Off the Record

Despite war, terror and economic anxiety, the late-summer stretch of the Presidential campaign has kept turning to more esoteric questions: Where is the border between Vietnam and Cambodia? Who does the Iraqi soccer team support?

And now: What’s the difference between Madison Square Garden and the inside of Lewis Lapham’s skull?

Mr. Lapham, the editor of Harper’s , put his stamp on the coverage of the Republican National Convention last week with a self-written cover story on “the Republican Propaganda Mill.” The G.O.P. gathering in New York, Mr. Lapham reported, illustrated the far-reaching effects of the right wing’s message machinery.

“The speeches in Madison Square Garden,” he wrote, “affirmed the great truths now routinely preached from the pulpits of Fox News and The Wall Street Journal … and while listening to the hollow rattle of the rhetorical brass and tin, I remembered the question that [Richard] Hofstadter didn’t stay to answer.”

Speaking of hollow …. “I thought, ‘Wait, we haven’t had the convention yet,'” said Jacob Sullum, a senior editor at Reason magazine.

“It’s not a closely observed reality,” Mr. Lapham said on the phone, in defense of his pre-convention convention coverage. That was an understatement. Like now-departed New York Times man Rick Bragg plying the coastal waters of Florida from afar, Mr. Lapham apparently trusted he could conjure the convention without the trouble of witnessing it.

After Mr. Sullum flagged the irregularity on Reason ‘s Web site, Mr. Lapham issued an oddly worded online apology-saying he’d failed as editor by not better policing the verb tenses of “the author,” i.e., himself. The mix of first-person plural and third person enabled Mr. Lapham to present his deeds as a “mistake” in the editorial process (“mix[ing] up his tenses in manuscript”), rather than authorial fabrication.

“It’s a dumb mistake that I made as editor,” he said.

Mr. Sullum was not satisfied by the explanation. “It’s telling that he feels that he doesn’t need to listen to speeches in order to criticize them, because his underlying thesis is that George Bush is the ideological heir to Barry Goldwater,” Mr. Sullum said.

Given the Iraq war, the Medicare drug plan and the administration’s emphasis on education, Mr. Sullum said, it’s “not a foregone conclusion” that the platform speeches will call for diminished government power, as Mr. Lapham predicted.

“A lot of conservatives are disappointed with Bush,” Mr. Sullum said. “People like Lapham don’t acknowledge that at all.”

Still, even for a professional opinion writer, Mr. Lapham has been notably immune to outside stimuli, his monthly commentaries for Harper’s seeming to issue from a wax-encased one-man echo chamber. “I can’t understand a word he writes,” said argument-journalist-at-large Michael Kinsley, currently running The Los Angeles Times editorial page.

Mr. Lapham’s convention coverage, though, raises questions for the other opinion writers out there, who are striving to cover the Republican National Convention by more accepted methods: How are they going to do better? And why should anyone care?

If the Democratic National Convention in Boston was a Sahara for the commentary business, offering no news but John Kerry’s putatively make-or-break acceptance speech, then this Republican National Convention is the moon. There’s not even anything to breathe.

“The story line does not seem about to be changing in any way,” said The New York Times ‘ Frank Rich. “[Mr. Bush’s] whole modus operandi is, I won’t change the story line.”

The prospect of Chicago-in-’68 chaos, Mr. Rich said, had given the press something to think about in the run-up to the convention. “Everyone from a news point of view was licking their lips,” he said.

Sunday’s mass march went off peacefully, however. There may have been undesirable elements at large-Off the Record spotted Canadians and anarchists, back to back, waving their respective flags-but they were too well behaved to foster scandal.

“It reminded me in a way of the Y2K buildup,” Mr. Rich said.

And if an Al Qaeda attack remained as likely or unlikely as ever, it also remained immune to discussion: veiled by ignorance and tastefulness, and screened behind a wall of cops.

That left nothing on the horizon but a bunch of speeches-by people who’ve already given plenty of speeches before.

“We know Bush as a speaker now,” Mr. Rich said. “We don’t expect him to suddenly turn into Martin Luther King.”

So what’s left for the pundit class to do at the convention? “We’re doing a terrific job of downing free cocktails,” said Mr. Rich, “and schmoozing with our friends and disdaining everything that comes in our path.”

And they’re struggling to identify any of their colleagues, especially on the liberal side, who might qualify as must-reads this week. Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review , took a more optimistic view of the meaningfulness of the conventions. “Well, you always learn something about the parties and the candidates,” Mr. Lowry said, as he greeted well-wishers just inside the door of his magazine’s Monday party at the Turtle Bay Grill and Lounge.

Such as? “Can we grab the mantle from Kerry of a substantive, change-oriented candidate?” Mr. Lowry asked.

After Bush’s speech, who would Mr. Lowry be waking up Friday morning eager to read? “In terms of liberal critics … ,” Mr. Lowry pondered the subject and shook a few more hands. Bloggers, he concluded.

“I’ll look the next day at Josh Marshall or-Andrew Sullivan is more on the right, but certainly not a traditional conservative,” Mr. Lowry said.

“Me?” said Mr. Marshall, author of Talkingpointsmemo.com, when told of Mr. Lowry’s endorsement.

Mr. Marshall was not entirely sure what he would be looking for at the convention. A month ago, he said, the question might have been “whether these guys are starting to panic.” Now that Mr. Bush’s position appears to have somewhat stabilized, Mr. Marshall said, “the stakes aren’t quite the same.”

In lieu of tracking big shifts in symbolic momentum on the New York stage, the press has been keeping its eye on daily poll updates from the expected battleground states. And what columnists are interpreting the convention for readers out there?

“Tomorrow we’ll have Cal Thomas and E. J. Dionne,” said Eric Mink, opinion editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch .

Mr. Mink was not inclined to claim that his paper’s carefully paired tandems of syndicated commentators-one liberal, one conservative, six days a week-would be swinging the undecided voters of Missouri through sheer force of argument. There is, he said, “a separation between what we run and what influences the people who are reading it.”

“All of us in the media tend to be sort of enthralled with politics,” Mr. Mink said. “We’re not writing and publishing and broadcasting for each other.”

The convention-punditry situation evidently looked even less bleak from the West Coast. On the phone from Seattle, Mr. Kinsley conceded that there may be a “weariness of commentary in general,” but affirmed his faith in written analysis.

“I think it’s still scintillating, but I gather fewer and fewer people agree with me,” Mr. Kinsley said.

And-save for recusing himself from discussing his own opinion-page stable-Mr. Kinsley had no hesitation in naming which writers he’d be counting on this week. “Maureen Dowd,” Mr. Kinsley said. “This is a perfect subject for her …. All the New York Times columnists.”

“You may be giving up too soon,” he said. “There’s plenty of stories there.”

David Brooks Knowledge Watch:

Being an expert on the entire red-and-blue quilt of the American experience, as The New York Times ‘ David Brooks aims to do, is a big responsibility. So Off the Record hopes to help keep track of whatever loose threads-the price of a Red Lobster dinner, the geographical distribution of bookstores-may elude Mr. Brooks.

On Sunday, in The Times Magazine , Mr. Brooks presented his cover-length vision of a future political philosophy of “strong-government conservatism.” The piece opened with his memories of the cavalcade of diversity at the 2000 Republican National Convention. “I remember joking that with all the whites in the audience and all the minority performers onstage, the whole thing looked like a Utah Jazz basketball game,” Mr. Brooks wrote.

Airrrr-balllll! Republicans stacking their lineup with people of color is one thing. The Utah Jazz doing it is another. The 1999-2000 Jazz, in keeping with the team’s pale-faced tradition, featured three white starters-point guard John Stockton, shooting guard Jeff Hornacek and center Greg Ostertag.

Correction:

Airrrr-balllll! Last week, Off the Record blew a pair of lay-ups, misspelling the name of police spokesperson Paul Browne and mangling the byline of writer Mark Jacobs. The two do not spell their names like those of N.F.L. legend Paul Brown and fashion designer Marc Jacobs, respectively. Off the Record regrets the errors.