Entry from June 9, 2010

Nearly eight years ago, I wrote in The New Criterion about what I called “the aristocracy of feelings” — that is the media’s idea that democratic leaders should be expected to show their fitness to govern by a public display of feeling which they, the media, regarded as an infallible token of genuineness. Only certain feelings, were eligible, however. Sympathy — or, better, “empathy” — for the victims of the world or of its economic “system” was good, but anything resembling self-pity or helplessness was obviously a no-no. Excessive exuberance or enthusiasm like that of Howard Dean after the Iowa caucuses in 2004 was also very bad, but anger was almost always good. Indeed, anger was, in the media’s view, the master emotion of political leadership. A strong argument could be made that Michael Dukakis’s campaign for the presidency in 1988 was doomed by his failure to show anger in response to a question from the media about the hypothetical rape and murder of his wife.

That was a particularly telling example, because the media not only took it upon themselves to apply the “feelings” test to a prospective holder of national office but openly to arrogate to themselves the right to declare that he had failed it and was, therefore, ineligible. Oh, we went through with the formality of the election in which the people were given their chance to ratify the media’s judgment, as they duly did, but ever since the media have tended to act — and not entirely without reason — as if it had been their screening procedure, administered on behalf of similar assumptions about the importance of feelings among the American people, which decided who our 41st president was to be. Somewhat less persuasive was a similar claim about that President’s defeat four years later when an untimely glance at his watch during one of the media’s phony “debates” was supposed to have indicated a lack of compassion and empathy for the economically distressed.

The “feelings” test was never applied to President Barack Obama, anymore than it had been to John Kerry four years earlier. In both cases, the defeat of the Republican was considered too important a matter for the relative affectlessness of the Democratic candidate to be made an issue of. Instead, he was said to be “cool” and “unflappable”, “cerebral’ and “presidential.” Questions about the rape and murder of either Teresa Heinz Kerry or Michelle Obama would have been considered in the poorest of taste. Now, suddenly, as the Gulf oil spill has itself spilled over into a second month, the belated media chorus calling into question Mr Obama’s emotional qualifications for the presidency is once more being heard in the land. A breathless Brian Williams announced on Monday’s “NBC Nightly News” what he called “some late news tonight. Late today, Matt Lauer sat down with President Obama in Michigan for an interview to air tomorrow morning on ‘Today.’ This is just into us. In this bit you are about to see the President showed some anger on the topic of his handling of this spill so far.”

The media’s reluctance to criticize their darling was evident in Brian Williams’s sense of relief and triumph at this “news” flash — something also apparent in this morning’s Washington Post story by Anne E. Kornbluth:

He started the week promising to “ride herd” over oil giant BP. Then he said he was talking to fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico so he would “know whose ass to kick.” By the time President Obama arrived at a Medicare event in Maryland on Tuesday, it appeared that his inner cowboy was fully unleashed. “I want to send a notice to all who would swindle and steal from seniors and the Medicare system: We are going to find you, we will prosecute you, and we will ultimately prevent those crimes from happening ever again,” he said, turning what could have been a sluggish event — a teleconference with seniors in Wheaton — into an unlikely venue for him to, yes, show some emotion. A man of understated expression, Obama might as well have been hooked up to a feelings Geiger counter in the weeks since the oil spill in the gulf began, as the country has waited for him to show anger or frustration in some dramatic way.

As usual, the media project their own feelings onto “the country,” but such is the dominance of the media and their culture over our public discourse that I would hesitate to take my oath that Ms Kornbluth is not right. Maybe the country was waiting for a little petulance, a little vulgarism about kicking the “ass” of somebody unspecified as tokens of the genuine human feelings of our celebrity president. Having stood by as the old-fashioned virtues of manly stoicism and emotional continence have been sold short for a generation and more, what else could it be waiting for?

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