SOLOMON: Politics as Performance Art
Gushy reviews began as soon as George W. Bush stepped away from the podium in the House chamber. On NBC, Tim Russert explained that the performance was especially impressive due to the new president's personal history of being podium-adverse: "I was amazed at how conversational he was tonight, and confident and comfortable." An analyst for ABC News marveled that Bush had established a "commanding presence."
By the next day, the media verdict was in: The nation's leader is learning to make effective use of a TelePrompTer!
Stage presence, cadence, rhythm, choreography -- they can really add up in the professional calculations by journalists. And Bush, known to have a remarkably short attention span, seems to be well-suited to a medium that greatly values style over substance. Like a negative in a developing pan, the current president's TV profile is taking shape. Some political reporters scoff in private, no doubt, but their on-the-job respect is thick as dense smoke.
Journalists who specialize in critiquing televised images are watching closely. The Washington Post's Tom Shales greeted the big speech with notable satisfaction at signs of progress: "George W.'s television persona is definitely improving. He was relaxed and confident and thereby reassuring." Evidently, we're supposed to feel reassured that the president is competent, wise and kind -- rather than bumbling, vacuous and greedy -- if he exudes relaxation and confidence on TV screens.
Shales is the most influential critic of television to be read at Washington's breakfast tables, and perhaps that stature has inflated his sense of omniscience. During the speech, he wrote, Bush "proceeded to make himself welcome in the American home." But if such a singular entity as "the American home" ever existed, it long ago went the way of Ozzie, Harriet and the Beav.
Plunging ahead to his climax, Shales went on: "Chances are, most of those who saw the speech feel much better about Bush this morning than they did one second before he began it." Shales concluded: "Bush took the oath of office on Jan. 20, but he really became president last night."
It's one thing to predict, monitor or analyze the public's gullibility, and quite another to worsen it by proclaiming your own. The words from Shales were delightful for the White House spinners who have worked hard to orchestrate the opening performances of the George W. Bush presidency.
And Bush media strategists must be pleased that countless journalists -- egged on by network anchors -- have launched a new round of exclamations about Bush's ability to confound adversaries who underestimate him.
"This is not an original thought -- he constantly surprises people by exceeding expectations," Dan Rather said on CBS after Bush's address to Congress. Meanwhile, on ABC, Peter Jennings made the same observation. Neither one paused to wonder aloud about whether they weren't simply playing their part in a ritual of a president's high jumps over low media standards.
Tom Brokaw made note of cordial relations between President Bush and Democratic congressional leaders, then wrapped up NBC's coverage for the night by observing: "The times they are a'changin' here in Washington in the 21st century." Roll over, Bob Dylan.
Perhaps there are some constants in American political life. As potential counterweights to dubious presidents, the lawmakers at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue have a history of being rather lightweight. "Who are they, as bats and night-bogs, askant in the Capitol?" wrote Walt Whitman. "Are those really Congressmen?"
Whitman's haiku-like couplet has stood the test of time. Giving undue deference even to a president who lost the national popular vote by more than half a million ballots, the present-day loyal opposition provides much more loyalty than opposition.
What's wrong with most media coverage of two-party conflicts and accommodations is akin to what's wrong with those two parties themselves: The narrowness of outlooks and paucity of wide-ranging debate is self-reinforcing. And when the vast majority of media coverage is scarcely wider than the range of the Republican and Democratic party establishments, the closed loop of public discourse is in mortal danger of choking on its own toxic effluents.
In defense of the media status quo, high-profile journalists are apt to insist that they're simply doing their jobs by reporting "the news" -- and naturally the most powerful elected officials and their appointees make the most newsworthy pronouncements. But that kind of logic makes sense for democracy only if we forget that they're all functioning inside concentric circles that revolve around big money.
In the corporate-funded vessels that carry presidents and congressional leaders -- as well as network anchors and their colleagues -- on mainstream journeys, the process of going along to get along with corporate power is routine for getting and keeping their jobs. You won't find vehement boat-rockers among them.
Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."