Wednesday

July 26th, 2017

Insight

Washington's birds on a wire

Wesley Pruden

By Wesley Pruden

Published June 6, 2017

 Washington's birds on a wire

If Robert Mueller concludes, after a $100 million investigation into whether Donald Trump and his campaign colluded with the Russians to rig the 2016 election, that there was no "there" there, then what?

Will the liberals then organize a lynch mob to go after Mr. Mueller? He can't count on escaping a little tar and feathers, if not the rope. The Democrats are already drooling in anticipation of getting the goods on the president. Their media allies are feeding them a steady diet of appetizers. President Trump is widely accused of trying to intimidate the special prosecutor. On any morning there's no room on the front pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post for anything but appetizers.

The press mob after the president could be easily turned against Mr. Mueller unless he comes across with what the mob wants. Mr. Mueller has been in Washington long enough to know how this game is played. He can't help but feel intimidated.

The press thinks of itself as a regiment of resolute investigators of independent mien, trained by Sgt. Joe Friday ("just the facts, ma'am"), but the investigators are mostly birds on a wire, one flies off and all the others follow, then one returns to the wire and all the others follow him.

This week there's a feast of worms to attract the early birds on the wire, with enough even for the latecomers.

The Great Russian-Trump Collusion is always good for a headline or a tweet about trivia, perhaps exciting enough to tempt CNN to interrupt its endless coverage of the missing Malaysian airliner, but there's the continuing fallout of President Trump's withdrawal from the Paris global-warming pact, and the trial of comedian Bill Cosby for using the prospect of a job in television (with an assist from the pharmaceutical sciences) to persuade a lady to come across with a little enhanced companionship.

There's James Comey's more or less promised blockbuster about what President Trump said to him over the coffee cups. The week should be an unusual triple-header on the front pages, the evening news and the usual bang-and-shout on cable-TV.

Most of the big birds on the wire will exhaust themselves flying back and forth between the wires. Men, the wise man said, think in herds, and it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.

And of all the offspring of Time, as another wise man said, Error is the most ancient, and is so old and familiar an acquaintance that Truth, when discovered, comes upon most of us like an intruder, and meets the intruder's welcome.

A Scottish journalist named Charles Mackay even wrote a book about this phenomenon in 1841, "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds," inspired by the great Dutch tulip madness early in the 17th century.

Soon after the tulip, an extraordinarily beautiful flower to be sure, was exported to Holland from Turkey, the Dutch imagined that everyone could get rich in the tulip trade.

Every day brought a new and more spectacular speculation, like The New York Times discovering that Donald Trump once pulled the hair of the little girl in the desk in front of him, or The Washington Post learning from an anonymous source that the Donald once broke wind during the prayer at the only time he ever attended a church service. (Presbyterians of that day were starchy, indeed.)

Soon tulips were expensive far beyond the dreams of the poor and even the rich and powerful. A single bulb might be exchanged for 8 fat swine, or 12 fat sheep, or 2 tons of butter or a thousand pounds of cheese. Every town of significant size had a tulip exchange.

Farmers, mechanics, footmen, maidservants and even chimney sweeps dabbled in the tulip trade, like in a later day television anchorpersons, even unto the sweethearts of the cable, demanding millions of dollars to switch networks, the better to barter exaggerations.

Many tulip traders grew rich, but eventually the bubble burst. Only the elegant tulip survived.

There's a lesson here for speculators of every stripe. Playing the game of "can you top this?" are men posing today as wise men who compete to see who can say the most unlikely things about the man who invites scorn with a loose lip.

David Gergen, who has advised Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton (and often badly, as the modest Mr. Gergen himself might attest) is typical of the Washington wise men who are about to exhaust their adjectives.

Mr. Gergen is beside himself over the president's scorn of the Paris agreement. He thinks the president was already in "impeachment territory," and walking away from Paris was "one of the most shameful acts in our history." But he's not alone in Tulip-like mania.

There should be a big market in Washington for Midol, waiting for a supplier to exploit opportunity.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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