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Campaign Journalism Is Back, More Evil Than '04

You'll hear a lot in the next 20 months about which candidate has bony hands, who looks good in a parka -- but you won't hear anything about who voted for the bankruptcy bill and who didn't.
 
 
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God help us, the 2008 presidential election is already here; they are already murdering huge forests in South America so that Jonathan Alter and Karen Tumulty can tell us what the latest Scripps/Howard poll says "voters believe the next president's haircut should look like." Hell is much too good for all of us ...

Mainly in an attempt to preserve my own tenuous grip on sanity, I made it through this past weekend without reading much coverage of the campaign. The election, after all, is nearly a full Martian year away, with a Super Bowl and two World Series still to play out in between -- which means that the "urgency" of breaking campaign news is now and will remain for at least a year an almost 100% media concoction.

Like Seinfeld, the presidential campaign is essentially a "show about nothing," a prolonged prime-time character-driven drama crafted around a series of fake conflicts that always get resolved by the end of the program, in this case November, 2008. Marcia and Greg make driving-test bet in segment one; Marcia imagines instructor in underwear in middle segments; Marcia and Greg's bet ends in a tie, family loves each other again. In the old days the presidential show's writers tended to use actual political issues (Georgie and Hube argue about Vietnam!) as the starting points for their dramatic conflicts -- a natural artistic strategy, given that the subject matter was a real election in a giant country teeming with ugly social and economic problems -- but in the last few cycles the networks seem to have figured out that you can shoot even a whole season of a presidential race without including any of the boring political shit.

Instead, you can cover the whole race using the time-tested Aaron Spelling method of creating TV dramas: you pack a rich and magical dream-landscape with a group of easily-recognizable psychological archetypes and spend a dozen episodes or so letting them smash into each other in bikinis and sports cars (if the show is set in California) or spurs and hoop-dresses (if it's a Western).

The campaign is the same deal. Instead of making a Malibu beach soap out of a prude, a slut, a 98-pound weakling and a leading man, you do a political drama with a hothead (McCain), an Eddie Haskell (Romney), an underdog (Obama) and a wicked witch (Hillary), all doing turns manning tractors and cow-milking chairs on a digitally-enhanced farm set that looks so much like Iowa, you'd swear it was the real thing. (For the second straight season, incidentally, Dennis Kucinich will play the Harry Bently-Dwayne Schneider-Kramer "nutty neighbor" character, getting a wolf whistle and three seconds of pre-recorded "enthusiastic applause" every time he walks through the apartment door. I've been on Dennis to wear a handyman costume next year to make his character really fly.)

I bring all of this up because I've started to see the first examples of what I call the "Sweet n' Blow" campaign article hit the front pages in recent weeks. The Sweet n' Blow, as the name suggests, is a no-calorie substitute for real journalism, a gossip column masquerading as political reportage. It's one of the key techniques for use in turning the election into a politics-free character drama. A true Sweet n' Blow piece makes it from the lede all the way to the last line without saying one fucking thing about what the candidate actually stands for. Instead, it will tell is a lot about the candidate's strategy for improving his "image," which incidentally had originally been created, at least in part, by the very reporter writing this new article.

In other words, in July X reporter says Y candidate "lacks the warmth and charm that voters respond to"; in August, that same X reporter says Y candidate is now "going on the charm offensive." During the same period, Z candidate maybe struggles to overcome a reputation for "flip-flops," and reporter X will spend those months detailing and ultimately arbitrating on the success of those efforts.

All of this bullshit obscures the fact that Democrats Y and Z are essentially the same candidate, backed by the same people and espousing the same positions. But it makes for good theater, and that's the important thing.

There was a classic example of this stuff this past weekend in the New York Times , in a piece by Adam Nagourney called "2 Years After Big Speech, A Lower Key for Obama." The Times, incidentally, is one of the chief producers of this brand of campaign journalism. In every presidential election, the paper manufactures its own story lines around fictional candidate struggles to conquer certain adjectives. They will show candidates fighting for the title of the most "nuanced," wriggling away from tags like "prickly," and racing to great final showdowns of adjectives in the general election -- "brainy" versus "folksy," "emotional" versus "plodding," and so on.

And make no mistake about it, they invent these controversies out of thin air. One of the most conspicuous instances I can recall was December of 2003, when reporter Rick Lyman ran a piece called "From Patrician Roots, Dean Set Path of Prickly Independence" and then ran a piece just a few weeks later in which Dean had to defend himself against Lyman's charges that he was prickly ("I can be prickly with the press corps... I'm not usually prickly with other people."). Reporter calls candidate "prickly," then asks candidate to answer charges of prickliness. Now that's journalism! The campaign press will follow the same formula over and over again, just changing the word -- a candidate will be accused of being too liberal (Kerry), too cold (Hillary), too "lightweight" (Edwards), too "unserious" (Sharpton), etc., until he either cries uncle or drops out. Using this technique the press can basically bludgeon any candidate into whatever shape it likes. When a candidate fails to comply -- when, say, a Kerry fails to demonstrate that he's not too "patrician" for middle America -- he is summarily punished and usually ends up a loser.

In the Nagourney piece, we're getting some glimpses of where the adjectival battleground might be in the upcoming race:

[Obama] is cerebral and easy-going, often talking over any applause that might rise up from his audience, and perhaps consciously trying to present a political style that contrasts with the more charged presences of John Edwards, the former trial lawyer and senator from North Carolina, and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

Nagourney then went on to make a prolonged case for Obama's "easygoingness," quoting a from-central-casting Iowan farmer ("He's low key, he speaks like a professor") and that similarly ubiquitous figure of campaign coverage, the earnest schoolteacher-voter ("Dazzle is not what he's about at all. He's peaceful.").

In paragraph 12, Nagourney asks Obama about his easygoing persona theory. Obama confirms it, saying "I want to give them a sense of my thought process."

So by paragraph 13 -- the next paragraph -- we officially have an "emerging style of Mr. Obama as a candidate for president," one that stands in stark contrast to his fiery speech at the '04 convention. Nagourney is officially pronouncing Obama "easygoing" here, and he appears to do so approvingly, implying distantly that the "charged" emotionalism of Obama's '04 speech might be unsettling or unappealing to voters.

You will see this a lot in campaign journalism, where a candidate who gives journalists reason to paint him with emotional adjectives like "heated" or "angry" or "passionate" will be subtly fragged in places like the Times -- as though his "emotion" was evidence of a subterranean streak of dangerous Trotskyism (for Dems) or Hitlerism (for Republicans). Expect John McCain to have a lot of trouble in that area next summer.

Obama's "easygoing" is okay -- theoretically. But it's not the whole story, says Nagourney. He goes on to add that Obama also shows "strains of the populist call of Ross Perot" -- this is seemingly in negative contrast to Obama's easygoingness. (Absurdly, Nagourney's example of a "populist call" is the line "[let's] take our country back," which has been used by every hack/corporate-sponsored presidential candidate for the last thirty years). But then, even worse than the "populist strain" comes this passage:

But there is also, in a historical comparison that his supporters have tended to resist, the cool intellectualism of Adlai Stevenson who, for all the loyalty he inspired among many Democrats in the 1950s... lost two presidential elections. If Mr. Obama enters the room to the sounds of "Think" by Aretha Franklin and the roar of people coming to their feet, clapping and jostling for photographs, it is only moments before the atmosphere turns from campaign rally to college seminar...

You could almost smell this one coming. As surely as there is a nutty neighbor in every sitcom, there is an "Adlai Stevenson" in every Democratic primary race. Sometimes the comparison is made overtly, as in the case of the 2000 race, when Newsweek baldly resurrected the famous "worn-out shoe" photo of a campaigning Stevenson, using Bill Bradley, the most Stevensonesque of the new Stevensons, as the stand-in. Ironically, the man Bradley lost to in that primary season, Al Gore, would himself be Stevensoned in the general election, haunted in his neck-and-neck race with George Bush by accusations of braininess, collegiate diction and defiant, loserish idealism.

Generally speaking, the "Adlai Stevenson" tag -- which also sometimes appears in the guise of phrases like "speaks like a college professor" and "has a bookish, intellectual demeanor" -- is 100% fatal in a presidential season. It is the AIDS virus of presidential campaign adjectives, even deadlier than "moribund" or "prickly." The only politician to survive it beyond the normal diagnostic time-frame is Jimmy Carter, who was killed by it four years later than usual, but even he would have been felled earlier had it not been for Watergate.

The rest of the Nagourney piece was full of inane descriptions of the Obama "style": he is described as being a "tactile campaigner, his bony hand grabbing elbows and hands," he "speaks in a language of community and shared sacrifice ... evocative of Mario Cuomo," he "talks in even, measured tones," and his audiences are "rapt, if sometimes a tad restless; long periods can go by when there is not a rustle in the crowd." If you're thinking Um, okay, that's all great, but what the fuck does the candidate stand for? , you're not the only one. For all the tireless descriptions of Obama's "style" that there were in the piece, there was absolutely nothing in it about Obama's platform, not one thing. Which is kind of an amazing accomplishment, considering that this was a front-page political profile in the Sunday edition of the New York Times .

But this is the way campaign journalism goes. You'll hear quite a lot in the next 20 months about who has bony hands, who has lines on his or her face, who looks good in a parka, who can play the saxophone underwater, who is "measured" and who is "fiery" -- but you won't hear anything about who voted for the bankruptcy bill and who didn't (Obama was a nay, incidentally; Hillary abstained).

This technique isn't confined to the Times, not by any stretch of the imagination. A huge chunk of the rest of the campaign coverage we've seen to date has been of the same ilk, with mostly all of the coverage involving either poll numbers, money-raising stats, scandals, or "style." In the New York Post 's recent campaign against Hillary -- the newspaper is humorously running an openly poisonous series of articles lauding Democratic voters who have switched from Hill to Obama -- almost all of the info has been about Hill's money troubles and pleasingly vague testimonials from voters like the following, from a black doorman named Gregory Smith:

"Hillary, in my eyes, is a professional politician... that's why I like Barack. He's more believable than Hillary. Barack chose politics to better people."

Again, this issue of who is or who isn't a "professional politician," who's more "believable" -- this is all right up the alley of campaign journalism. If you're not rolling on the ground laughing at the idea of the New York Post arbitrating, with a straight face, the issue of someone's "believability," you should probably be institutionalized. But this kind of stuff is there for a reason. Spend enough time on "believability" and you don't have to worry about who took money from the maker of the "Plan B" morning-after pill and then held up the nomination of the FDA commissioner until he cleared over-the-counter status for the drug (that'd be Hillary Clinton, carrying water for Barr laboratories), or which two putatively antagonistic Democratic candidates are having their economic platform crafted by the same Wall Street-friendly roundtable (that'd be Hillary and Obama, both turning their platforms over to the Hamilton Project, a free-trade group associated with the Brookings Institution). I mean, Senators are pretty busy people, they make a lot of heavy decisions. It would take more time than most of us have to even skim through their top 1000 most important in-office moves. But instead of any of that, the headline stories in the country's leading paper are that one Senator is "low key" and another lacks "realness."

No joke, that was Judith Warner's offering in the Times on March 14. "The Really Real Hillary" was the name of the piece and the man-on-the-street quote went like this: "I'm not feeling the realness from her." Warner chimed in: "She's got a voice that is metallic and somewhat atonal ... she clearly isn't wired to project 'realness' on the national stage. And frankly, for political figures, projection is what matters most."

How much of this bullshit can we take? When will it end?

Matt Taibbi is a writer for Rolling Stone .

 
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