Blurring the Lines
From The New Criterion.
April 30, 2008.
Rock star, revolutionary, monster
Back in January, you may remember, I was holding my breath to see if Rudy Giuliani’s attempt to make an attack on the news media a winning strategy in the Florida primary would work (see "A Kick in the Pants" in The New Criterion of February, 2008) — or, failing that, if it would have any effect at all. Then I doubted that any good could come of such a move, but I had allowed myself to hope and was therefore disappointed when Mr Giuliani’s lack of "momentum," that most prized journalistic commodity of all successful primary candidates, proved far more momentous than his slap at the media. The media had, apart from the isolated article I saw, declined even to notice, let alone respond to it, and Mr Giuliani’s effort to gain electoral lift by picking a fight with what opinion polls show is one of the most disliked institutions in America died a-borning.
Yet maybe I was only a little premature in my hopes. Maybe the new dawn was only a bit further off, and the revolutionary leader who was prepared to take on the media monolith was someone else — someone unexpected. Well, at least if The New York Times is to be believed — admittedly, a pretty big "if" — that seems to be the case. And the new Lenin arriving at the Finland Station? None other, according to the Times, than Hillary Clinton. Written off by the media again and again as the potential Democratic nominee, Mrs Clinton finally took aim at the collective media swoon for Barack Obama and actually produced an answering something in the press that, looked at in the right light, might almost pass for shame. After the third of Mrs Clinton’s returns from the electoral dead this year, when she won in Ohio and Texas at the beginning of March, the Times reported that the shift by which the media began to take a closer and more critical look at her more "charismatic" rival
may be traceable in part to the "Saturday Night Live" show on Feb. 23, when, back from the writers’ strike, it mocked the news media for treating Mr. Obama more gently than it treated Mrs. Clinton. Mrs. Clinton amplified that view later in a debate, and her aides stoked it all week, practically browbeating reporters. Now comes evidence that the publicizing by the Clinton campaign and the news media may have helped flip the coverage as it questioned Mr. Obama more aggressively.
A study by the Pew Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found, according to the Times, that, in the week that followed the television parody, "the media scrutinized everything from [Senator Obama’s] legislative record to his connections to Louis Farrakhan, and frequently addressed the question of whether journalists have been too soft on the front-runner for the Democratic nomination." Unusually, the Times story that appeared in the paper quoted from comments that had been posted by readers when it had first appeared on the paper’s website: "The line between politics and entertainment has become almost fatally blurred now, and I am uncomfortable with that," wrote one of them. "SNL is NOT journalism, and it’s a sad statement that a late night comedy show might have a greater impact on our political path than a debate."
When, I wonder, has this imaginary "line between politics and entertainment" ever not been blurred? The point isn’t that politics is entertaining. That, in a democracy is a given, since democracy is another word for politics-as-show-business — show business in which, instead of applause, votes are being solicited from the audience. What is new in recent years is the nature of the entertainment. What used to be drama leavened by a bit of comic relief has now become soap opera with its caricature villains and victims — heroes don’t really "go" in soap opera, which is why, eventually, Mr Obama was bound to be taken down a peg or two — its conventional morality and its appeal to the prurient interest of those who are lured by the promise of a glimpse into the private feelings and motivations of its characters. Can Barack Obama be tough enough and play dirty enough to win? Will Mrs Clinton show her feelings again and so reveal her "human" side?
For some reason — perhaps out of a desire to keep the focus on those who, later including even Mrs Clinton herself, announce that they are "Live from New York" — the Times’s story didn’t mention it, but the media’s peripeteia took dramatic form at a press conference in Texas just before the primary there. Mr Obama had responded to unexpectedly aggressive questioning about his relationship with an indicted property developer in Chicago and his private assurances to Canadian officials that they needn’t take his anti-NAFTA rhetoric too seriously by walking out after taking only eight questions. Noam Scheiber of The New Republic looked at photos he took of the candidate’s stunned reaction on this occasion and wrote that if they "were drawings in a comic book, they might be accompanied by words like ‘Wap!’ ‘Pow!’ and ‘Kaboom!’" Mr Scheiber put it all down to frustration among what he called "the blue-collar press" — there had to be a role for them in the soap opera — at their relative lack of access to the candidate, but also noted that it certainly suited Senator Obama’s book to hark back to Senator Clinton’s complaints and engage in a bit of media criticism of his own.
"I am a little surprised that all the complaining about the refs has actually worked as well as it has for them," he said, using a sports allusion to the news media as referees. "This whole spin of how the press has just been so tough on them and not tough on us — I didn’t expect that you guys would bite on that."
That’s The New York Times again with its wonderfully Timesean explanation of the word "refs," but the reporter, Katherine Q. Seelye, failed to note that this was itself a way of playing the ref, and one that we might almost have expected from someone with Mr Obama’s cool, laid-back style.
This has served him well through the seemingly interminable series of "debates" which "Jules," the person who posted in horror to the Times’s website at the fact that entertainment rather than debate might determine who would win a presidential election, appears not to have noticed were already entertainment. Their substantive content has been exiguous — partly because the would-be debaters agree about nearly everything substantively, only differing in the details — and the media’s focus has therefore been on how the candidates look and what kind of show they have put on. When Fred Thompson, for instance, didn’t look enough like the media’s idea of a Republican front-runner, it spelled the end of his campaign. Among the Democrats, the recurring dramatic question was, first, did either the "body language" or the regular language of the male candidates make them look as if they were sufficiently sensitive to Mrs Clinton’s femininity or as if they were "ganging up on her" and, second, when the number of debaters had been whittled down to two, could the former First Lady provoke the ever-cool Senator Obama to anger.
For the media, the sport of the debates lay, as it does in stock car racing, in watching and waiting as the candidates go around in circles so many times that eventually someone will lose focus and have a spectacular accident. This is what is called a "gaffe" in the world of media politics and, like fatal accidents at the race track, it seems to be getting rarer. Now the media’s gaffe patrol has to keep its Argus-eyes on the campaign aides and hangers on in order to keep enough material coming in to keep the scandal machine running. Soon after Mrs Clinton’s latest resuscitation, the Obama aide Samantha Power was forced to resign after commenting to a Scottish newspaper that Mrs Clinton was "a monster" capable of "stooping to anything." Her scalp strung on the former First Lady’s belt may have seemed like a tit-for-tat for that of Bill Shaheen, the co-chairman of her campaign in New Hampshire who had to resign last December for raising the matter of Mr Obama’s use of illegal drugs, to which the candidate himself had as good as confessed in his autobiography, as well as his possible sale of them, to which he had not.
Yet neither gaffe amounted to very much, really. It would be surprising if each candidate’s private opinion of the other were not even more trenchant than this. Nor do even worse allegations count as gaffes when they are directed at Republicans. But the media’s sudden solicitude about the civility of campaign rhetoric when it was one Democrat talking about another must be subsumed into a wider sense that is more than mere politesse about what it is that is possible and not possible to say these days. The fact that the excitingly close Democratic race pitted a woman against an African-American — and the overuse of this term for those whose ancestors came from Africa many generations earlier than those of most unhyphenated Americans came from Europe obscures the fact that Mr Obama’s father actually was an African — must make for a confusing tangle of media sensitivities.
I infer, for instance, that to the media’s finely-tuned sensibility about such things, there must be at least as much subtextual misogyny in the word "monster" as there is racism in the suggestion of drug-dealing. In both cases, the hypersensitivity must be at least partly related to a pre-emptive concern on the media’s part to stake out as clearly as possible the no-go areas around each of these "minority" candidates for the benefit of rhetorically adventurous Republicans during the general election to come. As Maureen Dowd wrote, also in the Times — apparently with little or no sense of irony —
With Obama saying the hour is upon us to elect a black man and Hillary saying the hour is upon us to elect a woman, the Democratic primary has become the ultimate nightmare of liberal identity politics. All the victimizations go tripping over each other and colliding, a competition of historical guilts. People will have to choose which of America’s sins are greater, and which stain will have to be removed first. Is misogyny worse than racism, or is racism worse than misogyny?
Dear, dear, how shall we decide? Obviously the chief magistracy of the land must belong to the greater victim of the two, but who might that be? Miss Dowd’s own sympathies might or might not have been suggested by her citation of a Washington Post story which quoted a woman as saying: "A friend of mine, a black man, said to me, ‘My ancestors came to this country in chains; I’m voting for Barack.’ I told him, ‘Well, my sisters came here in chains and on their periods; I’m voting for Hillary.’"
There sounds the true note of feminist self-pity: even nature is part of the patriarchal conspiracy to oppress women. But how well such complaints might play among the electorate at large, as opposed to the victims’ coalition of the Democratic party, remains to be seen. "Meanwhile," notes Maureen Dowd ominously, "the conventional white man sits on the Republican side and enjoys the spectacle of the Democrats’ identity pileup and victim lock." The fact that "the conventional white man" also has approximately double the experience in office of his two prospective Democratic rivals put together, or a far more plausible claim than either of them, should he choose (as of course he won’t) to make it, to being an actual victim and one whose suffering was incurred on his country’s behalf is apparently of no relevance. That by the way, may be why the media were made particularly nervous about the dueling alarm-clock ads of the two candidates around the time of the Ohio and Texas primaries. Mrs Clinton’s willingness to play upon her opponent’s lack of experience, which was the import of her ad, was bound to make it more difficult for the media to pretend, come the real battle next autumn, that it should be off-limits for the Republicans to make a similar allegation — about either of them.
Senator Clinton will clearly want to keep the way clear to claim that her experience in the ceremonial post of First Lady of Arkansas and of the United States is relevant, just as Senator Obama will to claim, as he did in his response to the Clinton ad, that his promise not to make any mistakes in judgment trumps any amount of experience. Both fatuous claims, and the unspoken rule in the media against pointing out their fatuousness, might in a different media world have attracted the satirical attentions of "Saturday Night Live," but Senator McCain, though more popular in the media than any other Republican, has no constituency there to compare with those of the two Democrats. Although his press coverage, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, turned suddenly negative once he came to be seen as the Republican front-runner, the soap opera still had as yet no real role for him except as conventional white man and self-satisfied bystander. The discovery of just what sort of villain he is to play next autumn will have to wait until we see which of the other two is to be cast in that role during the interim.
And in spite of yet another surprise victory — one that, under other circumstances, might have won for her her husband’s title of "Comeback Kid" — Mrs Clinton is beginning to look like the media’s favorite for the heavy at the time of writing. Her complaints about Mr Obama’s favorable treatment are starting to look like those of a nagging wife, a role into which, unfortunately for her, she seems to fall all too easily. She may touch those she nags on a sore spot of their conscience. They may even do what she wants them to do, as the media did to Senator Obama in Texas. But they will hate her for it.
Sure enough, within a week of her triumphs there and in Ohio, voices were being heard in the increasingly restive media that made Samantha Power sound measured and judicious. "The Clintons have always had a touch of the zombies about them: unkillable, they move relentlessly forward, propelled by a bloodlust for Republicans or uppity Democrats who dare to question their supremacy," wrote Andrew Sullivan in the London Sunday Times. Zombies? Aren’t they a kind of monster? "The Clintons live off psychodrama," he went on. "They both love to push themselves to the brink of catastrophe and then accomplish the last-minute, nail-biting self- rescue. Before too long the entire story becomes about them, their ability to triumph through crisis, even though the crises are so often manufactured by themselves."
As he pointed out, too, the soap opera was beginning to move behind the scenes of her own campaign, as reports surfaced of its extravagance and the petty rivalries and bitter enmity among her closest advisers. Others in the partisan Democratic media like Jonathan Chait of The New Republic wrote of her "trial-by-smear method" of attacking Mr Obama and her "Nixonian ruthlessness." Maureen Dowd, too, in urging her rival to toughen up, wrote of "Hillary’s kneecapper Howard Wolfson" who "compares the goo-goo Obama campaign to Ken Starr with a straight face." Part of this, as Howard Kurtz noted in The Washington Post, was owing to sheer weariness on the part of the media with the whole campaign. They had been covering it in a fairly intensive way for many months and, now that it looked mathematically certain that Mr Obama must win, they were disposed to wish Mrs Clinton would just get out of the way and let them — and the divided party — take a break. Never forget the role for the media themselves that must be written into the soap opera.
But I think that there is also a lingering resentment among some Democrats, including the Democrats in the media, at the many years during which they have been forced, as they see it, to defend the Clintons against Republican attacks on their character while being uneasily aware that there has been much for them to be attacked about. There is a weariness in this too, but one which the prospect of months of being called on for further defense of this Arkansan version of the Marcoses or the Peróns against the Republican assault must make almost intolerable. Many Democrats not called upon by their positions in the media to be Clinton defenders probably feel the same way. Larry David, co-creator of "Seinfeld," star of the very amusing HBO series, "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and one of Hollywood’s most prominent celebrity Democrats wrote to the Huffington Post:
A few weeks ago, I started to feel sorry for her. Oh Christ, let her win already... Who cares...It’s not worth it. There’s not that much difference between them. She can have it. Anything to avoid watching her descend into madness. So I switched. I started rooting for her. It wasn’t that hard. Compromise comes easy to me. I was on board.
And then I saw the ad.
I watched, transfixed, as she took the 3 a.m. call...and I was afraid...very afraid. Suddenly, I realized the last thing this country needs is that woman anywhere near a phone. I don’t care if it’s 3 a.m. or 10 p.m. or any other time. I don’t want her talking to Putin, I don't want her talking to Kim Jong Il, I don’t want her talking to my nephew. She needs a long rest. She needs to put on a sarong and some sun block and get away from things for a while, a nice beach somewhere — somewhere far away, where there are...no phones.
There’s a perfect soap opera epiphany: the victimized housewife who seeks our sympathy and our support for her program of good works on behalf of her rather harried neighbors is suddenly revealed as (to choose a word at random) a monster. It makes for a satisfying end to the episode, though the series is likely to continue for many more vicissitudes than this.