The Gospel According to Kass

John Kass’s Easter column revealed something I did not know. “Doubt sells,” he wrote in anguish, citing coverage of the “Judas gospel,” which apparently had newspapers going like hotcakes. “Casting nagging doubts must drive newsstand sales,” he mused, “or they wouldn’t do it.”

I’m a doubter. Many of my friends are doubters. We read the papers, we trudge away from grave sites after tossing in our shovelfuls of earth, we wish, we hope, we doubt. The day we don’t will be the happiest day of our lives, and we don’t expect it to come.

So much doubt, and we’ve never made a penny off it. Kass made me feel like a fool. If doubt sells, I should be rich.

The Judas gospel really vexed Kass. “This gospel apparently expiates Judas’ guilt,” he wrote. “He can’t be a betrayer if he and Jesus were allegedly in the conspiracy together. Although early Christian bishops ignored that book, it is being offered, again during the Easter season, as an archeological find, as a goad.”

In Kass’s view, a good word for Judas Iscariot is as intolerable as one for George Ryan. But Kass is right to this extent: doubters–at least this one–welcomed news of the Judas gospel. Not because it would “goad”–I assume he means provoke–unquestioning Christians, but because it addressed one of those details that make us doubters, the eternal damnation of Christ’s betrayer. What if Judas had refused to cooperate and Christ hadn’t died for our sins? Doubters don’t ask because we’re mischievous. We hope against hope that someone will provide a considered answer.

It won’t be Kass. He says, “Some hands that reach for such stuff”–and by “such stuff” he means doubt-driven literature and journalism–“are thrilled, their own positions validated. Others who don’t reach are wounded, wondering why there is so much constant effort made to whittle at belief.”

No doubter is thrilled by fresh evidence of a godless universe. And our meager whittling at belief pales against the lacerations from horrors and tragedies too many and familiar to list. But if Kass ever seeks doubters for serious study he can find them at faith’s back door, pondering these horrors in the hope that sin and evil are, perversely, evidence of God. For what doubters share with the people of faith they admire most is the understanding that only in the whittling is genuine belief formed, emerging in its sturdy elegance from a dense block of wood.

But blocks of wood have their champions.

Why the Kids Don’t Read the Trib

The Tribune pondered its nature and purpose this month and got the response it had coming. On April 4 it ran an essay by deputy managing editor James Warren and attorney Thomas Geoghegan on a “crisis in America,” the lack of interest in newspapers among young American adults.

“If people don’t read papers, they generally won’t vote,” Warren and Geoghegan observed. “The crisis of the press here is a crisis of democracy too. . . . The under-30 young read far less, and vote far less–and according to their teachers, have fewer opinions.”

One week later the Tribune published a lighthearted editorial celebrating the paper’s role in delivering Illinois for Matthew Santos on The West Wing. It was the first time, the paper noted, that it had endorsed a Democrat, real or fictional, for president in 134 years.

It occurred to reader Colleen Fleming that these two essays should be read in conjunction. “Forgive me if I can’t take seriously a newspaper that is so wrapped up in its Republican bias that it boasts that it hasn’t endorsed a Democratic candidate since 1872,” said her letter published on April 15. “With newspapers like the Tribune wearing their biases on their sleeves and largely ignoring other issues that are important to youth readership, it’s no wonder that younger generations look elsewhere for their information.”

Other letters that day echoed Fleming. Mike Perricone wrote, “You conclude that you haven’t endorsed a (real) Democrat for president since 1872, a span encompassing Alf Landon and Barry Goldwater. Perhaps it’s time to wake up to reality for 2008. Given how long you’ve been asleep, you should start waking up now.”

John Ahern added, “That kind of simple-minded editorial stance is not something I would exactly trumpet.”

There’s nothing wrong with the Tribune chuckling at its history–it beats cringing in shame. But it’s history the Tribune needs to put in the past. Consider its recent choices for governor, another office it believes only Republicans should hold. Four years ago it endorsed Jim Ryan, though in 1995 the same editorial page had declared that no one involved in the prosecution of Rolando Cruz–which Ryan led–“deserves ever again to enjoy a position of public honor or trust.” Four years earlier the Tribune endorsed George Ryan for governor, though the “ongoing scandal” in Ryan’s secretary of state’s office was “deeply troubling” and his Democratic opponent, Glenn Poshard, was “thoughtful, engaging and honest.”

The Tribune’s lead editorial this Tuesday was headlined “George Ryan, convicted felon.” It recalled the 1994 catastrophe, when six of the children of Duane and Janet Willis died in a highway accident caused by a steel bracket falling off the dilapidated rig of “illicit” trucker Ricardo Guzman. It recalled Ryan’s angry insistence that Guzman had been legally licensed by Ryan’s secretary of state’s office. And it recalled election day 1998, when Ryan was elected governor “on the strength of that lie.”

Alongside the editorial was a cartoon. Six tombstones bore the names of the Willis children, and from one came word, “He’s guilty. Pass it on . . .”

But when a pro-Poshard ad in 1998 tried to link Ryan with those deaths, the Tribune editorial page cried out, “Blame him for those deaths? This is about as cruel as politics can get.” It told Poshard “to examine his conscience.”

I’ve argued that the Tribune’s knee-jerk endorsements serve a function: they make the strongest case for the Republican there is to make, for what that’s worth. But it’s a strained argument. Fleming, Perricone, and Ahern made a better one. They told the Tribune to grow up.

Practice Makes Perfect

“I have a message to get out,” said the president.

“A leakable message?” asked the young aide.

The president didn’t know exactly who this young aide was. He knew he worked for somebody. Maybe himself. Maybe the vice president. That’s how the president wanted it. Deniability, the vice president had said, but that was a vulgar word, and the president didn’t use it.

“It’s a darned good message,” said the president to himself out loud. “When the people hear it they’ll love me the way they used to.” He picked up the phone and called his wife, who was in the next room.

“Hi, honey,” he said. “Did you hear about Iran?”

She’d just read the New Yorker story where Seymour Hersh says her husband is making plans to maybe drop some nukes and his generals think he’s insane.

“All he got right were the facts,” said the president. “Here’s what the public doesn’t understand–yet.” He winked at the aide. “See, I had Iran figured five years ago. That is, I figured it out. So I sent the army into Iraq. To get some experience. It was my first preemptive war of liberation, so naturally mistakes were made. The point is, America learns from its mistakes. It’s called learning from your mistakes. Like Rummy says, ‘Stuff happens.’ We learned from all that stuff.

“But now it’s time to wrap up Operation Spring Training–that’s what I’m going to call it. Our high-spirited, battle-hardened troops know better than any army on earth how to invade a Middle Eastern country, search for weapons of mass destruction, liberate the good people who live there and kill the insurgents we run into and set it on the road to democracy. So let me say this to what’s his name in Iran, Let’s tee it up and play some hardball. And this time we’re keeping score. Honey, did you know Iran is next door to Iraq? Could anything be more convenient?”

The president held the receiver well away from his ear as his wife made a few remarks. He replied, “I think the American people will be just fine with the idea Iraq was a practice game and doesn’t count. That’s what a Democrat would say–if we pull out now we’re inviting total chaos. But those self-loathing tax-and-spend quagmire lovers are out of step with the nation.”

He paused again while she spoke.

“Honey bun,” he said, “don’t you see that as soon as we attack Iran, going into Iraq first will make perfect sense? Put down that New Yorker and watch Fox. They always get the message.”

News Bite

The Tribune has officially reassigned critics whose responsibilities changed months ago. Michael Phillips is now formally the lead movie critic and Chris Jones finally the theater critic. Michael Wilmington remains a movie critic, but his “new responsibilities,” as deputy managing editor James Warren put it, are “covering the grow-ing world of movies on DVD” and writing more frequent Sunday essays. The Tribune will continue to manage with-out a formal TV critic, but Maureen Ryan is now the television reporter. In actual changes, Allison Benedikt was given the “temporary” assignment of also writing about TV, and Jessica Reaves will play an “enhanced role in reviewing movies.” Sid Smith turns from TV to theater and dance.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mark Blade.