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The unchangeable Marjorie Taylor Greene

There was never a new Greene. There were only credulous political reporters

The conventions of political journalism suggest that politicians are in constant flux. Usually, they are not, Shapiro writes. Above, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene yells during last week’s State of the Union.
The conventions of political journalism suggest that politicians are in constant flux. Usually, they are not, Shapiro writes. Above, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene yells during last week’s State of the Union. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

There are three groups with infinite faith in the capacity of people to change their behavior in midlife: shrinks, advice columnists and political reporters. 

During the House speaker’s race, GOP incendiaries such as Lauren Boebert and Matt Gaetz refused to vote for Kevin McCarthy on all 15 ballots. In contrast, Marjorie Taylor Greene shrewdly allied herself early with McCarthy, lobbying to the end to win over her fellow Republican firebrands. 

That strategic gambit was enough to inspire The Washington Post, The New York Times and other news outlets to suspend disbelief in January as they discovered Greene’s newfound political maturity.

The Post story claimed, “Greene’s evolution was part of a deliberate effort that began during her turbulent first term in Congress.” (Evolution, by the way, is a key word in these journalistic chronicles of sudden, surprising growth.)

The Times, for its part, stressed Greene’s political clout with McCarthy in “a relationship born of political expediency but fueled by a genuine camaraderie.” The article went on to describe Greene’s “outsize role as a policy adviser to Mr. McCarthy, who has little in the way of fixed ideology of his own.” 

The supposed remaking of Marjorie Taylor Greene ended abruptly last week as the esteemed policy adviser to the House speaker heckled Joe Biden during his State of the Union address, screaming that the president was a “liar.”

Of course, Greene could have been playing to her passionate donor base as she acted out her frenzied opposition to Biden on the House floor. 

But these performance skills do not explain why Greene also went ballistic, reportedly shouting epithets, during a classified briefing last week on the Chinese spy balloon. Since the balloon briefing was behind closed doors, there was no audience at home for Greene to impress with her out-of-control rage.

A reasonable assessment, a month after the speaker vote, would conclude that Greene is as deranged as ever. And, also, that it is a reflection of McCarthy’s spineless weakness that Greene has any clout at all. 

While the journalistic reinvention of Greene may be an extreme case, it also reflects a long history of political reporters buying into ludicrous narratives of change and growth along the corridors of power. 

As vice president and then during his 1960 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon was portrayed as a partisan hatchet man who would say anything for political advantage. Legendary Washington Post cartoonist Herblock repeatedly depicted Nixon emerging from the sewer covered in muck. 

But during the 1968 presidential campaign, reporters were smitten with the emergence of a “New Nixon,” a mature, statesmanlike figure who had outgrown the McCarthy-esque tactics of his political youth. 

That rebranding helped Nixon win the White House in 1968. But even before Watergate, the Old Nixon set into motion the 1971 break-in at the office of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers. 

There was never a New Nixon. There were only new credulous political reporters. 

In the Bill Clinton White House, there was a widespread belief that the philandering president had cleaned up his act. That theory lasted until the 1998 disclosure of the story about the president’s involvement with a White House intern. 

Suddenly, we were back to the same Bill Clinton we had seen in the 1992 primaries, stubbornly and unconvincingly denying that he had an affair with Gennifer Flowers. 

Then, there were the serious people who convinced themselves that Donald Trump would become presidential once he moved into the Oval Office. Sitting there at the seat of power — in a room identified with Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan — would have to inspire Trump to change his irresponsible behavior. 

Well, we’re still waiting. 

The truth is that most people in public life, like most of your neighbors, exhibit far more continuity than change. You normally don’t think about how the people across the street or living down the hall have suddenly taken on a new public persona. 

But the conventions of political journalism suggest that politicians are in constant flux. The need to write a new story, with a fresh angle, creates an irresistible impulse to detect change and growth.  

In many cases, political aides are eager to feed the narrative about how their boss has matured in office. And, occasionally, these stories have a dollop of truth. But more often than not, what reporters are reacting to is a different wrapping around the same package.

True, politicians can outlast a shopworn story line. Few voters today know or remember that Joe Biden was hounded from the presidential race in 1987 by a flagrant act of political plagiarism. 

In an Iowa Democratic debate, the 44-year-old Delaware senator stole the words of British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. Biden, who had no family connection with mining or soccer, actually said, “My ancestors, who worked in the coal mines of Northeast Pennsylvania and would come up after 12 hours and play football for four hours.”

It seemed disqualifying in 1987. But more than 35 years later, that misstep has only the faintest connection with Biden’s record in the White House. 

Of course, Marjorie Taylor Greene is no Joe Biden. 

And maybe, after 20 or 30 years in Congress, Greene will learn that hurling epithets during the State of the Union address is no way to show respect for our democracy or to win converts. But until that blessed day arrives, I will remain dubious about how Greene has evolved in office. 

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 11 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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