How I Went from Media Hound to Camera Shy: Rudy Giuliani Becomes Greta Garbo

by Neil H. Buchanan

The debt ceiling mess is looking more and more likely to cause an epic catastrophe, which means that only adults should be in the room trying to fix the problem.  More generally, it also means that the media and political leaders should be seeking out and listening to people who know what they are talking about.  Instead, we have now reached the point where anyone with a laptop or a camera thinks they should share their half-baked idea about an issue that is not -- or at least should not be -- a subject for hot-takes and gut feelings.  As things become more dire, then, the public discussion has if anything become even less helpful.  As a result, the likely upcoming course of events could be disastrous.

One particularly worrying aspect of this bad turn is that President Biden's advisors and other people with his ear appear to be appealing to his inherently cautious nature, telling him to do the safe thing rather than follow the advice of people like Professor Dorf and me when we tell him that he should take decisive action to neutralize the debt ceiling once and for all.  The problem with that "stay on the safe side" instinct is that the Republicans have manufactured a crisis that has never included any riskless options.  There are no "normal" moves in a completely abnormal situation.

Accordingly, we published another Buchanan-Dorf column yesterday on Verdict, where I then published a companion piece today.  In both, the point is to try to disabuse Biden and his team of the fantasy that there is a way to get through this without doing something dramatic.  If Biden and the Republicans do reach a deal this week, that would harm the economy right away and embolden Republicans to take hostages again next time (and the time after that, and ...).  Without a deal, there will only be two possibilities; (1) Biden pays the bills, even if the debt ceiling becomes binding; or (2) Biden doesn't pay the bills, causing the US to default for the first time in history.  That's the list.  Do you see anything "safe" there?

This column is not, however, dedicated to discussing the substance of the rolling disaster yet again.  Instead, I will address a question that is implied by my observation above that the entire debate has become polluted by insta-pundits.  How did we reach the point where knowledge and expertise do not matter on this issue -- just as it no longer matters to so many people on issues such as climate change, vaccines, and on and on?  The future of the global economy is at stake, to say nothing of the US constitutional system.  But hey, why not ask some professor or columnist who has not thought about the issue for more than five minutes what he thinks?  What could go wrong?

Earlier this month, the editors of The New York Times op-ed page ran he-said/he-said pieces about the debt ceiling from "a liberal" and "a conservative" on successive Sundays; and while the liberal ably channeled Buchanan-Dorf analysis (linking to one of our law review articles), the conservative's piece was simply embarrassing.  And that was a relative high point, as amazing as it is to say so.

Where are the actual experts in the public debate?  Who cares?  The only thing that news outlets care about is getting at least one quotable response from multiple sources.  The major talk shows have a serious Usual Suspects problem.  And political advisors jealously guard their access to the people in power.  No one has any interest in finding out whether there are experts who are not making stuff up as they go along.  Can anyone say whether this is an issue with multiple reasonable points of view or is instead like the "debate" over evolution?  Yes -- spoiler alert: it's the latter -- but no one seems to care.  No one, that is, except people who might genuinely care to get one of the most consequential challenges in their lifetimes right.  But how many of those people are there?

Apparently, almost none.  We are thus left with a clown show of people who assume that this cannot be all that difficult, so why not do what we have always done?  Again, what could go wrong?

Even the most casual readers of Dorf on Law know that I am speaking very personally here.  Professor Dorf and I are in the rare position of being literally -- and yes, I do mean literally -- the only two scholars who have engaged in serious, deep, extended analysis of these issues.  Less than a handful of other scholars have produced academic articles (no more than one article from each of them) addressing one or another narrow question about the debt ceiling (its historical roots, whether the Steel Seizure case is possibly relevant, or other somewhat interesting ancillary questions), but there is no one who has engaged with our work on anything remotely resembling a sustained or serious basis.

All the way back in October of 2013, Professor Dorf wrote a column here on Dorf on Law lamenting the lack of engagement with our arguments.  This was shortly after we made a joint appearance at Columbia Law School, to which we had been invited by the students on the Columbia Law Review to discuss their publication of the first of what turned out to be four articles by us.  Notably, during the Q&A, a professor from another law school (who is generally a friendly guy) asked us a question, but when I started to talk about how no one had even tried to engage with our work, he interrupted me and said in a condescending, mocking tone: "Oh, yes, poor Neil, no one takes you seriously!"  He might as well have added, "Boo hoo!!"

Why is that worth mentioning here?  After all, academics can be notably prickly and even outright rude, so we are all forced to grow thicker skins.  But the point is that my complaint -- that there are two people who actually have done the work, drawn well supported conclusions, and stand ready to engage honestly with informed counter-arguments -- was dismissed as nothing more than a personal grievance.  I wanted our ideas to be widely noted, but I was being accused of wanting myself to be widely lauded.

And that brings me to the title of this column.  Even before the debt ceiling took over so much of my intellectual life, I understood that my employers -- universities all -- valued getting their professors quoted and noticed in the media.  Guest columns in The New York Times are the most highly prized, and the hierarchy of media outlets is as well understood as the hierarchy of law schools.  There are, therefore, professional incentives for professors to try to "get your name out there."

On a personal level, that can be exciting.  Telling friends and family about being interviewed on CNBC or by ABC News gets everyone's attention at holiday dinners.  Similarly, when I first moved to Washington, DC, I was invited to testify in front of the House Ways & Means Committee.  (It was a last-minute thing, and their usual invitees were unavailable.)  Having grown up in a small suburb of Toledo, Ohio, this was heady stuff.  The problem is that it was immediately clear that those hearings are merely performance art, at best.  Even so, I did maintain some naive hope and tried to use my minimal connections to House staff to testify again during the debt ceiling showdowns in the early 2010's.  But again, they had their list of usual suspects.  Did it matter that none of those repeat players knew what they were talking about?  Of course not.

Even so, both Professor Dorf and I have spent quite a bit of time over the years responding to media requests, at least in part because we understand that it takes a lot of repetition to break through the noise.  For a long time, I talked with every reporter who contacted me, no matter how small or local the outlet, and I made myself available for on-camera interviews whenever asked.  Unlike testifying before Congress, where it was immediately obvious that it was all a farce, it took some time for the pointlessness of being available to the media became clear.  But boy oh boy, does that stuff get old!

Back in January of this year, when the US formally hit the debt ceiling and the Treasury began again to use so-called extraordinary measures to extend the drop-dead date, there was a flurry of media interest from outlets large and small, but I only responded to one or two of them.  At the time, I told myself that my lack of interest was based on the fact that what was happening at that moment was a non-event, which meant that I would perk up when the real deadline hit at some later point.

Having now reached that point, all I can say is: yecchhhh.  Yes, I have given a few more interviews than before, and predictably, it has almost never turned out well.  I took special notice of my current frame of mind when two different outlets wanted me to participate in mini-debates, which should have appealed to my lizard brain's instincts from high school and college debating.  In both cases, however, I declined.  (I later found out that one of the invitations would have had me debating "the conservative" of recent NYT infamy, see above, which would have been more annoying than amusing.)

When the other NYT op-ed that I noted above linked to one of the Buchanan-Dorf articles but did not name us, my initial surprise turned quickly to relief, because I realized that I had been spared a frenzy of media requests for comment (almost all of which would have garbled my responses).  If I could summon up hope that it would be possible to break through the clamor, maybe I would have felt differently, but it has become a depressing grind.

Why, then, continue to write about this issue -- and to write soooo much?  On its own terms, it presents a surprisingly fascinating set of questions.  In addition, writing is much more satisfying than being interviewed.  And yes, I maintain a tiny sliver of hope that somehow, something might one day matter.  I am not betting on it, however.

There is an all-purpose line about people who are notably aggressive about getting their faces on camera: "The most dangerous place in the world to stand is between ____ and a TV camera."  I first heard that applied to the baseball player Gary Carter in the 1980's, but I have also heard the quip told with Senator Chuck Schumer's name inserted in the blank.  Most recently, the obvious example is Rudy Giuliani, whose pathetic media-hungry existence perversely commands our attention.

I was never in that category, but as I described above, I did spend many years thinking that it would probably be a good thing to try to maximize media appearances, especially to explain the debt ceiling -- a topic that has the highest of stakes but that has almost nothing but poseurs dominating the public discussion.  But now, channeling Greta Garbo, I vant to be alone.