Entry from November 4, 2008

Well, which is it? David Broder of the Washington Post says that it was “the best campaign I”ve ever covered” — better, even, than his first, which was 1960. That election, you may remember, issued in the presidency of John F. Kennedy, a fact which may not be unconnected with Mr Broder’s fond recall of it. Just guessing. Similarly, I’m guessing that it is partly the expectation of an (at least) equally charismatic President Obama as its product which makes the campaign of 2008 an even happier one for him. Yet his is avowedly the valuation of a journalist who loves a story. What he claims he finds so good about this campaign is the drama: “What a show it has been,” he enthuses. Just so. But viewed as politics rather than theatre, I think it has left something to be desired.

That is also the opinion of Greg Sheridan of The Australian, who finds that “this has been the worst US presidential campaign I”ve ever seen. Vacuous, fatuous, misleading, dishonest, trivial, at times unhinged in its disconnect from reality.” Steady on there, mate! And yet it is hard to gainsay his belief that “this election marks the triumph of celebrity as the essential organising principle of US politics.” Mr Sheridan sees it all as a show too, but not in a good way. “This is American politics as American Idol,” he writes. You know the one he means: the show where the audience feels empowered by being invited to elect its own celebrities.

Barack Obama is the first pure celebrity presidential candidate. He is a superior celebrity, superbly in control of himself, masterful at presentation, effortlessly detached, as the best celebrities are, from the controversies that swirl around him. Consider the arc of Obama’s presidential rise. He was introduced by Oprah Winfrey on her non-political talk show. She is a clever woman, Winfrey, and she, before almost anyone else, saw Obama’s crossover potential as a figure in her world — confessional celebrity psycho-babble — and the world of electoral politics.

Yeah, well. That kind of analysis may play in Australia, but the fact that we have to go to the Antipodes to hear anyone in the media chorus saying anything like it is just one indication of the fact that celebrity politics is now taken for granted in America. A friend tells me that the stock market has already discounted an Obama victory. Whether that’s true or not, the American electorate has pretty clearly discounted the inevitable and, I believe, grievous losses to be expected from the new celebrity politics. Even John McCain, after his early sallies against Paris Hilton and Britney Spears hasn’t bothered to pursue the matter any further. Rather, he decided to jump on the celebrity bandwagon himself by picking Sarah Palin as his running mate. I love Sarah Palin and think she would be a great president. Certainly better than Barack Obama and probably better than John McCain. But I don’t think that’s why he picked her.

As for “vacuous, fatuous, misleading, dishonest, trivial, at times unhinged in its disconnect from reality,” just consider the Obama radio commercial they kept playing over and over again in the closing days of the campaign. In it, the candidate himself tells us that the question is not, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” The real question, insists, is, this: “Are you going to be better off four years from now?” No, Barack, that’s the unreal question. That is the question the answer to which is, literally, unknowable and reserved to airy speculation. Neither “hope” nor “change” supplies the answer, even supposing you know better than we do what those words mean in practical terms. Yet this insistence on the unreal question is very far from being the only unreal aspect of the campaign. In fact, the whole thing has been, as Mr Sheridan points out, an exercise in unreality.

What do either of the candidates stand for? Health, wealth, security and happiness for all without cost. “Rescuing” the middle class from — what? And imaginary Great Depression. Healing. Oh, and non-partisanship. I shake my head in astonishment. Why has no one thought of all this before? Oh, right. Reality. But no one cares about reality anymore. The commercial — or is it another one? — goes on to inveigh against “special interests,” as if the interests that back Senator Obama are not special too, and “mindless partisanship,” like that of the Republicans (he’s talking about you, Karl Rove!) “who would divide the country just to win an election.” What is an election but a division of the country? Isn’t Senator Obama also seeking to divide the country, only with the bigger portion of its voters and their representatives on his side of the division?

But that’s the politics of celebrity for you. By its very nature, and by its association with emotion and popular therapeutic assumptions about the world, it reduces complex political problems to a simple-minded moral drama featuring the forces of good and the forces of evil. And the media have swallowed it all hook, line and sinker — on the grounds that George W. Bush is, of all things, a “polarizing figure”! Well, let’s hope we can all enjoy the show that is to come as much as David Broder did the show that has brought us to this point.


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