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SNAFU-er Than Fiction
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SNAFU-er Than Fiction

The conspiracy theories on Hunter Biden’s conviction are too bizarre even for Hollywood.

A scene from Veep. (Photo: Courtesy of Dundee Productions)

Dear Reader (including those of you who might be looking for a last-minute Father’s Day gift),

A very long time ago, I read somewhere that, prior to the debut of Hill Street Blues, when cops were asked what the most realistic cop show on TV was, large numbers of them said Barney Miller. Some people still do.

Now, kids, I realize I am aging myself here.

So just to explain: Hill Street Blues was a gritty, sometimes bleak cop show with lots of cops busting down doors in dingey tenements in dangerous neighborhoods, while Barney Miller was a sitcom, set pretty much entirely in the 12th precinct’s detective squad room. Hill Street Blues (and all the imitators it would later inspire) was dramatic, even tragic, albeit with some bits of dark comedy (I particularly miss Vic Hitler the narcoleptic comic). Barney Miller, on the other hand, was pure comedy, while also being one of the most sophisticated sitcoms ever made. It didn’t “tackle” issues in the heavy-handed way TV producer Norman Lear did. It was an actual sitcom that just assumed the audience was sufficiently well-read to get some of the jokes. My brother would imitate the episode where the Hasidic Jew who was mugged quotes Shakespeare, “He who steals my purse, steals trash.” But the Jewish guy says it in the singsong of a rabbinical prayer.

Then there’s the episode where Detective Harris is interviewing an Amish farmer who’d been robbed.

Detective Harris: So what do you do for fun? Watch TV?

Amish Farmer: It’s not in the Bible.

Harris: Movies?

Amish Farmer: Not in the Bible.

Harris: Play cards? Gamble?

Amish Farmer: It’s not in the Bible.

Harris: What DO you DO for fun?

Amish Farmer: Got 14 kids. That’s in the Bible.

Anyway, I bring this up because I have a similar attitude about Washington, D.C. With some important caveats that I’ll get to in a minute, if I had to pick one show that captures Washington best, I think I’d have to say Veep. I’m hardly alone in this assessment. 

Now, in many important ways, Veep isn’t that realistic (something I’m sure Kamala Harris has said into the bathroom mirror and shouted at people in the rope line at fundraisers). For starters, the characters are wildly more profane than (most) of the people you meet in Washington.

More importantly, the show is too cynical. An enormous number of people in Washington—politicians and journalists included—are very smart, sincere, and moral. In my experience, a lot of these people think the most realistic TV shows about Washington are The West Wing or the insufferably smug and self-important show The Newsroom. This is mostly because these are the worlds such people want to live in. A few folks (mostly in Trumpworld these days but there were more than a few in Clintonland) want to live in the world of House of Cards. I suspect that only a small number of the House of Cards-types see themselves as the villainous deformities at the center of that show. They just think their enemies are like that, so they give themselves permission to behave the same way. The thing that all the do-gooders and the do-evilers have in common is they take themselves incredibly seriously. And one of the great things about Veep is it makes fun of all of them.

But the real reason I think Veep is the most realistic—or to put it more accurately, captures the most reality—is that it grasps the fact that nobody is really in control. The smartest plans get foiled by dumb people or by smart people looking after their own interests. Random events bedevil the best-laid plans. Great things often happen by accident and intentionally terrible things often backfire. The cats in Congress or the press won’t be herded. And the dogs of the electorate won’t eat the dog food. It’s all exaggerated for comedic effect, but that’s a big part of what comedy is: reducing reality to a recognizable, absurd truth. 

This is one of the things I often find myself trying to explain to people, mostly from outside Washington, but often to people who live and work here. No one is in charge. There’s no cabal controlling things. Cui bono—who benefits?—is a shorthand for a whole way of thinking about politics and life. It’s not always wrong, but it usually is.

In Washington, events that help one group are often the result of mistakes made by another group. As often as not, calamities are the result not of carefully orchestrated plots by enemies, but the unintended results of players screwing things up themselves. Every day in Washington, activists, donors, lobbyists, politicians, and consultants gather in rooms and restaurants and plot new initiatives, schemes, awareness campaigns, whatever. Earnest young people scribble notes and managers write things on grease boards. Ten-point plans are hammered out. Media campaigns are designed. Stakeholders are co-opted or coerced to get with the program. These projects are rolled out with great fanfare, then proceed to roll into a ditch, or collide smack-dab into another boulder rolling in the opposite direction, or get knocked off-course by a third one from another direction. 

When Barack Obama launched the website for Obamacare—the most discussed, planned, touted, denounced, and celebrated program of the last 20 years—the website didn’t work. As I used to joke, it was like these economic planners hired the best web techies the Amish community ever produced. His stimulus plan was sold on the premise that millions of “shovel-ready jobs” were simply awaiting funding. But once funded, no one grabbed their shovels because it would take years to get the paperwork sorted out. Obama had to pivot to the claim that he “saved or created” millions of jobs, a conveniently unfalsifiable argument. And since I’m recycling old jokes, let me boast for a moment that I do or save 1,000 push-ups every morning. I harp on Obama because no president in my lifetime was more committed to the idea that if you just hand the reins to experts with spreadsheets and checklists, anything is possible.

But he was hardly alone. Jimmy Carter, a nuclear engineer by training and personality, thought you could run everything from the White House. And he was consistent on this point. He actually got so annoyed with the Veep-like chaos of his staff, he reportedly took over the job of managing the sign-up schedule of the White House tennis court.

Anyway, I bring this up for two reasons. First, a bunch of people have complained about my last couple of G-Files taking too long to get their point, and I’m in a you-ain’t-seen-nothin’-yet kind of mood.

Second, because I think the response to Hunter Biden’s conviction from the MAGA right is bonkers.

Nick Catoggio wrote a great piece on all the swirling issues involved, and it’s full of examples of what I’m talking about. “Hunter Biden guilty. Yawn,” tweeted Charlie Kirk. “The true crimes of the Biden Crime Family remain untouched. This is a fake trial trying to make the Justice system appear ‘balanced.’ Don’t fall for it.”

“The Hunter Biden prosecution is a fake distraction, designed to deflect attention from the real crimes of using Joe Biden to make $$ for his family in Ukraine & to create the artifice of ‘nonpartisanship’ in the DOJ after the Trump conviction. Don’t fall for the trick,” proclaimed Vivek Ramaswamy.

This is very stupid.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think it is entirely possible that Hunter Biden committed many other crimes. He’s going on trial for some of them—three felony tax charges and six misdemeanors—in September, but I think many of his other schemes are super sketchy and quite possibly illegal as well. I don’t rule out that his uncle—or even his dad—broke some laws. I don’t think that’s been proven, but I also don’t think it’s been remotely disproven.

What’s ever so stupid is the idea that the supposedly utterly corrupt—“weaponized!”—Department of Justice that is doing Joe Biden’s bidding brought Hunter to trial, won a conviction, and is bringing him to trial again, right before the election, because that’s exactly what Joe Biden wants. The Democrats want to run against Donald Trump’s corruption. They want to hammer home that he’s a felon. And, according to galaxy brains like Kirk and Ramaswamy, the famously sentimental Joe Biden fiendishly manipulated events so that his sole surviving son would get convicted and possibly face jail time? Everything we know about Joe Biden’s relationship with Hunter is that he loves him and cares about him. Indeed, most of the theories about the “Biden Crime Family” hinge on the idea that the president has a blind spot for Hunter’s criminality. I’ve seen no reason to doubt that he’s rightly worried that the stress of prosecution—and conviction—could cause Hunter to relapse.

But as you can say almost anytime Kirk opens his mouth, “Wait, it gets dumber.” The MAGA right, and Republicans generally, are enormously invested in the claim that Joe Biden is a senile dotard who barely knows where he is. But they also want us to believe that he’s maneuvering events like some four-dimensional chess master? The guy who reads “pause” from the teleprompter and insists his son did nothing wrong is brilliantly orchestrating his son’s criminal prosecution? Pick a lane, people. 

Now, in fairness, this sort of stupidity has a long bipartisan lineage. Many on the left loved to say that George W. Bush was simultaneously a complete idiot and a criminal super genius, leading the country into war for the benefit of oil companies, or the Joooos. Some fringy types insisted that he was a moron and that he pulled off the most spectacular “inside job” on 9/11. Spike Lee, among others, floated the idea that Bush ordered the bombing of the levee in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Bush was such a great administrator he managed to pull off these sorts of things without a single whistle-blower.

The thing I always find so baffling about these kinds of arguments is that they never account for the fact that, if presidents were so good at executing incredibly complex criminal conspiracies, why couldn’t they actually do the normal government stuff better? Joe Biden can’t get his infrastructure stuff to work, but he can get the DOJ to pull off incredibly complex schemes without a hitch? Maybe he should order some of the top folks at the DOJ to build a pier off Gaza that doesn’t float away or to build some electric car charging stations. If Bush could pull off 9/11, surely he could have gotten Social Security reform through Congress.

Now, I can’t say for certain whether the Ramaswamy and Kirk types actually believe what they’re saying. That’s always impossible to know, because people like them don’t think belief—let alone truth—is a prerequisite for any of their opinions. But lots of normal people believe this kind of thing.

I think there are lots of reasons for this, but the relevant one brings us back to TV (and movies and novels). Fiction requires boiling reality down to a story. You can have distractions, red herrings, and Russian-in-the-Pine-Barrens non-sequiturs, but ultimately you have to land at your desired destination. The old line—attributed to countless people—goes, “How do you sculpt an elephant? Take a block of stone and remove everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.” 

That’s how fiction works. Take everything out that doesn’t fit your story (this is a great rule for proper writing and one that I studiously avoid in this “news”letter). I’ve made this point about the Chekhov’s gun rule many times. It’s why you can be certain that, in any normal sitcom, a character who gets pregnant is going to keep the baby. Unless you’re deliberately being political, you don’t want a character to have a miscarriage or an abortion. Scriptwriters often reduce the motives of villains to simple greed or revenge because complex motivations are hard to convey. This laziness is one reason businessmen are so often cast as villains: It’s just easier.

But motivations in real life are often messier. Deliberate, intentional villainy is much rarer than you’d think from movies and TV shows (though obviously it exists). Competence at pulling off incredibly complex capers and conspiracies is even more rare. But when you watch the news like it’s exposition in a movie or a TV show—editing out the parts of life that don’t fit the plot that’s in your head—it becomes easy to think that Washington is full of masterminds and that every inconvenient fact and event is really just a red herring.

Whatever line of work you’re in, I am sure you have stories about how things went haywire, mistakes were made, miscommunications and mishaps led to something that made onlookers not just angry but convinced that the screw-up was intentional. And then it falls to you to explain how it was just a normal snafu and nobody intended it. There’s a reason why SNAFU stands for “situation normal: all [fouled] up.” Because that sort of thing is normal—in life, and in Washington. And that’s what Veep gets right.

Various & Sundry

Canine Update: There’s not too much to report and I am extremely pressed for time. Everyone is good, though no one is happy about the end of the cool weather, but it’s still cool enough in the morning for Pippa to get some work in. The girls were scheduled to get a bath today, so I may get an earful from them about the injustice and from the missus for not being there to help.

Speaking of the missus, we went to a Dispatch cookout at Steve Hayes’ place last night. As you might have read in The Morning Dispatch, Declan Garvey’s birthday cake was dropped on my foot by accident. I told Declan that he should be happy about this, because there’s an old Irish saying: “May your birthday cake be dropped on old Jew’s foot.” It sounds better in the original Gaelic. The girls were very happy to see us when we got home, and to help clean the remaining residue off my foot.

People often respond to these “welcoming committee” videos by noting the contrast between Gracie’s seemingly indifferent response and the dogs’ speaks volumes about the differences between cats and dogs. Dogs: “We missed you so much! It’s fantastic you’re home! We thought you’d never come back!” versus “Oh, hi. Whatever.” There’s obviously some truth to this. But it overlooks the fact that Gracie almost always gets out of a comfortable spot (unlike Pippa, she occupies no other kind of spot) and comes to the door, too. That she’s more restrained is a testament to her catness. But that she gets up in the first place is a testament to her awesomeness. She likes to keep an eye on me in particular.

In other news, Kirsten tries valiantly to get pictures of Zoë smiling. It’s hard—and it’s really hard to get her smiling with the whole crew at the same time. But she managed this week.


Weird Links

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.