Sunday, March 30, 2008

When Cynics Fall in Love

Political reporters are among the most cynical people on the planet. They have to be. Their careers consist largely of parsing the self-serving words of preternaturally ambitious politicians who lie without embarrassment. They watch ideologies blur and positions change as even the most respectable public servants calculate which positions will help them secure re-election. Too often, Washington journalists find themselves covering powerful men and women whose venality, ignorance, and bigotry can never be fully revealed to their constituents, who, in most cases, would simply accuse the messenger of partisan bias anyhow.

Astute observers of the political scene often accuse the D.C. press corps of treating government and serious public policy choices as a game, emphasizing winners and losers rather than the impact legislation has on the real lives of real people. The problem, of course, is that the politicians themselves never stop playing, and most of their actions involve trying to gain some sort of advantage over their opponents, both intramural and extramural. How, for example, is it possible to cover the Obama-Clinton Democratic presidential contest, a battle between ideological soulmates, as anything other than a horserace?

And it's not as though the American people do much to spur political journalists to greater and more enlightening insights. Long discussions of public policy cause most voters to reach for their channel changers. Fox News, which specializes in dumbed-down coverage, quickie sound bites, and non-substantive stimulation, blew CNN out of the ratings water after less than a decade on the air. CNN, which was never exactly the New York Times to begin with, has responded with its own edgy shows that reduce the news to ranting argument and titillation. No real journalist wants to share the airwaves (or the cable tubes) with carnival barkers like Lou Dobbs or Glenn Beck, but they prefer it to unemployment.

Still, I am convinced that most political reporters, even more than most politicians, got into the business because they once cared deeply about public policy. They started at small newspapers in insignificant cities where they encountered local government types who cared as much as they did. They interviewed school board members whose own children were in the system, city councilwomen who took calls from constituents at all hours of the day and night, and took pride in their ability to fix potholes and beautify failing neighborhoods. Sure, these rookie journalists also met the local conmen and the drunken incompetents, but they nevertheless saw firsthand how government could effect change for the benefit of its citizens.

If these reporters were good enough, they eventually made their way to the larger urban dailies (or to their big city TV equivalents) where they began to cover politicians of statewide and even national stature. No doubt they expected these people to be smarter, more energetic versions of the local officials they had once covered in Podunk, Iowa. What they often found instead were cynical men and women for whom politics was not a calling, but a path to personal glory. Detached from the everyday lives of the people they served, these governors or senators or presidential candidates inhabited a world where power and ambition corrupt equally, and nothing matters other than who wins and who loses.

To survive, to cover these self-important people and their petty games on a daily basis, it was necessary for the reporters themselves to adopt a veil of cynicism. Imagine a job in which the norm is that everyone you encounter is trying to spin you and nobody tells you what they really think. What must it be like to leave a congressman's office only to watch three lobbyists enter by the side door, and knowing that, in all likelihood, the lobbyists will get what they want? It's not as though we send corrupt people to Washington; rather, we send strivers and high achievers who will do whatever it takes to hold their position or to climb up the ladder. While many of us understand this on a theoretical level, for the political journalist it is a persistent fact of life.

Still, buried beneath layers of practiced cynicism and ennui masquerading as objectivity, the idealist remains. Reporters may swear off political romance, but love sometimes takes them by surprise regardless. Surrounded by professional liars, they crave authenticity. Overwhelmed by men and women who can't decide where to have dinner without convening a focus group, they are drawn to the very few who are willing to risk it all for a higher cause.

They despise the Clintons because Bill, a talented young governor who swept into Washington in a wave of hope, let them down in so many ways. They flirted with Barack Obama—even jaded reporters can be inspired—but are increasingly put off by his industrial strength ambition and the ideological emptiness at the core of so much of his eloquence. Political reporters almost certainly develop an aversion to those who have been running for president since they were in second grade, and Bill, Hillary, and Barack all fall clearly into that category.

John McCain, on the other hand, had a life before politics (and not just 15 minutes before, Obama fans). He put himself on the line as a young man in the most serious manner possible and endured horrors that few of us could imagine. Perhaps even more important, he speaks frankly and directly with the press corps, even when explaining his regular pattern of flip-flopping on the issues.

The reporters, in turn, have fallen in love. Here, at last, is a man who has paid his dues in blood. Even the cynical are subject to the pull of hero-worship and McCain plays to that by allowing them to share in his persona, to feel more invigorated and macho as they bask in the glow of his bravery. And he doesn't insult their intelligence with risible talking points and perpetual spin. He embraces his political duplicity and lets the media in on his dirty little secrets.

From all appearances, John McCain would be a terrible president. He is ignorant on domestic matters, bellicose in foreign policy, and evidently prone to volcanic anger. At best, he would be Ronald Reagan, a realist conservative who could occasionally buck the will of his ideologically fanatical advisers. At worst, he would be George W. Bush, too intellectually lazy to do any more than rubber stamp the harebrained schemes of whichever aide could best play to his vanity and need for manly affirmation. Reagan was a bad president; Bush is an unqualified disaster.

But don't expect a fair fight in the coming election. When reporters don't respect you (Dukakis, Gore, Kerry), you start at a significant disadvantage. But when they've fallen in love with your opponent, you are fighting an uphill battle that makes Everest look like a pitcher's mound.

1 comment:

redbarb said...

"And he doesn't insult their intelligence with risible talking points and perpetual spin. He embraces his political duplicity and lets the media in on his dirty little secrets."

Does he? Or is it that his duplicity is not pointed out by his lovable press companions and his "straight talk" is just his version of spin?

I agree that his POW background and engaging personality has won over most who cover him, but I don't agree that somehow his delivery is any different than others. He spins his tale of Iran backing Al Qaeda in Iraq and it is given little notice. He has flipped on the Bush tax cuts, the role of the conservative religious right in his party and, most disturbingly, the bill to have the CIA follow the more strict non-torture techniques of interrogation the military follows. The coverage is negligible.

With the fight still on for the Democratic nomination, I don't expect the traditional media to notice. But what will happen in the general campaign? Can the Democrats and their allies push the traditional media on these points or will another barbecue at his country estate buy McCain more media love?