Every four years, during U.S. presidential elections, the same thing happens, except it’s always a little bit different.
Some clever political operative injects “oppo” into the campaign – some little “scandal” that supposedly speaks to the “character” of a candidate – and the press corps obsesses on this marginal issue nearly to the exclusion of all substantive matters.
This all-consuming event distorts the campaign, turning the targeted candidate into a laughingstock or someone who isn’t quite American enough. Pundits pile on with criticism that the guy should have reacted faster or slower or answered this way or that.
Millions of voters become convinced, amid this intense negativity, that they simply can’t vote for this loser and the outcome of the election changes.
Then, in the election aftermath, the American press corps goes through a period of self-reflection; some excellence-in-journalism group issues a scathing report about the superficiality of the news coverage; political journalists vow that in the next election they won’t get suckered again.
Then, the process – which dates back at least to 1988 and Lee Atwater’s savaging of Michael Dukakis – begins anew, albeit always with some slightly new twist.
All this might be quite funny if one doesn’t consider the consequences for the Republic. When historians try to figure out how the most powerful nation on earth managed to end up under the control of someone as unfit as George W. Bush for eight years, they will have to take note of this media phenomenon.
In 2000, Al Gore was transformed from a thoughtful, even far-sighted government official into a delusional braggart who claimed “I invented the Internet” (though he really didn’t say that), a traitor who sold nuclear secrets to China (though he didn’t), and a phony who wore earth-tone sweaters and cowboy boots.
John Kerry also had many strong points – as a genuine Vietnam War hero (a decorated Swiftboat captain in the Mekong Delta) and a gutsy investigator (Nicaraguan contra drug trafficking and BCCI) – but saw his war heroism smeared by the misnamed Swiftboat Veterans for Truth and his Americanism mocked because he “looked French.”
At key moments in these campaigns, the press let the “oppo” define Bush’s opponents and thus millions of Americans went to the polls believing fiction was truth, up was down. (For details, see “Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush.”)
Going to Be Different
In 2008, however, the conventional wisdom was that the pattern would be different.
America could no longer afford the silliness – with the United States bogged down in two wars (Iraq and Afghanistan), with the dollar sinking and the federal debt rising, with global warming requiring urgent attention and gas prices soaring, with America’s image in the world shattered by Bush’s policies of preemptive wars and torture.
This time, the campaign press corps would keep its focus on what really mattered. Or at least, it would not wander too far off course.
But it didn’t turn out that way. With Hillary Clinton’s campaign playing the “oppo” role filled before by Republican operatives like the late Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, the attacks on Barack Obama’s “character” gradually took hold.
Especially, during the six-week lull before the key Pennsylvania primary, the American people got a steady dose of this “oppo,” especially the guilt by association that sought to define Obama by the comments of his former pastor Jeremiah Wright and by his tenuous connection to Vietnam War-era radical Bill Ayers.
There also was the furor over the fact that Obama often didn’t wear an American flag lapel pin (though Hillary Clinton and John McCain didn’t either).
One might have thought the obsession with Wright and with the lesser themes of Ayers and the flag pin would have soon disappeared as just little blips on the campaign’s radar, but that would have required the exercise of some judgment and self-control by prominent national journalists.
Instead, the old pattern reasserted itself. So, on April 16 in the first prime-time debate on a major network, ABC News moderators George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson hammered away at these “oppo” themes for nearly the first half of the debate: Wright, Ayers, flag pins.
By the time many Americans had given up or flipped the channel to Fox’s “American Idol,” they hadn’t heard a single question about issues that affect them directly. Though Obama appeared damaged by the pounding, ABC also got roughed up by critics of the debate, which was denounced as the most disgraceful debate ever.
So, on May 4, the Sunday before another important round of primaries, one might have expected something better or at least different when NBC News Washington bureau chief Tim Russert interviewed Obama for a full hour. But that’s not how this process works.
Russert opened up “Meet the Press” with a steady barrage of questions about Rev. Wright – a dozen all told – most of which had been thoroughly plowed previously.
Russert: “What has the controversy over Reverend Jeremiah Wright done to your campaign?”
“You’re still a member of the church?”
“Why do you think he re-emerged?”
“What did you learn [about Wright] in those [past] five weeks that you didn’t know in March?”
“The critics have said he [Wright] can attack the United States of America, he can do all sorts of things that divide the country, but only when he made it politically uncomfortable for you did you finally separate himself [sic] from him.”
“Reverend Wright was going to give the invocation [at Obama’s campaign launch], he was disinvited. … So you knew in ‘07, this guy’s a problem.”
“Why didn’t you just say then, ‘You know, Reverend, we’re going on different paths because this country does not believe in white supremacy and black inferiority’”?
“He said in a letter to The New York Times, he suggested that you apologized for not letting him do the invocation. Is that true?”
“Is it fair for people to raise questions about your judgment for misjudging Reverend Wright?”
“You’re done with him?”
“If you’re elected president, you won’t seek his counsel?”
“Could you have handled this better, differently, by severing your ties earlier?”
“What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from this?”
Russert then pivoted into a reprise of Obama’s supposed lack of patriotism, mentioning Wright’s comment, “God damn America,” and the criticism of Obama for not wearing a flag pin – with the question framed as a question from Democratic superdelegates about Obama.
Russert: “How is he going to defend or define his patriotism?”
It was almost halfway through the program before Russert touched on a question that actually related to the lives of Americans, a question about whether or not the government should suspend the gas tax for the summer driving months.
Russert: “Why are you against giving taxpayers in Indiana, North Carolina, a relief from federal gasoline tax this summer?”
Only in the second half of the hour did the interview address some substantive questions about U.S. policy in the Middle East, before Russert ended the interview with a flurry of questions about what might happen in the campaign depending on the outcomes in Indiana and North Carolina.
Given the amount of time devoted to Rev. Wright and political tactics, what was striking was what wasn’t discussed. Russert didn’t ask a single question about President Bush’s policies on torture, his stretching of his constitutional authority as the “unitary executive,” the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the possible recession, the declining dollar, the federal budget deficit or a host of other important issues.
Since Russert is an icon to many Washington journalists, he was spared the kind of criticism that Stephanopoulos and Gibson encountered after the April 16 debate. But Russert’s obsession with political trivia was arguably worse than theirs.
When the post-mortems on Campaign 2008 are written, Obama – like Dukakis, Gore and Kerry before him – will be faulted for failing to figure a way out of the “oppo” trap. But the bigger question confronting the American people will be how they can escape this recurring nightmare of a silly news media trivializing and distorting the selection of the President.
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