With the Senate on track to pass its version of the economic stimulus legislation, President Obama is widely expected to win final Congressional approval of the plan soon, and thus make good on an assortment of his campaign promises. But in the process, he is confronting the impediments to his most ambitious pledge: to end the capital's partisan warfare.That last 66-word sentence earned Calmes a nomination as "Worst sentence ever written in journalism" from Megan McArdle. That might be overkill, but not by much.
Mr. Obama has been frustrated by an array of forces, from an often bitter and personal history of partisanship on Capitol Hill to the near-extinction of Republican moderates in the House to the deep ideological gulf between the parties on economic policy. And as his aspiration of putting aside petty politics has met the necessity of winning legislative votes — no more than two or three Senate Republicans are expected to support him, which is two or three more than did so in the House -- he has gone through a public evolution that has left him showing sharper edges when it comes to the ways of Washington.
Calmes goes off-course with her opening clause: "With the Senate on track to pass its version of the economic stimulus legislation . . ." Sez who? This assertion bears no qualifier like "evidently" or "apparently." The possibility that the stimulus bill might yet be derailed having been dismissed without consideration, Calmes then commences to ponder "partisan" and "petty" politics at her leisure.
"Leisure" is the key word here. Calmes seems to have the idea that the definition of "analysis" requires that she write in the passive voice: Obama "is widely expected," he "has been frustrated," he "has gone through" an evolution. The second sentence's use of "Obama is confronting" avoids the passive, but why not just say "Obama confronts"?
Well, the New York Times guidelines for "analysis" apparently require that reporters never use one word where two will do. And, oh, what labyrinthine sentences these are! Even before she gets to the 66-word monster that caught McArdle's eye, Calmes is averaging 34 words per sentence. Her first sentence is 39 words, her second is a relatively terse 20 words, and then she comes back with 42 words in Sentence Three before her clean-up sentence comes to bat.
Ah, but it's Murderer's Row here, because Calmes next lays on us this mammoth jaw-buster:
Frustrated that debate over the bill was being dominated by Republicans’ criticism, and that his overtures had yielded little in the way of support from across the aisle, the president who began the week hosting Republicans for a Super Bowl party had by Friday switched to publicly pressuring them, and rallying fellow Democrats, with a hard-line message about his unwillingness to compromise his priorities.Sixty-five words in that one. The reader is forced to wade through two clauses and a remembrance of last week's Super Bowl party until reaching the 45th word, "switched," which is the verb on which the whole sentence hangs.
God knows I love a fancy sentence. More importantly, I know I love a fancy sentence. Anyone wishing to accuse me of being hypocritical toward Calmes will have no trouble finding examples of ponderous sentences in my writing. The parenthetical aside -- set off by em-dashes for a dramatic flair -- is a technique to which I'm so addicted that I must consciously resist it or else I'll overuse it to the point of parody.
However, I flatter myself to think that I have a good ear for rhythm in writing. I was a musician long before I ever became a journalist, and one of my great joys is to bring the reader to the point of what I'm saying with as much surety as P-Funk coming down on The One. Draw the reader in with an anecdote, string him along as you build your argument and then -- when you've got him set up for it just right -- WHAM! Gut-punch him like Rocky Balboa laying into Apollo Creed.
Can this technique be used in news writing? Here's a story from 2001:
There were no nationally televised candlelight vigils for Jesse Dirkhising. No Hollywood celebrities mourned the passing of the 13-year-old Arkansas boy.Just the facts, ma'am. Here's another classic Joe Friday job from 2003:
The New York Times hasn't reported how Jesse died of asphyxiation in 1999 after prosecutors say he was bound, gagged and sodomized by a homosexual couple. And the seventh-grader's death has not caused powerful Washington activists to lobby for new federal laws to punish such crimes.
While the 1998 death of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming provoked a blizzard of media coverage about the death of the homosexual college student, the Dirkhising case is just "a local crime story," one TV network spokesman explains.
Joshua Macabe Brown, one of two men accused of killing Jesse, was convicted yesterday of rape and first-degree murder in a trial that began March 13.
Through yesterday afternoon, Brown's weeklong trial produced a combined total of zero stories from the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, CBS, ABC, NBC and CNN. . . .
Brian David Mitchell was in many ways typical of the homeless, with a history of substance abuse and symptoms of mental illness.Ah, those were the days! There is nothing more delightful than assembling a mountain of facts, then setting off the controlled landslide of a news story that leaves political correctoids sputtering in impotent outrage. Impotent, that is, because all you've done is to report the facts.
It was not until his arrest last week in the kidnapping of Utah teenager Elizabeth Smart, however, that the self-anointed "prophet" brought attention to another aspect of America's homeless problem: As many as half of the homeless have criminal records, and some have committed serious violent crimes, including rape and murder. . . .
I'd never heard of Jackie Calmes until frequent commenter Smitty (thanks, man) tipped me to McArdle's blog post. She'll bear further watching in weeks ahead, and we'll see if there is truth to her assertion about the stimulus being "on track" for Senate passage. Conventional wisdom has a way of unraveling in a hurry, and you never know when Rocky Balboa's going to unload a punch in your gut.