This story was updated after Tuesday’s primary results.
Articles in the The Washington Post often draw hundreds of provocative, emphatic, critical comments online. Recently, the author of a Post Magazine cover story interviewed one of the people who had commented on his article.
A single word at the top of a story or in a headline can provoke us enough to color our understanding of an entire piece. I know that is true for me as a reader — and it was certainly the case for Jeff Talman when he read a profile I wrote for the magazine that carried this online headline: “The Vindication of Dennis Kucinich.” The subhead was: “When he ran for president, he was ridiculed and dismissed. It turns out he was the future of American politics.” Kucinich ended up losing Tuesday’s Democratic primary for governor of Ohio, and it wasn’t close; Richard Cordray crushed him by about 40 points. But as I argued in the piece, on both the left and right, his brand of populism is arguably winning the broader battle for control of the U.S. political debate.
Talman wrote a blistering comment that said in part: “Kucinich is no Democrat. As for the writer: how can Kucinich be ‘vindicated’ when he pays ongoing lip service to the worst president ever, criticized fellow Dems who wanted impeachment proceedings against Trump, but said that Obama had committed an ‘impeachable offense’?”
When I called Talman last month to talk it over, I asked him what annoyed him enough to want to post a comment. “I think it was just the one word,” Talman said. “Vindicated. To me that seemed strong. Like vindicated to who?” He added that vindication is a perception in the eye of a beholder and that I was making a huge presumption that many people feel that way about Kucinich. As we talked, I could see that Talman considered “vindication” a kind of compliment that Kucinich didn’t deserve.
I mentioned to Talman that I didn’t write the headline — how many times have you heard a writer plead that? — but that I liked it. I told him that I didn’t see “vindicated” as a value judgment, but merely as a statement of how things had unfolded in the world since Kucinich first ran for president in 2004: Many of his platform ideas (universal health care, free college, gay marriage) are now broadly accepted by Democrats, while some of his other core convictions (anti-interventionism, for instance) are now shared by some supporters of President Trump.
Talman wasn’t having it. “Vindicated to who?” he repeated. And what was my answer? Vindicated to history, perhaps. But whose history? After chatting with Talman, I could read the headline his way, too.
Talman, I learned, is a sound artist in New York. His sonic installations and ethereal soundscapes amplify or transpose background sounds that we normally can’t hear or don’t heed: the songs of birds, the resonance of a star, the ambient keening of the technology in an Apple store. Three new works involving the sun and the stars will premier this summer. In his work, a single vibration can overtake all the other vibrations. It occurred to me that, for him, something similar was happening with that word in the headline: “Vindication” was drowning out other information.
As we continued to talk, I realized that two more words were heavily influencing how Talman thought about the story: Donald Trump. Talman voted for Hillary Clinton. He liked Bernie Sanders a lot, but considered him “flawed,” “a one-trick pony.” He thought Clinton had her own flaws, but nothing compared with Trump. Talman’s strong feelings about Trump made “vindication” hard for him to concede to Kucinich. After losing his seat in Congress, after all, Kucinich had become a Fox News commentator. He’d used that platform to express support for certain positions advocated by Trump. To Talman, this was unpardonable. “Trump is a vile candidate, a vile president, a vile man,” he said. “To have Kucinich backing this monster in any way, it’s really hard to swallow.” My conversation with Talman made me think about how many discussions among friends, colleagues, family members and total strangers these days are hijacked by the fundamental question of where we stand on Trump.
A good headline is a bold distillation of what a story will deliver with more detail and nuance. I knew that associating a character like Dennis Kucinich with “vindication” would be provocative, but I thought it was honest, too. And yet, where the headline writers and I detected an elegant argument to be made about an ideological convergence embodied in Kucinich, Talman saw an unwarranted reward for a politician who was soft on Trump — a political apostasy that nothing could vindicate.
David Montgomery is a staff writer for the Post Magazine.