How Trivial Can the Media Make the Presidential Race?
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December 28th, a beastly-cold afternoon in Story City, Iowa. Another school gym full of polite, placard-bearing Iowans herded in to support yet another pomp-and-ceremony-promising presidential candidate, in this case Hillary Clinton.
Hillary's late, however, so the campaign decides to pass the time by sending a pair of central-casting Adorable Local Children onstage to chuck HILLARY '08 T-shirts into the crowd. A young Hillary volunteer in a standard-issue Pale Blue Button-Down Shirt (the mandatory uniform of all campaign volunteers) takes the mike to introduce the kids.
"There's something you should know about these two," Pale Blue Shirt shouts. "They only respond to NOISE!!! Whoever makes the most noise gets a T-shirt!"
Robotic cheers as the kids hurl shirts in every direction. Last time I saw this act, it was New Jersey Nets mascot Sly the Silver Fox shooting tees with a slingshot to "Who Let the Dogs Out" during halftime at the Meadowlands. This time, the soundtrack is Tom Petty's nauseatingly Hillary-specific "American Girl." Some reporters are rolling their eyes, but every camera is dutifully following each flying T-shirt.
"Make sure you get that," a TV guy to my left whispers to his cameraman.
"Got it, got it," the camera guy says.
There must be a hundred reporters here, and every last one has lined up to capture this event in all its stage-managed glory. There are two camera risers, both packed to the gills with network shooters. Hillary's lectern is planted squarely between two enormous American flags; this way, every shot is sure to make her look like George C. Scott in Patton, with every curve of her ample jowls bathed in the iconic stripes of Old Glory. Campaigns pay top dollar for such images in commercials, but the free press literally fights for space on the risers, for the right to transmit those juicy images for free.
And when Hillary finally arrives, her speech turns out to be the same maddeningly nonspecific, platitude-filled verbal oatmeal that every candidate has spent the last year slinging in all directions -- complete with the same vague promises for "change" we've heard from every last coached-up dog in this presidential hunt, from Barack Obama to Mitt Romney.
"Some people think you get change by demanding it," says the former first lady. "Some people think you get change by hoping for it. I think you get change by working hard for it every single day."
I see reporters frantically writing in their notebooks and laptops. The line was the money shot of this whole presentation, tomorrow's headline.
In a vacuum, of course, this is the most meaningless kind of computer-generated horseshit, the type of thing you would expect to hear coming out of the mouth of a $200-an-hour inspirational speaker at a suburban sales conference. But in this tightest of presidential races, Hillary attacking "hope" amounts to a major rhetorical offensive. "Hope," after all, is Barack Obama's own personal spoonful of oatmeal, and by disparaging it, Hillary has given this gym full of political hacks tomorrow's sports headline.
And the hacks deliver, right on cue. AN OBAMA-CLINTON TEMPEST BREWS roars The Los Angeles Times , noting that Hillary's shot at "hoping for change " is directed at Obama, while "demanding change" is code for John Edwards.
The next stage in this asinine process is the obligatory retorts. Obama responds by crowing, "I don't need lectures about how to bring about change." The "change-demander," Edwards, stakes out his own platitudinal turf, insisting that change isn't about work or hope at all, but about "toughness" and "courage."
Reading all of this crap the next day, I'm amazed. Here we are, the world's lone superpower, holding elections at a time when we're engaged in a catastrophic war in Iraq, facing a burgeoning nuclear crisis in Pakistan, dealing with all sorts of horrible stuff. And at the crucial moment, the presidential race turns into something from the cutting-room floor of Truly Tasteless Jokes #50: "Three change-promisers walk into a bar ...."
I mean, is this a joke, or what? What the hell is the difference between "working for change" and "demanding change"? And why can't we hope for change and work for it? Are these presidential candidates or six-year-olds?
This 2008 presidential race looked interesting once, a thrillingly up-for-grabs affair in which real issues and real ground-up voter anger threatened to wrest control of America's politics from the Washington Brahmins who usually puppeteer this process from afar. And while the end result in Iowa -- a historic and inspirational Obama victory, coupled with a hilariously satisfying behind-the-woodshed third-place ass-whipping for status quo gorgon Hillary Clinton -- was compelling, the media has done its best to turn a once-promising race into an idiotic exchange of Nerf-insults, delivered at rah-rah campaign events utterly indistinguishable from scholastic pep rallies. "If there's policy in this race," one veteran campaign reporter tells me with a sad laugh, "I haven't noticed it."
And while it's tempting to blame the candidates, deep in my black journalist's heart I know it isn't all their fault.
We did this. The press. America tried to give us a real race, and we turned it into a bag of shit, just in the nick of time.
Every reporter who spends any real time on the campaign trail gets wrapped up in the horse race. It's inevitable. You tell me how you can spend nearly two years watching the dullest speeches known to man and not spend most of your time wondering about the one surefire interesting moment the whole thing has to offer: the ending.
Stripped of its prognosticating element, most campaign journalism is essentially a clerical job, and not a particularly noble one at that. On the trail, we reporters aren't watching politics in action: The real stuff happens behind closed doors, where armies of faceless fund-raising pros are glad-handing equally faceless members of the political donor class, collecting hundreds of millions of dollars that will be paid off in very specific favors over the course of the next four years. That's the real high-stakes poker game in this business, and we don't get to sit at that table.
Instead, we get to be herded day after day into one completely controlled environment after another, where we listen to an array of ideologically similar politicians deliver professionally crafted advertising messages that we, in turn, have the privilege of delivering to the public free of charge. We rarely get to ask the candidates real questions, and even when we do, they almost never answer.
If you could train a chimpanzee to sit still through a Joe Biden speech, it could probably do the job. The only thing that elevates this work above monkey level is that we get to guess who wins.
For most of us, this is a guilty pleasure. But some of us get so used to being asked who should be running the world that our brains start to ferment. I've seen it happen. The first few times a newbie comes on the campaign trail, he's watching all the flag-waving and the soldier-humping and he's writing it all down with this stunned expression, as if to say, "Jesus, I went to college for this?" Two months later, he's doing six hits a day on MSNBC as a Senior Political Analyst and he's got this weirdly pissed-off look on his face, like he's mad that the world woke up and forgot to kiss his ass that morning. This same meek rookie you saw bent over a steno book just months ago is suddenly talking about how Hillary Clinton needs to do this, Barack Obama needs to do that -- and he's serious! He's not kidding! Next thing you know, he's got an eight-figure book deal and a ten-foot pole up his crack, and he's wearing a tie and loafers to bed. In other words, he's Jonathan Alter.
I call it the Revenge of the Nerds effect. Give an army of proud professionals nothing but a silly horse race to cover, and inevitably they'll elevate even the most meaningless details of that horse race to cosmic importance.
This is how you end up getting candidates bludgeoned to death on the altar of such trivialities as "rookie mistakes" and "lack of warmth"; it's how you end up getting elections decided because candidates like John Kerry are unable to overcome adjectives like "looks French" and "long-faced Easter Island statue."
That's what happened in Iowa. For once, voters tried to say that they were perfectly capable of choosing a president without us, that they could do without any of this nonsense. But they were wrong. Nonsense would have its day!
Saturday, December 29th, Indianola, Iowa. Bucking the usual late-in-the-Iowa-race trend, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee shows up an hour early for a midday rally at a crowded lunch spot in this small town south of Des Moines. But the switcheroo does nothing to shake the massive crowd of press this self-made front-runner now carries around with him like the clap everywhere he goes.
With less than a week before the caucus, it's Huckabee's turn to endure one of the most crucial tests any presidential hopeful faces, the all-out full-court media press that always gets thrown at the pole position candidate. Locked in a tight race with Mitt Romney, he has so far taken the high road, refusing to mention his opponent by name, even though Romney has been whaling on Huckabee's tax record in recent days with a series of savage negative ads.
For that offense against the unwritten laws of campaign-trail horseshit, Huckabee, the one-time media darling of this race, has lately been taking a beating in the press. Reporters aren't interested in the real story line -- Huckabee the innovative economic populist against Romney the unapologetic Wall Street whore, the Republican who mortified party leaders by talking sympathetically about the poor versus the coifed speculator for whom injustice means the capital gains tax. What the press wants out of Huckabee isn't more detail about his economic ideas, but evidence that he is willing to "fight back" against Romney. "Can Mr. Nice Guy go on the offensive?" wondered Politico.com, a weirdly aggressive torch-waving newcomer to the media witch-hunt game. "That's the question facing the surging Mike Huckabee. ..."
That's the question. ... The passive structure of the Politico lede is the standard method that campaign trail journalists use when disguising value judgments as statements of fact. There's no data backing up the notion that this really is the question facing Huckabee; the press is simply making sure Huckabee can be counted on to jump through any hoops they might decide to hold up for him, no matter how asinine these tests might be.
And jump he does. In Indianola, Huckabee not only mentions Romney by name, he unleashes a torrent of anti-Romney abuse. Previously smiling and Muppet-like in most of his stump addresses, Huckabee today is positively monomaniacal in his fixation on Romney -- he sounds like a late-stage Lenny Bruce ranting about cops and Francis Cardinal Spellman. "I did not grow up privileged," he croaks. "I did not grow up with a last name that opened the door. In fact, my last name probably closed a few. Never in my life did I ever remember somebody asking my dad would he be willing to come out and endorse a candidate."
To me it's Huckabee's worst performance, but the press reviews the next day are exultant. NICE-GUY HUCKABEE FIRES BACK IN IOWA shouts the Baltimore Sun . HUCKABEE DROPS 'R-BOMBS' IN IOWA seconds a satisfied Politico.
This scene is a perfect example of the dynamic that dominates virtually all campaign coverage. No matter which issues or grass-roots support elevate a candidate to the limelight, in order to stay there he ends up having to play this game, a sort of political version of Fear Factor in which candidates must eat bowl after bowl of metaphorical worms to prove their worthiness.
The Huckabee episode is significant because Obama went through the same thing in the months leading up to Iowa. His refusal to "mix it up" with Clinton infuriated reporters. "Obama continued to shy away from a real fight with his Democratic rivals," complained Newsweek, wondering if he knew how to pursue politics "as a game, played to win."
When Obama responded with a series of parries at Hillary, the press applauded. OBAMA: BYE-BYE MR. NICE GUY? gushed the Chicago Tribune . OBAMA IN IOWA: GLOVES OFF! roared ABC.com. Shit, even Rollingstone.com got into the act (OBAMA TAKES THE GLOVES OFF).
The hilarious thing is that while Obama and Huckabee were blasted for not providing the press with enough boxing-metaphor material, Clinton was getting the business for being too feisty. IS SEN. CLINTON WARM ENOUGH TO WIN? wondered Slate. Just like the others, Hillary quickly proved her willingness to eat as many worms as we could dish out, hilariously releasing a whole Web site where Friends of Hillary lined up to swear on a stack of Bibles, that despite what you might think, the candidate isn't a crabby old battle-ax in private.
This relentless fragging from the media led to state of affairs in Iowa, in which all of the candidates were enjoined in a seemingly endless piss-fight over the most mind-numbing minutiae imaginable. Clinton and Obama spent days haggling bitterly over, of all things, tea. When Obama insisted that his foreign experience went beyond who "I had tea with," the Hillary camp actually went through the trouble of releasing a statement from Madeleine Albright insisting that Hillary, in fact, drank many different beverages in her travels.
On the Republican side, the Romney-Huckabee war turned increasingly bitter, with "Nice Guy" Huck calling Romney "dishonest" on the Monday before the vote. Romney responded by obliquely comparing the Huckabee record on pardons to that of another Arkansas governor, leading to amusing headlines like ROMNEY ALMOST COMPARES HUCKABEE TO BILL CLINTON.
How did one of the most genuinely interesting primary contests in American history devolve into a Grade-D smack-down that even Vince McMahon would be ashamed to promote? The real story of the campaign has been its unprecedented unpredictability -- and therein lies the problem. On both tickets, the abject failure of media-anointed front-runners to hold their ground was due at least in part to voters having grown weary of being told by the press who was "electable" and who wasn't. Both the Huckabee and Ron Paul candidacies represent angry grass-roots challenges to the entrenched Republican party apparatus, while the Edwards candidacy is a frank and open attack on his own party's too-cozy relationship with corporate America. These developments signaled a meaningful political phenomenon -- widespread voter disgust, not only with the two ruling parties, but with a national political press that smugly enforced the party insiders' stranglehold on the process with its incessant bullying of dissident candidates.
But there was no way this genuinely interesting theme was going to make it into mainstream coverage of the campaign heading into the primary season. It was inevitable that different, far stupider story lines would be found to dominate the headlines once the real bullets started flying in Iowa and New Hampshire. And find them we did.
A month ago, I was actually interested to see who won these first few races. But now that this whole affair has degenerated into a mass orgy of sports clichÃ©s and celebrity catfighting, I find myself more hoping that they all die in a fire somehow. And something tells me that most of America would hope that my colleagues and I burn up with them.