, 2013, 10:11:30 AM EDT
To: Pat Caddell
Subject: Book Research: Your Foxnews.com Column
I hope you’re well. I’m following up by email as you requested in our phone conversation last week. As I explained, in my upcoming book on Roger Ailes and Fox News, I write about your Foxnews.com column about Gordon Stewart. The column was recently reprinted in Elizabeth Ailes’s newspaper, The Putnam County News & Recorder.
In your column, you write: “Four years ago, in both print and in interviews, Stewart claimed to be the author of the ‘crisis of confidence’ speech.”
Which interviews are you referring to? Can you point me to the published accounts where Stewart claimed to be the author of the speech? I have not be able to locate any references.
Thank you, I’m on a deadline so I look forward to being in contact at your earliest convenience.
Ladies and gentlemen of the historical jury, there you have it: a smoking gun of Sherman’s arrogance and/or ignorance–willful or otherwise. That is, he can’t or won’t find something that is plainly a part of the public record, and then he writes me a faux-friendly e-mail asking me to help him–and perhaps engage with him on other aspects of his Ailes book project.
So here’s my answer to you, Gabriel Sherman: I have taken all this time to write this lengthy and detailed piece on a matter that I thought had been put to bed, succinctly, last week. Frankly, Mr. Sherman, you are an embarrassment to the journalistic trade, and if your book is in the same vein, it will be an embarrassment to your publisher and a disservice to the reading public.
Please take my advice: Grow up, get a life, and most of all, leave me alone. Got that?
Patrick Caddell is a Democratic pollster and Fox News contributor. He served as pollster for President Jimmy Carter, Gary Hart, Joe Biden and others. He is a Fox News political analyst and co-host of “Political Insiders” Sundays on Fox News Channel and Mondays at 10:30 am ET on “FoxNews.com Live.”