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March 13, 2006

The James Q. Wilson Saga: A Coda

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

This is the most trivial issue ever, but if you read every blog comment I wrote in the last week, you would have seen me going absolutely bonkers on Monday as the "John Edwards doesn't recognize the name James. Q. Wilson" story ran its course through the internet.  The story was based on an interview with George Will -- specifically the following part, which I interpret in a radically different way from most people, it seems:

  The 1930s paradigm has been refuted by four decades of experience. The new paradigm is of behavior-driven poverty that results from individuals' nonmaterial deficits. It results from a scarcity of certain habits and mores -- punctuality, hygiene, industriousness, deferral of gratification, etc. -- that are not developed in disorganized homes.

Edwards, who does not recognize the name James Q. Wilson, may have missed this paradigm shift. Many people in public life, and almost all those with presidential ambitions, are too busy for the study and reflection necessary for mastering any subject.

That bit about Edwards not knowing Wilson's name seems like a mere figure of speech to me.  If you say that right-wing blogs haven't had a major effect on the media, some right-wing blogger might say of you, "JimPortlandOR doesn't recognize the name 'Dan Rather'.  Many liberals, and almost all those named 'Jim', don't ever think of our heroic struggle against the MSM."  Clearly you do recognize the name "Dan Rather", but the point is that you haven't drawn the conclusions from it that the right-winger wants.  Given the snarky-for-an-old-guy tone of the Will interview, this interpretation made sense. 

Michael Tomasky, however, interpreted the comment literally, spawning several posts on several blogs repeating his interpretation.  Not wanting my hero to get a reputation as an intellectual lightweight on poverty issues -- the guy has been going around and talking with lots of academics about poverty after losing the 2004 election, and occasionally refers to the less famous Wilson from sociology, William Julius -- I hit up several different comment threads with my interpretation of the above quote. 

On Thursday I got an email from Ezra, who had asked Edwards' staffers about it.  They didn't dispute Tomasky's interpretation of the story. I was embarrassed, and I accepted Tomasky's interpretation, posting apologies to various people whom I had defamed (mostly Tomasky) on various comment threads.  At the time, I hadn't even realized that Will had a phone interview with Edwards.  I habitually read him like I'd read another blogger -- I thought all the Edwards quotes in the piece were cobbled out of speeches and TV appearances, and it didn't occur to me that someone might base an article on a phone conversation with John Edwards, without explicitly mentioning that he had a phone conversation with Edwards.  In any case, the entire issue now fills my soul with leaden fatigue.  I don't know if I'll be able to finish this post. 

Now new evidence has arisen, in the form of this interview from my old hometown paper, the Nuisance and Disturber, which lib_dem at the Edwards blog alerted me to.  The N&O raises the issue:

Q: Back to George Will. He suggested that you did not recognize the name James Q. Wilson. Do you know who James Q. Wilson is?

A: Yes, he’s a conservative thinker, a smart guy. I don’t claim to have studied everything James Q. Wilson has done, but I do recognize the name.

Q: Did he ask you if you recognized the name?

A: I don’t remember.

At this point, I'm completely agnostic on the question of whether Edwards recognized Wilson's name at the time. Clearly he knows the name now, but that could just be because of the

March 13, 2006 | Permalink

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This is the most trivial issue ever

Yes.

For some reason, I can't get the following scenario out of my head:
PHONE: BRRRNNG! BRRRRNG!
JOHN EDWARDS: Hi! This is John Edwards, and no I'm not the guy who talks to your dead relatives *chuckle* whose names begin with R...Q...S...B...G........
GEORGE WILL: This is George Will...
JOHN EDWARDS: Yes?
GEORGE WILL: (mutters) jamesqwilson
JOHN EDWARDS: What?
GEORGE WILL: Thank you! *click*

Bad sketch comedy aside, I don't care if Edwards knows who James Q. Wilson is. I doubt many people do. I don't even really think Tomasky cares all that much. He just wanted to profess some love for academic wonk. Good for him. (Either that, or Yglesias paid him to write it to give Yglesias a chance to mention that he went to Harvard. Again. I kid because I love.)

Wonky people love that Clinton was wonky. That's nice and all, but just because Clinton loved this stuff doesn't mean that every politician must to be successful. It's like saying to be a good President, you have to be a Rhodes scholar. Or a lawyer. Or from Arkansas.

A President must know the major issues, be able to process and understand new information, and be able to build concensus and direct action. None of this requires a knowledge of the works of James Q. Wilson.

Personally, I'd love to vote for a politician that didn't profess his love for Hootie and the Blowfish. But even if Edwards is the candidate, I'll deal. Our candidates don't have to have all the attributes that make us giggle with fangirl glee. Even if the Big Dog did. They just have to be good. And win.

Posted by: Royko | Mar 13, 2006 3:16:34 AM

Royko, that was funny. And right. Though I do have some of the fangirl glee thing going on.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Mar 13, 2006 3:45:47 AM

I think Edwards likes to give the impression he is not wonky (and perhaps for good reason); I've been at closed door meetings with him where he goes all wonky on me and others with his plethora of statistics and intricate details about everything from Palestine to that one program he was introduced to in connecticut regarding helping single mothers or... well, you get the idea.

I mean for crying out loud, the guy took part in knowledge bowl quizes in law school ... c'mon, Edwards is being a smart politician: not giving the impression of an intellectual know-it-all; before 92, Clinton rarely tried to bring out his wonky side in public. And I can see why.

I think anyone who thinks that Edwards might not be much into the wonky/intellectual stuff... is in for a surprise; I say that having met the guy in small settings at Harvard and Yale twice.

Also... well nevermind... I'm not going to ruin Edwards' strategy of trying to escape the Gore/Kerry image problem. The last thing he needs is to come across as a wonky trial lawyer (*yikes*)

Btw.... he was the youngest lawyer (at 37) to be inductead into the inner circle of advocates (100 best lawyers in the country)... go figure.

Regarding the McCain-Feingold reform bill:

"He (Edwards) studied the bill for a week and could've taught a college course on it." - Norman Orenstein, AEI.

I rest my case.

Posted by: Janereno | Mar 13, 2006 3:53:41 AM

But Neil, I DO know who Dan Rather is (and James Q Wilson too!).

heh heh heh [I must admit to being shocked to see my name in a post, especially at 12:45 AM PST on a Sunday night in cold, rainy Portland].

Anyone who trusts George Will to report, opine, or quote something without at least a partial rape of the truth doesn't know George Will. I 'know' George Will, and he's not a friend of mine (and I certainly don't want to even consider anyone knowing Will in the biblical sense, for sure).

As to the substance of Will's screed - behavior-driven poverty: isn't just about everything people do behavior driven?

Could not any 16-18th century aristocrat be expected to say something as morally debased as:

It results from a scarcity of certain habits and mores -- punctuality, hygiene, industriousness, deferral of gratification, etc. -- that are not developed in disorganized homes.

Will is just living in the wrong century (and doesn't even have a lordly title). So I confer upon Will the title he deserves: Asshole, First Class, with two oak leaf clusters.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Mar 13, 2006 3:56:32 AM

I think a lot of us have the fangirl glee thing going on for Edwards... I liked his presentation at the CFR taskforce.

Is it 2008 yet? Yawn.

Posted by: mark | Mar 13, 2006 3:57:56 AM

"Personally, I'd love to vote for a politician that didn't profess his love for Hootie and the Blowfish."

I always fear a Wes Clark Presidency with the attendant Journey-mania...

Posted by: Petey | Mar 13, 2006 5:17:42 AM

I think the key to understanding this is that Edwards came to politics relatively late in life.

In many ways, that's a feature, not a bug.

He's not incurious, but he's not going to have the encyclopedic knowledge of a lifelong political junkie.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 13, 2006 5:21:39 AM

Petey, you work for OAC or are you just carrying around their link? And, what does the "encylcopedic knowledge" of a lifelong political junkie consist of anyway? I don't think more than a couple of lifelong politicians sitting in the United States Senate and House of Representatives know who James Q. Wilson is... Edwards actually has more political knowledge than most politicians who've spent their life in Washignton, and I mean "intellectual" knowledge. He couldn't recall Wilson? Big Deal; Wilson is no test for any sort of knowledge.

When was the last time you heard a politician quote Dante? Well, I'd rather have Edwards talk about Dante as he did at my college campus a couple of years ago (with authority and fervor and knowledge) than delve into Wilson.

Posted by: jenny | Mar 13, 2006 7:40:12 AM

"Petey, you work for OAC or are you just carrying around their link?"

No affiliation. Just spamming the link. The more folks know about Johnny Sunshine, the more folks like him...

"Edwards actually has more political knowledge than most politicians who've spent their life in Washignton"

Yup. That's the thing I've taken away from Tomasky-gate. A certain strain of Democratic thought is resistant to the appeal of someone who comes late to formal politics but has great political gifts and instincts, and thus is well positioned to advance their agenda.

Democrats tend to want their Karl Rove and their candidate to be one and the same person. Republicans seem much more aware that there can be value in running candidates who haven't wanted to be President since they were 12.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 13, 2006 8:03:26 AM

You're not the first guy to flip over a pretty face, and then feel a little silly afterwards, Neil.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Mar 13, 2006 9:38:00 AM

"Clearly he knows the name now, but that could just be because of the..." of the what? Is there a way you can finish the post? I am deeply curious about the ending of that sentence.

BTW, who on Earth is James Q Wilson, and why should anyone be expected to know about him? Perhaps another post can give us a short bio, biblio and rundown on that mysterious person.

Posted by: coturnix | Mar 13, 2006 11:33:03 AM

"because of the brouhaha that surrounded the issue last week. These events could've caused Edwards to learn Wilson's name."

Wilson is a sociologist at UCLA who right-wingers often cite to defend their views on how to fight poverty. A smart and empirically-minded guy, but Ezra's post on him from TAPPED is probably the thing to read.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Mar 13, 2006 12:21:10 PM

I admit I googled James Q. Wilson after reading Will's column but before Tomansky's post and could have cared less that Edwards didn't know who he was.

The thing that did stick in my mind is how highly regarded he seems to be on the right and that his is co-author of the leading textbook for American Government which identifies him as a criminologist. A criminologist! Writing the most popular American Government textbook.

Now I have nothing against criminologists. In fact my best friend from college is in law enforcement but it kind of made me a little wary that a criminologist would be so influential in government circles since we are tend to see the world through filters of our own interests and experiences. If everything to a hammer is a nail, what are we to a criminologist?

--

Posted by: Emma Zahn | Mar 13, 2006 1:34:43 PM

Does George W. Bush recognize the name James Q. Wilson?

Posted by: Adrock | Mar 13, 2006 2:24:22 PM

Does George W. Bush recognize the name James Q. Wilson?

He didn't until he was asked to present Wilson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. By the Wilson-name-recognition standard then, Bush passes the test of having the encyclopedic knowledge about politics. Go figure.

Posted by: james | Mar 13, 2006 3:58:52 PM

I love Edwards' wonkiness, but I do think that his views on poverty are just a bit simplistic. Clinton had a much better grasp of poverty and it's causes, thus welfare reform.

Posted by: Adam Herman | Mar 17, 2006 7:10:55 AM

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Posted by: peterwei | Oct 22, 2007 7:07:15 AM

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