By David Von Drehle
Sunday, July 17, 2005
Barbara O'Brien wishes to disagree.
She has been listening as Betsy Newmark -- a history teacher, a proud mom and a very conservative political blogger -- expounds her reasons for supporting the war in Iraq. Listening very intently. Not in the sense that a doctor listens intently through a stethoscope. More like the intense attention a suspicious wife might apply to her husband's reasons for coming home late.
"I think we're beginning to see just the first positive effects, positive impacts, of the decision to remove Saddam Hussein," Newmark is saying. Positive impacts "in Central Asia, in the decision by Libya to disarm, in Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon, Musharraf in Pakistan -- people forget that he wasn't always an ally."
As Newmark's list of positive impacts and glimmers of democracy rolls on, through Egypt, Georgia, Ukraine, O'Brien's jaw muscles -- the medial and lateral pterygoids -- tighten like the lid on a Mason jar until they are clamped down so rigidly that you think her teeth might shatter.
Her eyes dart up, down, right, left. She raises her eyebrows, then tries to suppress a scowl.
Newmark seems not to notice. "I feel there is something noble about helping Iraq learn to govern itself," she is saying. "This is something liberals used to support -- helping people liberate themselves -- and I think if Clinton had done this, instead of George Bush, a lot of people would feel differently about it."
A sardonic gust escapes O'Brien's clenched teeth -- heh! -- almost as if she has been bopped in the sternum. O'Brien has agreed to let Newmark say her piece, but a solid minute or more has gone by, and O'Brien can't help herself any longer. That laugh would be a perfect crowbar to pry the floor away from Newmark, except that O'Brien must pause for a microsecond after the laugh to take a breath.
In that moment, Newmark surges on. "So, I think all in all it's an exciting time," she summarizes, though she adds that no one should expect an end to the conflict any time soon.
A cat lover, a proud mom and a very liberal political blogger, O'Brien opens cautiously, even a bit defensively, by allowing that "many wars are ambiguous" and noting that she favored the invasion of Afghanistan. But then she lets loose: Iraq was "a colossal mistake" made for "foolish reasons [by] neocons [who] had been pushing to invade Iraq for years." Saddam Hussein was "an evil man, yes, but his power was eroding," and in fact he had become "a toothless tiger."
As for George W. Bush: "He had to be pushed" to support Iraqi elections in January.
"Some people would say that shows flexibility," Newmark interjects.
"He's flexible all right!" O'Brien counters. "He'll turn on a dime if it's politically expedient."
The two women are standing one Monday morning inside the National Air and Space Museum, beside an exhibit of Cold War nuclear missiles. Get it? They're arguing about a war while standing next to a Soviet SS-20 and an American Pershing II. They're here at the invitation of The Washington Post Magazine, because we wanted to see what happens when you pluck hostile bloggers from the ether and cause them to spend a day together, sightseeing and arguing in the nation's capital.
Now some of the passing tourists are slowing to eavesdrop on the debate. They hear O'Brien praise the patriotism of the thousands of antiwar marchers who gathered in Manhattan in 2003 on the eve of the Iraq invasion. They hear Newmark counter with a tribute to the patriotism of the troops who have fought the war.
They hear O'Brien claim that the Iraqi people "are not going to be liberated until we're gone . . ."
And Newmark parry: "We're still in Germany and Japan . . ."
And O'Brien respond: "But we're not occupying them . . ."
And Newmark demand: "Then what's the alternative?"
"I don't know!" says Barbara O'Brien. "And that's a damn shame . . . Each day we are weaker and weaker because our military is overstretched. . . . It's one of the great debacles of all time."
Point for counterpoint, zinger for stinger, tit for tat, the discussion escalates until Betsy Newmark once again mentions the dawning liberation of Lebanon from Syrian control. And Barbara O'Brien goes nuclear:
"We are to Iraq what Syria is to Lebanon," she says.
Newmark gasps, and for just a moment she is speechless. "That's a terrible thing to say!" she finally declares.
"That's how I see it," O'Brien says, matter-of-factly. And then she adds this breathtaking understatement: "That's where we differ."
Journalists are worrywarts. We worry about toxins in the drinking water, graft at City Hall, opposition leaders in countries you've never heard of and the rotator cuffs of journeyman pitchers. We worry about greenhouse gasses, decorum in the Senate, childhood obesity, abandoned pets and the fall lineup on ABC. If there's an asteroid headed in our general direction, if too many Harvard students are making A's, if long-distance truckers aren't sleeping enough, we worry. When gas prices are low, we worry about SUVs smashing defenseless sedans. When gas prices are high, we worry about the effect of the SUV sales slump on GM's bottom line. We worry about floods when it rains and drought when the sun shines.
And still there is time to worry about ourselves. Journalists worry like mad about the fate of our own particular jobs. For more than 20 years, roughly since the dawn of the desktop computer, people have been telling us that micro-chips are going to put us in the soup kitchens. For a while, we could console ourselves with the fact that computers were heavy and had to be plugged into a wall. But now people get video on their portable phones, and . . . well, that's worrisome, if you're in the business of producing neatly folded stacks of dried wood pulp printed with columns of readable ink stains.
Readers may think we in the press are arrogant and out of touch, but that's just an act. Really we're sick with anxiety about the Death of Print. What began with the Gutenberg Bible often seems to be headed for an ignominious and fast-approaching end, around 2009, with the publication of the last printed work guaranteed to find a market: Mitch Albom's The Five Diets You'll Be on in Heaven.
Who's going to finish us off? Currently, we're worried about bloggers. Interlinked Internet diaries known as Web logs -- blogs -- are proliferating faster than nudies of Paris Hilton these days, from zero a decade ago to more than 10 million today. To date, no one has figured out how to make much money at blogging. The closest thing to a blog baron is a New Yorker named Nick Denton, who runs a chain of sites covering such topics as politics (Wonkette), celebrity gossip (Gawker and Defamer), gadgets (Gizmodo) and, most lucratively, porn (Fleshbot). An associate of Denton's was recently quoted as telling a journalism class that the company's writers earn a base annual salary of about $30,000, with bonuses for high traffic, and a company site is considered successful if it earns $75,000 in annual revenue. Most bloggers earn nothing from their blogs.
But that doesn't stop journalists from wringing our hands in countless articles about blogging, wiping our brows through endless panels devoted to blogging, scrying through bottomless poll data about blogging, and launching blogs of our own. If you are reading these words in a publication called The Washington Post Magazine, then the bloggers have not entirely overtaken the so-called mainstream media -- yet.
Most of these millions of Web logs are not concerned with news or politics. There are blogs about knitting and blogs about cooking and blogs about reading and blogs about computer engineering. There are military blogs and vegetarian blogs and Catholic blogs and birdwatching blogs. Gossip blogs, music blogs, Lindsay Lohan blogs, movie blogs, car blogs, history blogs, gardening blogs, fishing blogs. Blogs about football, basketball, baseball, NASCAR, hockey, boxing and ballet. Blogs about "The Apprentice," "Survivor" and "American Idol." People are blogging about dorm food, pregnancy, marriage and divorce.
If you think about it, that's a pretty fair sample of the interests of a well-rounded newspaper. Plus, the blog array offers an added bonus not found in family papers: sex blogs, covering such a range of kinks and appetites that Mr. Kinsey himself might have learned a thing or two from them.
"No one blog can cover everything . . . But one can envisage a blogosphere that readers rely on to obtain essentially everything they now get from a news-paper or a newscast," wrote Paul Mirengoff of the popular Power Line blog not long ago. "The basic facts of a story would come from links to news services. The analysis would come from specialized blogs or non-specialized blogs that happen to have expertise in the subject area. The op-ed type opinions would come from the opinion blogs . . .
"Thus, the blogosphere is likely to replace the MSM" -- that's mainstream media -- "for a growing number of consumers. Many others will continue to check out the MSM, but regard it much more skeptically (that is, take it much less seriously) than they have done in the past. It will be up to the MSM to decide whether it wishes to respond to these developments by undertaking radical change."
It also sounds a bit nasty, because the rules of discourse are different on the Internet -- another thing for journalists to wring our hands over. What's blogging doing to the tone of American politics? Suppose that the heat of political rhetoric could be charted on a scale of spicy foods. What you hear and read most days in the mainstream media ranges from unseasoned oatmeal to Franco-American Spaghetti-Os in a can. Whereas the political blogs pick up somewhere around a Taco Bell burrito and range all the way to the vindaloo you might be served by a sadist chef in Bangalore.
We'd love to give you some examples. We'd love even more to have our jobs tomorrow. Instead, read this, written about a Democratic senator from Illinois, and picture it with habanero peppers on top: "Dick Durbin is an evil subversive enemy of our country and may he rot in hell."
Or this, commenting on the congressional testimony of a Justice Department official: "The zombie corpses of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams should have burst into the chamber and ripped the head off the government stooge . . . [then] divided and eaten [his] depraved brain before heading over to the increasingly misnamed Department of Justice to dine on [Attorney General] Alberto Gonzales's intestines."
Who are these people typing up the revolution, and what do they tell us about the condition of American civic life?
We decided to meet a couple.
Where do they not differ?
Betsy Newmark and Barbara O'Brien disagree on Social Security, health care, the environment, the role of the courts, bankruptcy laws, Wal-Mart, George W. Bush, philosophical principles of the Enlightenment and the continuing viability of the American Dream. They disagree on the nature of liberty and on the trend line of civilization.
Is life getting better or worse?
They can sit side by side in the plate-banging din of the Palm and seem as if they are on separate planets.
O'Brien: "I believe people are exploited by these powerful interests . . ."
Newmark: "I don't have these same fears of 'powerful interests' . . ."
O'Brien: "Upward mobility in the United States is dead . . ."
Newmark: "Things are much better than you think . . ."
O'Brien: "Don't get me started on Wal-Mart . . ."
Newmark: "If people weren't employed by Wal-Mart, where would they work?"
They are, in other words, excellent representatives of the paired mental ecosystems that they call -- in a rare moment of agreement -- the "right blogosphere" and the "left blogo-sphere." Each one pours several hours each day into her Internet diary, reading, analyzing, criticizing, praising and echoing the political events and commentary of the moment. They link their diaries electronically to dozens of other blogs, and those blogs are linked, in turn, to still other blogs, ultimately forming a blogosphere -- a word that obviously did not come from a marketing department.
O'Brien's leftward site, Mahablog.com, bills itself as the "Home Blog of the American Resistance." ("Maha," she modestly explains, is a spiritual term meaning "great.") The site is visited about 1,200 times a day, which ranks around No. 300 on the list of most-visited blogs. (The daily visits are tracked by a service called Site Meter, and the rankings are maintained by TruthLaidBear.com.) Mahablog features article-length entries full of excerpts from news sites and other blogs. The material is woven together by O'Brien's strong voice and sharp opinions.
Like many bloggers, O'Brien writes in tribal vernacular-- the administration is "the Bushies," conservatives are "righties," and skepticism (of which there is plenty in her work) comes out as "WTF?"
"The righties have their knickers in a knot . . ." O'Brien might begin, before laying into the latest outrage she perceives from some conservative writer or publication.
Mahablog holds certain truths as fundamental. Among them: Conservatives are shafting America's middle class to enrich themselves. The administration is habitually dishonest. ("If we piled up all the evidence of Bushie prevarication we could sink Australia, you know.") The Iraq war ("the mother of all money-laundering schemes") is the bitter fruit of this dishonesty and corruption. And namby-pamby Democrats ("Vichycrats," as in the Nazi-collaborating French government of the 1940s) are allowing all this to happen.
Bottom line, Mahablog recently summed up, "the Bushies lie, and we're screwed."
O'Brien, 53, is the divorced mother of two grown children. She lives outside New York City "on the cusp of Yonkers and Bronxville." She hasn't always cared so deeply about politics. "I was only mildly interested when I was younger," she says of her passion. "I hardly remember the '80s. They're kind of gone, because my children were babies then.
"But now I have become very politicized," she allows. O'Brien traces her awakening to the morning of September 11, 2001. She was working for a publisher in New York that day and emerged from the subway to see the World Trade Center ablaze. "I was an eyewitness to the collapse of the towers, and since 9-11 I've felt it was my duty to get involved. I've felt compelled to find out what's going on, and share what I could find out with other people. Writing a blog was something I could do."
She started blogging in the summer of 2002, just as Internet services like Tripod were simplifying the technical side of blogging. It was a fertile time for the birth of blogs, a tipping point, a catalysis, when software and subject matter came together in a chain reaction of riffs, rants and links.
Over time, O'Brien's blog has lasered in on Bush's war leadership and his economics. She despairs for the old working class. Her father worked in a lead mine; her mother was a registered nurse. But her memories of growing up in the Ozarks "are that we were always getting more and more affluent . . . Always moving up to a bigger house . . . In those days, guys could get out of high school and go to work in the lead mine, get a union job, and they could support a family on that."
O'Brien's adult life, by comparison, has been uncertain. She speaks cryptically of the "long, sad, nasty story" that took her from the University of Missouri, where she studied journalism, through marriage, child-rearing, divorce, personal bankruptcy and an underwhelming career in book publishing. Now she's living on an inheritance left by her thrifty parents and wondering why life seems so different these days.
"Huge numbers of Americans are walking a tightrope trying to maintain this idea of what normal should be, and it's not working anymore," she says. "People are too much in debt -- one missed paycheck or one serious injury not covered by medical insurance away from disaster. The Republicans taking away the old safety net -- that's terrifying. . . . Their thing is cheap labor, exploiting the workers -- now I'm sounding like a communist, and I'm really not."
Newmark is the proprietor of Betsy's Page, located at betsyspage.blogspot.com. Her site is visited about 3,000 times a day, which usually puts her in the top 150 most-visited blogs. By comparison, the biggest political blog by far is DailyKos.com, a liberal effort founded by a Bay Area techie named Markos Moulitsas Zuniga. It attracts nearly half a million visits a day, according to Site Meter and TruthLaidBear. Instapundit.com, the creation of a Tennessee law professor named Glenn Reynolds, is the most-seen conservative blog, with about 150,000 visits on an average day. The dream of a new blogger in search of an audience is to be mentioned on one of these sites. Newmark got her "Instalaunch" in February 2003, when Reynolds linked to an item in which she scolded John Kerry for comparing himself to Daniel Webster.
Betsy's Page favors a larger variety of shorter items than Mahablog, usually brief comments followed by excerpts from other bloggers and writers she finds interesting. "I'm more of a linker," says Newmark.
Still, you never have any trouble figuring out where she stands. In Newmark's blog, most Democrats are "obstructionist . . . Bush-haters," while conservatives are the ones who side "with the small guy against the government." Her rhetoric is not as spicy as O'Brien's; one recent day her blog included a "story of the newest wack-job to level accusations that the towers weren't brought down by an airplane." She greeted the latest presidential ambitions of Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) by noting that he once had a hair transplant. "The plugs have grown in . . ." That's about as mean as she gets.
Newmark, 48, started blogging in that same tipping point summer of 2002. Her husband, Craig, a professor of economics at North Carolina State University, already had his own political blog, and "it looked like fun." The Newmarks' elder daughter works for a Washington think tank and maintains a conservative blog of her own. Only their younger daughter, a high school senior, has yet to enter the game.
At first, Betsy's Page was an outgrowth of Newmark's career as a history and civics teacher at a charter high school in Raleigh, N.C. Her initial blog entries were the same sort of funny, quirky or instructive news items she had previously clipped and posted in the hall outside her classroom.
"Gradually, it became a little more political," she says.
Newmark took no particular notice of politics as a girl in suburban Chicago, but her interest sharpened after she enrolled at George Washington University. In 1976, she cast her first vote -- for Democrat Jimmy Carter. Then she decided to study the Russian language at UCLA, and the more she learned of the Soviet Union, the less she thought of Carter.
"He just seemed so naive and ineffectual in dealing with the Russians," she recalls. That, plus the free-market economics espoused by her husband, turned Newmark into a small-government conservative with libertarian leanings on social issues. "Working in public schools, I've seen how poorly the government runs things," she says.
Her breed of thinker is quite common among the right blogosphere. Newmark's philosophy of deregulation, muscular foreign policy and a live-and-let-live take on social issues is thriving on the Internet, and Newmark reads and links voraciously. Her site is a common feature on the "blogrolls" -- lists of favorite sites -- of leading conservative bloggers.
When readers follow these links to Betsy's Page, they find a modest and good-natured voice, compared with the name-calling and screeds that can make the blogosphere feel like "Crossfire" with Tourette's syndrome. In fact, Newmark seems to have nothing personal against liberals. "Of course I have liberal friends," she says, "I'm a schoolteacher!"
It's just that they're always wrong.
It must be noted that O'Brien and Newmark briefly found common ground outside the Air and Space Museum. They agreed that high school students should join debate teams. Neither disputes the value of learning to argue.
But after a ride on a tourist trolley to the western bank of the Tidal Basin, they're going at it again on the sun-dappled expanse of the Franklin D. Roose-velt Memorial. Reagan National Airport traffic flies low and loud overhead, and a series of waterfalls tumble and splash. A Roosevelt quotation, carved into a stone wall, serves as a jumping-off point: "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."
Over the noise, O'Brien adds her gloss to FDR's words: "People who work should be honored," she says. "Instead, we have a race to the bottom. Worker productivity keeps going up and up and up; corporate profits and CEO salaries are going up and up and up -- but wages aren't growing. At what point do we say, 'That's enough?'"
She continues: The economic policies of "the Bushies" threaten to turn the United States into "Brazil -- a few very rich at the top and a lot of poor at the bottom."
Newmark disagrees. "What does it matter to me if the people at the top make tens of millions?" she asks. "As long as, at the bottom, people are ahead of a generation ago. And they are."
This argument about the economy quickly turns into an argument about health care policy -- O'Brien favors a government-run system, while Newmark favors tax-free health savings accounts. The health care argument becomes an argument about bankruptcy laws--Newmark supports tighter restrictions on personal bankruptcy, while O'Brien opposes them. The bankruptcy argument morphs into a Social Security argument--Newmark loves the president's plan for personal accounts; O'Brien thinks the idea is a ruse of right-wingers who want to destroy the New Deal.
You get the feeling they could go on like this forever, argument spawning argument in a free-form improvisation, the way jazz artists can trade riff for riff all evening. If you suspend your desire to reach some resolution, you can, perhaps, admire this dexterity of the human brain, this ability to assemble the jigsaw pieces of reality into any number of completed pictures. As O'Brien notes: "We're looking at the same country, and we're seeing two different things."
And you can't help being impressed by how much these women know. They know the infant mortality rate in Mississippi, and the average annual return on stocks over the past century. They know the difference between "add-ons" and "carve-outs" in the context of Social Security reform. They distinguish between libertarian and conservative with the taxonomic precision of Agassiz, and they bring the same intensity to the distinctions between the progressive and Clintonian strands of the Democratic Party. Between them, they have informed opinions on topics ranging from European unification to the 1980 NBA finals to the inner lives of cats.
This should come as no surprise. Newmark has the voracious curiosity of a quiz bowl coach, which she happens to be. The "Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions" is a highlight of her year. She rises at 5:30 each morning so she can surf the Web -- the New York Times, The Washington Post and Lucianne.com are her early destinations -- and then blogs for an hour before getting ready for work.
O'Brien, meanwhile, reads at least four newspaper Web sites every morning -- "The Washington Post, the New York Times, the L.A. Times and the Boston Globe," she says, then "goes on to the Google news page. I also read what the other bloggers are doing, because I don't like to write about the same thing everyone else is blogging. Usually something grabs me: 'Oh, my God! I can't believe that!' And I'm off."
Both women check out a site called Memeorandum.com, which scans the blogosphere hourly to determine which news stories and opinion columns are generating the most Internet discussion. It is here, they both say, that the competing blogospheres, right and left, are most elegantly crystallized.
"It's fascinating," says Newmark.
"On a normal day, all the conservatives are blogging about one set of articles and all the liberals are blogging on another set," O'Brien adds. "Occasionally one piece gets everybody going, but most of the time we aren't commenting on the same things."
Memeorandum.com is fascinating, because it shows how our nation's competing realities are now formed. Bloggers scan for bits of evidence that fit into their existing views and then generalize from there. For example, supporters of the Iraq war will notice an article that seems to suggest some progress -- an insurgent leader captured, a new school opened -- and infer a universe of good news from that piece. Elsewhere on the same day, opponents of the war might find a piece of discouraging news -- an interview with a gloomy Iraqi leader, another suicide bombing -- and infer a mirror-image universe.
The supply of raw material for these creations is virtually infinite. The Internet contains billions -- trillions? -- of discrete tiles of information, from which a diligent network of bloggers can create any mosaic they choose. Somewhere, there's sure to be a quotation from Goebbels or Goering to cast a dark tinge over the latest from Bush. And you can count on the left blogosphere to find it. Just as surely, there will be an equally apposite quote from Lincoln or Churchill with which the right bloggers can respond.
Professional columnists have always been choosing tiles and creating pictures of the world. The Internet has opened that process to everyone -- and with an intriguing twist: Now we can all watch as the process unfolds.
One recent morning, Memeorandum revealed that Newmark and O'Brien had both blogged on the same topic. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) was in the news for saying that the treatment of a Guantanamo prisoner sounded to him like something Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot might countenance. Newmark took this tile of data and laid it alongside another report she had seen: Troops in Iraq captured an associate of al Qaeda insurgent leader Abu Musab Zarqawi.
"Now that we've captured this new guy what would Dick Durbin want to do with the guy?" Newmark typed quickly. "I guess stripping him and throwing him into an air conditioned room is out. So is playing Christine Aguilera music?
"They want us to treat these guys like legitimate POW's. POW's can only be asked name, rank, and serial number. Well, we already know this guy's name and they don't have ranks and serial numbers. They don't wear uniforms and aren't members of an army of a recognized nation. They are terrorists who blow up people at the market or trying to get a job at a police station. They kill Americans, and they kill Iraqis. Would Senator Durbin rule out asking this guy any question about his murderous pals? If you're going to give them POW status, we can't ask them questions."
At the same time, about 500 miles away, O'Brien picked up the same tile of information about Durbin and placed it into another picture entirely. Drawing on her readings about past failures of American humanity -- massacres of Sioux and Filipinos in the 19th century -- O'Brien suggested that "through human history there have been many dark episodes in which people of conscience were intimidated into silence, leaving those without conscience the freedom to do those terrible things for which subsequent generations feel ashamed.
"It's happening again," she continued. "The righties are shocked that Senator Dick Durbin compared Gitmo to a gulag. . . . Never mind that the Gitmo prisoners are being held without trial. Never mind that at least some of those prisoners have no connection to terrorism whatsoever. . . . The righties' indignation toward Senator Durbin is just the same old howl of the mob . . . And someday, when the whole truth of what is being done in our name at Abu Ghraib, Afghanistan and Guantanamo is finally revealed, maybe we'll apologize.
"Don't let the goons shut you up, Senator Durbin. Don't back down an inch."
A search engine called Technorati.com claims to watch more than 11.7 million Web logs as of this writing. That's more than the total number of humans in Ohio, the seventh-largest state, and it is the most commonly cited measure of the extent of the blog boom.
Recently, though, a writer at the Wall Street Journal drilled down on that number. It turns out to include every blog ever registered by blogging software. Everyone who was curious about the fad, everyone freshly resolved, newly angered, vibrantly inspired to record their activities and musings -- they're all included in that awesome tally. Looking deeper, the Journal found that only about one in 10 of those blogs has been updated in the past 30 days. People run out of energy, or run out of things to say, or run out of time in which to say them.
Those millions of abandoned blogs speak to the unchanging core of human nature, no matter how fancy technology becomes. People have been starting and abandoning journals and diaries for centuries. Several years ago, the Library of Congress received a remarkable donation from a woman in Falls Church -- three well-preserved books of assorted sizes. They were the journals of Horatio Nelson Taft, a relative of the donor. During the Civil War, Taft, a patent clerk, lived in Washington on the exact spot where this magazine is now written and edited. He was an ordinary man with a box seat on history. He knew he was living in momentous times. So he resolved to keep a journal.
He tried. Really he did. But for some reason, by April 1862 he ran out of steam.
As the new year, 1863, approached, Taft acquired a new blank book and started in again. Again, he petered out in the middle of the year. At the dawn of 1864, with a third new book of clean, blank pages, Taft was once again full of resolve. But he just couldn't keep it going.
Now this was a man whose children were playmates of Tad and Willie Lincoln at the White House a few blocks away. His daughter, Julia, played the piano as Abe Lincoln listened wistfully. His next-door neighbor was John Philip Sousa. In April 1865, Taft's older son, a doctor, happened to be at Ford's Theatre the night Lincoln was assassinated, and he remained with the dying president through the night. If this man couldn't keep his blog -- er, journal -- going, what hope is there for dull Daves and plain Janes?
A blogger named Greg Perry has tried to capture this connection between old-fashioned journals and 21st-century blogs by creating the online "Blog of Henry David Thoreau." He mines the extensive journals of the sage of Walden Pond and posts date-appropriate blog entries. But there is a difference, of course: Most blogs are meant for the public, while most diaries are kept private.
Political blogs, in particular, are intended for public consumption. Their gene pool traces back to the printers and pamphleteers of the 18th and 19th centuries, people like wry Benjamin Franklin and fiery Thomas Paine. In a sense, bloggers take us back to a time long before the birth of the mainstream media. It was a time when America was a Babel of contending political voices. Every cause and party and ambitious upstart launched a little newspaper -- there were Tory papers and revolutionary papers, Federalist papers and Democratic papers, Free Soil papers and pro-slavery papers.
The fact is, Americans have always loved to argue. For every adventurer and striver who settled the New World there was a disputant and a critic. The entire expanse of Europe was not large enough to contain the dissenting spirit of William Bradford and his band of Mayflower pilgrims. Better to crowd into a leaky wooden boat, brave the Atlantic and scratch a living from the frozen, rocky wilderness than to stifle their disagreements with the Church of England. And no sooner had they built Plymouth Plantation but they were arguing among themselves. By 1624, just four years after stepping onto its famous rock, the little colony was riven by "private meetings and whisperings" and "a spirit of great malignancy," according to Bradford's history of those years.
They might have enjoyed blogging.
Certainly, the Founding Fathers would have. A case could be made that the Federalist Papers were the greatest blog ever. Like many blogs, this was the creation of a group of like-minded activists (Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay) and posted under a pseudonym (Publius). Short-lived but intense, Publius produced 85 blog items in defense of the new Constitution over a fervent half-year. Some were highly interactive -- for example, No. 66, posted on March 11, 1788, responded to the leading objections Hamilton had seen concerning the Senate's proposed power of impeachment.
The Bill of Rights, meanwhile, was a concept promoted by rival paleo-bloggers associated with Thomas Jefferson. Note that the very first amendment enshrined the freedom to argue.
Newmark and O'Brien have nothing on the disputatious Hamilton and Jefferson, who argued about states rights versus federal power, agriculture versus industry, democracy versus aristocracy. They argued so vehemently and consistently that they created the two-party system as a vehicle for their disputes, and that vehicle has carried many an argument since.
Nor is there much new in the bitter tone of today's discourse. Benjamin Franklin Bache, whose given names honored his famous grandfather, started an anti-Federalist paleo-blog in Philadelphia known as the Aurora. A favorite target of his invective was the sainted George Washington. "If you read the Aurora," the great man complained, "you cannot but have perceived with what malignant industry and persevering falsehoods I am assailed in order to weaken, if not destroy, the confidence of the Public."
James Thomson Callender had a bloglike taste for sexual scandal and a knack for heated rhetoric. President John Adams, he wrote, was a "repulsive pedant," a "gross hypocrite," a "hideous hermaphroditical character" and "one of the most egregious fools upon the continent."
John Peter Zenger, the original hero of American journalism, was essentially a blogger. In the 1730s, he used his New York Weekly Journal to criticize the governor. Arrested and charged with libel, Zenger gloated over his acquittal in the distinctively personal voice of the blogo-sphere: "The jury returned in Ten Minutes," he wrote on the Journal's front page, "and found me Not Guilty."
A century later, Horace Greeley's New York Tribune and Joseph Medill's Chicago Tribune reflected the daily whims, wobbles and wild ideas of their proprietors just as faithfully as any blog. Well into the early 20th century, America's newspapers wore the politics and personalities of their owners with cheerful candor: The dailies of William Randolph Hearst were equal parts supermarket tabloid and political Web log.
The point here: Blogging is an old craft recently made new by technology. Which is only fair, because it was technology that quieted the bloggers of old. Mass "mainstream" media arose thanks to the original wireless -- the radio. Before that, cities supported a wide variety of newspapers, each with a distinctive niche and bias. Then television came along on a broadcast band so narrow that only a handful of stations were licensed in each city.
These stations were quickly tied together into networks by the already dominant figures of radio--David Sarnoff of NBC (which spawned ABC) and William Paley of CBS. These networks immediately felt pressure to serve huge national audiences, so they moved to eliminate sources of controversy and signs of personality from their reports. As the evening broadcasts killed off afternoon newspapers from coast to coast, a.m. papers adopted the same goal of impersonal, unbiased, reporting for their ever-broader readership. Thus, an idea that would have struck Zenger, or Greeley or the young Hearst as madness -- the notion of "objective" journalism -- became the paramount goal of America's editors.
A generation after these changes were completed, the whole thing is shaky. Paley's edifice, CBS, can be discombobulated by a blog called Little Green Footballs. That's the site that smelled something fishy about purported National Guard memos deployed by anchorman Dan Rather. Technology no longer favors the big guys; the limits of the broadcast band are irrelevant in the age of cable and the Internet. And the once fat and happy morning papers are being forced to relearn the virtues of speed and verve.
"I think this could be a great thing for democracy," O'Brien says confidently over dinner at the Palm, as Newmark nods along. "For so long, our political discussion has been packaged from the top down. The great thing about the blogosphere is that it's a big conversation. We write, people comment, other people comment on the comments -- it's like a vast salon."
Munching sandwiches on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol . . .
Between bites, the two bloggers argue over the personal merits of President Bush. "If he wasn't born into that family he would be an assistant manager at Wal-Mart," says O'Brien.
Newmark shakes her head sadly.
How about oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska? "I'm for it!" Newmark volunteers, recalling that once upon a time, environmentalists fretted about the effect of an oil pipeline in Alaska on caribou herds. "Now I've read descriptions of the caribou almost snuggling up to the pipeline on cold nights."
How about the future of the Supreme Court?
"Terrifying," O'Brien declares, especially because she thinks Bush might want to elevate Antonin Scalia to chief justice. "He believes the authority of government comes from God," she says. "That's not what we believe as a nation."
"Au contraire," counters Newmark. "That is so in keeping with the spirit of the Enlightenment and John Locke."
"No," O'Brien insists. "Government takes its powers from the consent of the governed, and not" -- here she begins waggling her fingers at the sky -- "from God."
Maybe it's a coincidence, but the sky begins to grow really dark. As the rain approaches, the bloggers decide to skip quickly over the abortion issue -- not much new to say there -- and move their sightseeing indoors. We hail a taxi.
Inside the National Museum of American History, Newmark leads the way past the Hall of Presidents to an exhibit on Americans at war. Noticing an enlarged image of the Declaration of Independence, she says, "Look at this!" There is triumph in her voice. She gestures to the opening lines of the document, in which Jefferson rests his argument on "the laws of Nature and of Nature's God."
But if she's hoping for an argument, it doesn't come; O'Brien simply shrugs. Instead, after a long day of disagreements, the two women find themselves laughing together at some of the items on display. An old woodcut portrays the tar-and-feathering of British customs officer John Malcomb in 1774. "That's worse than being flamed on the Internet!" says Newmark.
They move next to a drawing of the Boston Massacre. "Five dead in a riot, and they call it a 'massacre,'" Newmark observes. "Paul Revere and Samuel Adams -- masters of propaganda!"
Watching them stroll through the darkened galleries, you can't help but notice how much the two women have in common. They're roughly the same age, about the same height, generally the same weight, have the same number of children. They both grew up in the Midwest, love politics and history, drink Diet Dr Pepper. They both love their country, and they both believe that the communities being built in the blogo-sphere can make that country stronger.
The exhibit sweeps swiftly over the entire range of U.S. conflicts, yet the centuries of grand and gruesome disputes go by without stirring a ripple of argument between them. Whisky taxes, the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Second Bank of the United States, tariffs, the nullification crisis, the Mexican-American War, the Wilmot Proviso, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Hayes-Tilden, free silver, women's suffrage, the Maine, the League of Nations, Prohibition, court packing, America First, McCarthy . . .
. . . so many pitched battles in America's past, all waged in their day with passion and invective worthy of the angriest bloggers, all marred by misleading arguments and devolving into dialogues of the deaf, all bitterly divisive -- alienating friends and separating families . . .
. . . all these disputes pass with nary a cross word spoken between these dedicated duelists, these archetypal arguers, Barbara O'Brien and Betsy Newmark. They even discover a mutual admiration for the good character and military genius of a man who was once among the most polarizing figures in our history, Ulysses S. Grant.
So, when we note that it's pretty ugly sometimes in the blogosphere, and when we observe that this country always seems to be arguing about something, it's worth adding that even the sharpest divisions tend to smooth out under the steady current of time. The culture of argument may not be ideal, but it's ours, and it beats certain alternatives. The roisterous, partisan, often mean-spirited world of the political blogs is not threatening America; for better and for worse, this is America. In the last gallery of the exhibit is a display representing Americans in Vietnam. For people the ages of Newmark and O'Brien, the history lesson is over, and here they return to their own lives. Vietnam remains in the catalogue of unresolved issues, and thus invites fresh argument.
As Newmark rounds the corner and sees an open helicopter, the dominoes of debate fall rapidly in her head. "I don't think that Iraq is another Vietnam," she declares preemptively. "No war is another war. North Vietnam was being supported by a rival superpower."
You won't be surprised to learn that Barbara O'Brien wishes to disagree.
David Von Drehle is a staff writer for the Magazine. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.