Entry from March 26, 2009

Well, you might as well go ahead and be frank about it as The Politico did about the President’s televised press conference on Tuesday evening. The headline to their article by John F. Harris and Jonathan Martin yesterday read: “What Obama said and what he meant.” Their view was that the President’s “responses were typically variations on a single-word theme: Whatever” — which makes you wonder if they have spent much time at the press conferences of the preceding five or six presidents, or read any accounts of them, since the same could be said about most of them. Are Messrs Harris and Martin surprised about this? If so, they only have to look at their own headline, which will also tell them in advance what to make of the incumbent’s responses to today’s on-line Town Hall, during which he was supposed to have taken the questions of ordinary citizens — namely, more “Whatever.”

For the ordinary citizens could hardly have been expected to get more of substance out of the President than the journalists did. No presidents have given much more of an answer than “Whatever” to the questions of anybody, citizen or reporter, for decades. This is because they know that their answers will always be subject to the filter of interpretation imposed on them by the media. Whatever they say will be interpreted according to the media’s own political assumptions. That procedure is nicely condensed for us there in the promise of Politico’s headline to give us, first, what he said and, second, what he meant. It goes without saying that the two are distinct. Meanwhile, politicians, knowing that there is no hope of their being taken at their word, are forced to play the media’s game and make their answers as anodyne and banal as possible — in short, “Whatever” — so as to be incapable of interpretations of any adverse or politically damaging sort.

The difference between the words put in the President’s mouth now and when the President was George W. Bush is that, then, the interpretations were invariably made to discredit the speaker and now they are more often for the purpose of making him look as if he conforms more closely to the media’s fantasy of him as liberal champion than he really does. The forthright comments put in Mr Obama’s mouth by the Politico reporters are like those of Martin Sheen in “The West Wing” or the undiplomatic anti-American tirade of Hugh Grant’s fantasy British prime minister in the movie Love Actually. And their subtext is the same: “Oh, if only our hero would give our common enemies the sort of tongue-lashing we’d like to give them — and, in this little fantasy of our own, have given them.”

Here, for instance, is their version of the President’s reply to a question about the budget:

What he said: “At the end of the day, the best way to bring our deficit down in the long run is not with a budget that continues the very same policies that have led us to narrow prosperity and massive debt. It’s with a budget that leads to broad economic growth by moving from an era of borrow-and-spend to one where we save and invest.”

What he meant: There is no way I am going to lose the language wars in a budget battle. My budget may borrow more and spend more than any in history. But I am going to frame this plan with appeals that emphasize sobriety and responsibility. That may be a bit brazen, but no more so than Republicans who rubber-stamped huge deficits under Bush.

“A bit brazen?” Isn’t that an oxymoron? And, actually, it’s quite a lot more so than the Republicans, whose “huge deficits under Bush” never approached the trillions envisaged by our sober and responsible new president. Some forthrightness! Moreover, isn’t the Harris-Martin forthright concession that “my budget may borrow more and spend more than any in history” tantamount to saying that the President’s characterization of it as one “that leads to broad economic growth by moving from an era of borrow-and-spend to one where we save and invest” a lie?

Well, sure. But it’s only the kind of lie that the media have been encouraging politicians to tell for a generation, both because they believe in such bogus “investments” themselves and because they make sure that anything more honest would result in a political crucifixion by the media’s own gaffe-patrol and the opportunistic political opposition that relies on it. In the same way, President Bush was pilloried by the media for not admitting to any but trivial mistakes in lieu of his being pilloried by the media for any larger mistakes he might have been unwise enough to confess to at their urgings. The disingenuousness involved in pretending not to know this tells you all you need to know about our political and media culture today.

The question arises, now that their man is president, as to why, if the media would stand up and cheer a forthright answer instead of trying to twist it into something sinister, doesn’t President Obama give them one? Why is he as mealy-mouthed and evasive and mendacious as any of his predecessors, and maybe more so than most? Maybe it’s just habit. That’s the language in which politics in our time is conducted, and he hasn’t got enough imagination or guts to take the opportunity afforded him by the media’s ideological and personal sympathy with him and his policies to escape from its leaden influence. Or maybe he’s afraid that what the left-wing media did to President Bush the right-wing media, small and marginal though it be in comparison, will do to him, given the opportunity. That would explain his administration’s attacks on Rush Limbaugh, anyway.

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