Last Friday I made a $5 bet about the presidential election with a colleague over one of the sillier questions in this climate of exceedingly silly media overload: Will Oprah Winfrey back down and invite Sarah Palin on her TV show before Nov. 4? My money says yes, based on the gut assumption that viewer backlash will convince Barack Obama supporter Winfrey to issue an awkward mea culpa and ask all four candidates to honor her with their presence. My co-worker was game, wagering that Winfrey won’t back down, placing integrity over ratings (and magazine circulation). In truth, both of us felt unsure about the outcome, and a little embarrassed we were even talking about it.
The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan wrote on Sept. 6, quite breathlessly in my opinion, that, “It is starting to look to me like a nation-defining election… This campaign is about to become: epic.” Actually, the election might indeed be “epic,” remembered not for anything of real substance, but instead the indescribable banality of the entire process. Does anyone recall the flap du jour back in July when The New Yorker and its editor David Remnick were put on the defensive because of the satiric cover drawing the weekly ran depicting Obama as a Muslim and his wife Michelle in Angela Davis-like garb? It’s fuzzy to me as well, which, at first blush, is a little strange since I wrote a piece about the controversy for The Journal.
Yet consider how much has happened in this contest since the shank of summer, especially during the two national conventions, and not much of it of relevance to who’s going to lead the country for at least the next four years. Republicans derided Obama for having the temerity to give his acceptance speech before 80,000 people at Denver’s Invesco Field with a backdrop that was ridiculed for its resemblance to either the White House, or more ludicrously, to Greek temples. As political theater, it worked. Yet this grand and fleeting stagecraft has little to do with how Obama will navigate the flagging economy or international threats should he become president in January, and isn’t really worthy of derogatory GOP commentary.
Television anchors wondered whether, after John McCain’s predictably dull, and content-lite speech if the balloon-drop would malfunction. Americans, at least those who tuned into the GOP festivities last week—and, amazingly, millions did, drawing ratings that equaled the Obama show—were introduced to the concept of “hockey moms” (until now, apparently a neglected constituency) and mooseburgers. The Washington Post’s hyper media stenographer, Howard Kurtz, captured a dilly of a quote from Fox News’ Brit Hume, who said, in disgust, while killing time on air, how “atrocious” it was that baby pictures of McCain were included in the now-mandatory pre-speech video extolling a candidate’s “personal story.”
Bill Clinton, who had further tarnished his presidential “legacy,” such as it is, earlier this year by running off at the mouth about Obama’s inferiority compared to his wife Hillary (notably injecting a malodorous string of fairly blatant racist innuendoes), redeemed himself in the eyes of at least Democratic-leaning pundits and reporters by giving a speech that was a vigorous endorsement of Obama. Never mind that in typical Clintonian fashion his rhetoric—at least delivered in complete sentences, unlike his Oval Office successor—sounded significant as he spoke but was not memorable just an hour later. Still, as The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg wrote last week in his report from the Denver convention, “the big dog” more than behaved himself, and quoted a Hillary delegate as saying his address was “a cleansing, a healing that allows the page to be turned,” and “there was joy in the house.”
Not to outdone, Al Gore compared Obama to Abraham Lincoln, a stretch that I’m not entirely sure even Oprah could make with a straight face. But what the hell, Gore is now America’s wild card (or joker), since he’s developed as many personas over the years as Bob Dylan or David Bowie.
The mass media disgraced itself—again—by its immediate and very nasty condemnation of McCain’s pick of Palin, concentrating on her 17-year-old’s pregnancy, and as Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift said, “laughing” at McCain’s flagrant cynicism in choosing as his running mate a one-term governor from the forgotten state of Alaska. The New Republic’s Martin Peretz, largely a pariah at the magazine he once owned, contributed this deep thought about Palin’s speech: “If Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi had been decked out like soccer mom Sarah last night the G.O.P. would have called them tramps… I give her her due: she is pretty like a cosmetics saleswoman at Macy’s.”
The New York Times, last Monday, ran a front-page story about Palin’s baby Trig, born last spring, that even 16 years ago would’ve been buried—if it ran at all—inside the paper. “In just a few months, [Palin] has gone from hiding her pregnancy from those closest to her to toting her infant on stage at the Republican National Convention.” Now, imagine the media’s reaction if Palin hadn’t included the baby, born with Down syndrome, with the rest of the family after her acceptance speech. In fairness, McCain’s campaign has so far muzzled Palin, keeping her away from the press, but this story, “Fusing Politics and Motherhood in New Way,” has no place on the front page of the Times.
On the other side of media divide, GOP enthusiasts, after their own shock at McCain’s risky pick, declared Palin the “new face” of the Republican party, and praised the Arizona senator for his prescience in, in baseball parlance, paying attention to, and developing, future major league talent. Let’s see: there’s Palin, Bobby Jindal, Eric Cantor, and… well, I’ve run out of names. At least one conservative blogger even alluded to The Mary Tyler Moore Show (since the convocation was in St. Paul), saying that like the fictional Mary Richards, Palin was “going to make it after all.” I support McCain, but stuff like this makes me reach for the barf bucket.
In the days that followed, there was a bout of indignation from some Republicans that after Obama’s convention concluded, allegedly thousands of American flags were chucked in the trash before an Invesco Field worker rescued them. Give the Obama campaign demerits for not saving the flags for future use, but to imply that the Democratic candidate is unpatriotic is absurd and further sullies any real debate about the very real differences between Obama and McCain.
Over the weekend, we learned that Obama will not be “bullied,” “smeared” or “lied about,” a fairly pedestrian rallying cry he gave at fundraiser in New Jersey where, as the Associated Press put it, “rock legend” Jon Bon Jovi hosted a dinner for his candidate of choice. There was also news that McCain and Obama will appear together at the site of the demolished World Trade Center on Sept. 11 and will refrain, on that day, from airing negative advertisements about each other. That’s swell, but as a former Lower Manhattan resident, I’d be far more impressed if the opponent issued a joint condemnation of the federal and New York bureaucracies for the gross incompetence in failing—after seven years!—to rebuild Ground Zero.
This campaign, unless it’s radically altered, will not be remembered as one of ideas. Yes, both Obama and McCain have sketched out rote platforms and proposals that are intended to turn out their respective voters, but I haven’t a clue as to how either one will carry out their promises. At the upcoming debates I’d welcome one of the moderators asking each of the candidates about their plans for immigration reform. Obama’s been largely AWOL on this issue, knowing it’s hot turf for the nativist crowd and best to avoid it. For his part, McCain, who once staked a sensible and humane position, has retreated, and one hopes that privately he’s ashamed about this. I’d also like to know how Obama is going to increase revenues to pay for his version of healthcare and education by merely hiking taxes of those who earn more than $200,000 a year. The questions may come up but both men will bob and weave, to no one’s satisfaction except their respective strategists.
As I wrote in this space several weeks ago, there could be an event that elevates the discourse—say Russia invades the Ukraine (good for McCain) or General Motors files for bankruptcy (a boost for Obama)—but presently, amidst all the media clutter, the election will be decided by one factor alone. Will Americans opt for an older white man (who, due to circumstances beyond his control, looks closer to 80 than 72) or a middle-aged African-American. Maybe that’s a jaded oversimplification, maybe not, but it’s clear that the 2008 presidential election will be covered in black and white.