Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Welcome to 2008: Enter at Your Own Risk

Well, here we are at last in 2008. We've been talking about the presidential campaign so long that it feels like we turned the calendar ages ago. But no such luck. We still have eleven months of obfuscating, catcalling, and mudslinging ahead of us. The good news, however, is that we are less than a month away from leaving six or so of the current set of candidates on the scrap heap.

Mike Huckabee, as I have observed previously, is likely to be one of them. The media that created him is busy dismantling his bid for the White House interview by painful interview. How, after all, can a man be president if he is unaware that Pakistan is to the east, and not the west, of Afghanistan? While there is certainly some validity in not wishing to revisit the flaws of our callow and ignorant incumbent, the inability to master an atlas is not George W. Bush's most troubling problem. Nor is it Mr. Huckabee's, at least not so long as the former Arkansas governor rejects the nineteenth century science of evolution.

I have a theory about presidential elections. It's not exactly original, but that doesn't stop me from believing in it. Television reporters in particular lack the either the time or the ability (perhaps both) to do anything more than create caricatures of presidential candidates. These caricatures can be reduced to several adjectives that supposedly capture both the good and bad points of each contender. Barack Obama, for example, is passionate but inexperienced; Mitt Romney is competent but insincere. I suspect that this reliance on superficial description has more to do with laziness than bias, but either way it seems that every man or woman who enters the race faces this situation, assuming he or she is taken seriously (Chris Dodd need not apply).

Once a candidate is effectively pigeonholed, expectations are formed that cannot easily be escaped. At that point, the most disastrous thing a politician can do is to play into his or her media-assigned negative stereotype. Had Al Gore misspelled the word "potato" in front of an audience of schoolchildren, the story would have died within twenty-four hours. But because Dan Quayle did it, the incident became a late-night punch line for weeks. Quayle, after all, had earned the "stupid" tag from the news media, and the story played right into the dominant narrative. That Quayle, he's no Jack Kennedy, don't you know.

Gore faced his own media-driven Waterloo several years later. The book on the future Nobel Peace Prize winner was that he was brainy, but had a weird penchant for exaggerations and white lies. Now, show me any politician who does not exaggerate and fib now and then and I'll show you a politician with chronic laryngitis. Nevertheless, Gore, who never actually claimed to have invented the internet, got tagged early in the 2000 campaign and never managed to shake the notion that he was a serial liar. In his first presidential debate with George W. Bush, he happened to mention traveling to Texas with the FEMA director during a period of bad wildfires. It was a minor point, but it turned out to be a little shaky on the details. Gore's main business in the Lone Star State had been a political fundraiser and the FEMA head had not shared the airplane ride to Houston. Incredibly, this became one of the big stories of the debate: Al Gore, self-proclaimed inventor of the World Wide Web, strikes again!

The list goes on and on. Bill Clinton, the slippery clubhouse lawyer, parsing the definition of "is". Gerald Ford, the supposedly slow-witted University of Michigan and Yale Law grad, failing to recognize that Eastern Europe was under Soviet domination. George H.W. Bush, the out-of-touch son of privilege, being wowed by the existence of a supermarket scanner. And of course Howard Dean, that unhinged creation of the blogosphere, letting loose with a wild scream to a post-caucus crowd in Des Moines. None of these incidents was, in the big scheme of things, remotely meaningful, but they each had a damaging effect because they confirmed the worst fears about the politician in question, fears that were fanned, and in some cases invented, by the political media.

That, my friends, is the unfortunate way that we select our presidents, and the candidates ignore these media stereotypes at their own peril. Hillary Clinton had better not sound cold, calculating, or negative. Barack Obama had better not flunk one of Tim Russert's obnoxious geography quizzes. John Edwards had better not blow more than a twenty on his next haircut. One's a harpy, one's a neophyte, and the other's a rich boy hypocrite.

Same thing on the GOP side. John McCain can’t show any flashes of anger lest he revive the old hothead narrative (Could it be a POW flashback?). Mitt Romney can't change his mind about anything (Salad? Didn't you choose the soup yesterday, governor?). And Mike Huckabee has to be a walking almanac from here on out (Gotcha! Regina is the capital of Saskatchewan, you ignorant hillbilly!).

To be sure, sometimes media tags do catch something real and relevant about the candidates. Rudy Giuliani is, in fact, a rather sleazy man, and it is altogether appropriate that details of his personal and public life should tarnish him in a way that might, under similar circumstances, have no impact on any of his rivals. And we probably should have paid more attention when George W. Bush alerted us seven years ago to his ignorance of matters international.

For the most part, though, the media serve us terribly during presidential election years. So brace yourself as we begin 2008. The stakes are high and the silly season is just beginning. And the silliest event of the entire campaign, the arcane and risible Iowa caucuses, are less than forty-eight hours away.

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