Friday, March 14, 2008

My Own Special Comment

I like Barack Obama a great deal. I will happily vote for him should he receive the Democratic nomination for president. While his courage in opposing the Iraq War from Day One is somewhat exaggerated—he wasn’t in the Senate and did not actually have to cast a vote—it is nevertheless nice to see somebody in the race who never fell for the Bush Administration’s lies. If elected, he will be the first non-Southern Democrat to enter the White House in nearly 50 years. That is a good thing.

I am, however, increasingly bothered by the tone of many of the Illinois senator’s supporters. I understand that once you choose sides, it’s often difficult to resist the temptation to think of your opponent as a (to choose a word at random) monster. I also realize that political first-timers often recoil at the nastiness inherent in the process. Young people in particular may have difficulty acquiring a sense of perspective.

But Keith Olbermann is not young. He was reading baseball scores off a teleprompter in Los Angeles back when Senator Obama was still in law school. Though his beat hasn’t been politics until recently, Olbermann has spent enough time in newsrooms to know a thing or two about the typical behavior of presidential candidates. More than anything else, that’s what makes his Special Comment last night so perplexing.

If you’re not familiar with Olbermann, he’s the guy who has built quite a successful niche for himself over at MSNBC as the liberal answer to Bill O’Reilly. As the only left-leaning voice in a talk show sea of conventional wisdom pablum and right-wing lunacy, Olbermann has generated astonishingly good ratings for a network that has spent most of its history at the bottom of the cable news pecking order. Keith’s most effective shtick is the Special Comment, a lengthy editorial in which he rants eloquently about whatever he currently finds disturbing. Usually, George W. Bush makes for a favorite and highly deserving target.

Yesterday, Olbermann went off on Hillary Clinton. Now, two things are very clear to anyone who hangs around MSNBC at prime time. The first is that Olbermann is a big Barack Obama fan. The second is that the network has for weeks betrayed a rather over-the-top anti-Hillary bias. Chris Matthews in particular seems to rejoice in every Clinton failure and wax despondent after each of the New York senator’s triumphs. When Hillary won Texas and Ohio the other day, MSNBC’s coverage was damn near funereal.

Olbermann is not as bad as Matthews, of course, but he certainly looks prepared to high-five the nearest cameraman whenever he reports an Obama primary or caucus victory. In this case, however, he was evidently set off by Geraldine Ferraro’s dopey comment about how Obama wouldn’t be a serious candidate were he not African American. While Ferraro, who sat on some pro-Clinton finance committee, was about as central to Hillary’s campaign as the guy (woman?) who drives her bus, Olbermann still decided that the senator needed to answer for a throwaway line by a 1980s throwback celebrity.

In Keith’s mind, Team Clinton evidently did not denounce vigorously enough nor apologize profusely enough for comments made by another woman. Disavowal is apparently no longer sufficient. To get right with Olbermann, Hillary should evidently have faced the camera and in her best Pat Robertson voice shouted, “Evil 1984 vice presidential candidate, I rebuke you! Return to your empty life as a footnote in American history textbooks and sin no more!”

OK, whatever. Clinton’s people certainly went overboard in their public reactions to Obama adviser Samantha Power referring to Hillary as a “monster”. So sure, turnabout can be fair play and all that.

But Olbermann went much further, accusing Clinton of wallowing in “filth” and invoking the name of David Duke, the former leader of the KKK. This was, by anyone’s standards, a fairly incendiary remark, even for a guy who once called the President of the United States a fascist. As the reaction of a 22-year old political virgin venting to his stablemates over at Daily Kos, this would perhaps be forgivable. But for a professional newsman and, not incidentally, the most important left-of-center voice on television, it was staggering in its irresponsibility.

It remains possible that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee for president this fall. As imperfect as she obviously is, she should be, to any reasonable Democrat, far preferable to John McCain and his unstable George Patton act. Hillary will not invade Iran, practice trickle-down economics, or be satisfied to leave health care in its current state. She will, as president, behave more or less exactly as Barack Obama would, something that should be clear to anyone who has studied the similarities in their Senate voting records.

As Obama supporters increasingly work themselves into an unhealthy frenzy over the evils of their she-devil opponent, the risk grows that an unbridgeable rift will tear the Democratic Party apart at a critical moment in U.S. history. It is up to veteran political observers like Olbermann to help prevent that from taking place. He must know that the Clinton-Obama struggle has been one of the gentlest in the long annals of primary season internecine warfare. We depend on people like Olbermann to provide some perspective to the lovestruck virgins.

There is another point, too. It has been made by others, but it bears repeating. Barack Obama is not the only trailblazer in this campaign. It is right and appropriate to worry about how African Americans may regard the treatment received by the first viable black candidate to compete for the presidency. But women are also watching how the media boys’ club reacts to the first serious non-male contender for the White House. And on this count, the cable channels, and especially MSNBC, have not distinguished themselves.

Nobody—not even Keith Olbermann—should feel compelled to remain silent because of the unusual (and—let’s not forget—wonderful) demographics of the current Democratic campaign. But they should avoid opening up unnecessary wounds in a party that will need all of its ducks in a row and quacking in order to defeat McCain in eight months. At the very least, they have to understand that summoning the rancid image of David Duke can accomplish nothing positive for the party.

Good night and good luck—to all of us.

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