The Presidential Pageant
For the people who cover them for a living, elections are not about issues or evidence or even truth; they are about the narrative. Campaigns struggle to define it long before voters are paying attention--because once the narrative is determined, it's virtually impervious to revision. This was the case with the "Gore's a liar; Bush is a dope" story line of the 2000 election. As Margaret Carlson--then of Time--explained to Don Imus, "You can actually disprove some of what Bush is saying if you really get into the weeds and get out your calculator, or look at his record in Texas...but it's really easy, and it's fun, to disprove Al Gore. As sport, and as our enterprise, Gore coming up with another whopper is greatly entertaining to us."
Each year's election narrative is determined by the bigfoot correspondents and the top tier of the punditocracy and then reinforced by everyone else. It works best with a conservative spin because of the recent right-wing takeover of so many of these perches, owing to the power of Drudge, talk-radio and cable TV. But it is determined in places like Time, Newsweek, the New York Times and the Washington Post. To get an idea of how the process works, take a look at the coverage of John Edwards's campaign. In an alleged news story, "Edwards Talks Tough on Hedge Funds," Times reporter Leslie Wayne observed, "Mr. Edwards has made poverty his signature issue, a topic that stands in sharp contrast to his own $30 million net worth." Wayne and her editors apparently think there's a "sharp contrast" between a man being wealthy and his expressing concern for the poor. It's a constant theme of the Edwards coverage. The Post, for instance, devoted breathless front-page coverage to the sale of Edwards's house. Bill Hamilton, a Post editor, defended this decision to the paper's ombudsman by explaining that Edwards was a "presidential candidate [who] just happens to be a millionaire who is basing his campaign on a populist appeal to the common man."
The unmistakable implication is that poor people have no right to representation in our society. No one mocks Mitt Romney for promoting policies that protect his more than $250 million net worth. Ditto Rudy Giuliani, who pocketed more than $16 million last year alone. But as Fox's Neil Cavuto puts it, "The GOP guys are not pretending to be, you know, great poor advocates." Since actual poor people are de facto disqualified from running for President by Congress's refusal to institute the kind of publicly financed elections that are the rule in most democracies, the result is that we allow representation only of the rich, by the rich.
Then there are the haircuts. You won't be surprised to hear that the fact that John Edwards got a couple of expensive haircuts has generated, according to Lexis/Nexis, about a thousand "news" stories. I can't say I've read many of them, but I'd be amazed if any proved more ridiculous than the 1,220-word "investigation" by the Post's John Solomon, who notes, "It is some kind of commentary on the state of American politics that as Edwards has campaigned for president, vice president and now president again, his hair seems to have attracted as much attention as, say, his position on health care." You think? In fact, his hair has gotten far more airtime than his healthcare plan, but what's odd is Solomon's (and his editors') inability to see that perhaps a 1,220-word investigation of a haircut might be part of the problem.
If the point of the stories about Edwards's wealth is to delegitimize his arguments on behalf of the poor, the haircut obsession is designed to feminize the candidate and thereby undermine his credentials as macho-man for President--which are, by the way, those deemed to be the most important by the media. Ann Coulter calls him a "faggot." Maureen Dowd, Chris Matthews and Joe Scarborough, among many others, use the term "Breck Girl." The wording is more polite, but the effect is the same.
Speaking of Dowd, to understand how this process works, it is crucial to recognize the influence her Times column wields in determining the substance and contours of the agreed-upon narrative. This is a shame because while Dowd is a wonderfully felicitous writer, she has little interest in ideas and none in policy. Her column frequently reads as if co-written by the Shannen Doherty character in Heathers. Regarding Gore, she complained in 1999 that he was "so feminized...he's practically lactating." She attacked him, baselessly, for having boasted that he was the father of the Internet. She also hyped a false and defamatory version of Gore's role in inspiring the novel Love Story. In both cases, Gore was telling the truth as Dowd and company accused him of lying. But because she was annoyed with the man she termed a "pious smarty-pants," she wrote, "The vice president's campaign woes could make a Nashville country song: 'You've been sighin' and you've been lyin'.'" As my Media Matters colleague Eric Boehlert notes, Dowd's smarmy and inaccurate attacks on Gore predated (and presumably inspired) the Republican National Committee's.
Most recently Dowd's peevishness has been directed toward Barack Obama. She finds the candidate "testy," "irritated," "hung-up," "conflicted" and "self-consciously pristine." Dowd took it personally when he gave a Labor Day speech in New Hampshire taking on business-as-usual Beltway politics. Dowd mocked Obama's "ranting about Washington pundits" by pointing out that he frequently graces the covers of magazines. This is quite a trick when you think about it. The media elite put Obama on magazine covers, and then the same media elite insist he is inauthentic for having appeared on magazine covers.
Dowd also accuses Obama of preening like a "46-year-old virgin," demonstrating "loose" body language and being "hung up on being seen as thoughtful," while secretly fearing "being seen as 'a dumb blond.'" Still, it's a kind of progress over her Gore coverage; at least she didn't accuse him of posing as the model for Superfly...