Politics, media and the politics of media.
Last spring, when Fox News announced that Glenn Beck had been chosen for the rapture from their ranks—his last day will be Thursday—the network started playing a promo for Beck’s personal end-time that could have been a trailer for Enemy of the State. Called “The Final Chapter,” it flashes words of evil like “Obamacare,” “net neutrality” and even “Food regulations” with black-and-white photos of President Obama, Van Jones, George Soros et al., casting Beck and, by extension, his audience as characters in a national security state thriller:
The heart-pounding staple of fear-inducing Republican ads, sounds a lot like the music backing Tim Pawlenty’s much-mocked action-thriller campaign video, which in turn echoes the theme to The Dark Knight, one of the right’s favorite flicks. Conservatives see that Batman movie as a 9/11 allegory, a municipal security thriller—the posters showing Obama in Joker make-up were spin-offs, and no less than the New York Post once swooned that the Dark Knight was “Dick Cheney with hair.”
And it would be just like Beck to overdramatize his departure as a coup d’état, or a final plot twist in an Allen Drury script. Of course, Beck has been shedding advertisers and viewers for more than a year as his paranoid vigilante shtick wore thin, but that isn’t the reason he’s been axed: Rupert Murdoch subsidizes many projects that don’t turn a profit, the New York Post for one. No, Beck is leaving because he’s served his purpose for Fox and its subsidiary, the Republican Party. And the kind of movie that Beck’s audience has been cast in isn’t a superhero thriller or even a standard save-the-world spy thriller but a very specific genre all its own: the amnesiac national security melodrama, like Matt Damon in the Bourne movies or Gregory Peck in Mirage.
Those movies always start with the hero waking up just after a blinding psychological trauma that has left him unable to remember who he is or what he’s done. As he begins his search to find his identity, he comes to believe that danger is all around him. Only by relying on his most violent instincts can he hope to survive; slowly, with the help of a flawed, unprepared and often compromised helper (usually a woman, but Glenn Beck is very good in this role), the hero comes to terms with who he really is and finds the courage to live as that reintegrated personality.
This plotline pretty much describes the hysterical reaction of the Tea Party to the calamity of George W. Bush’s presidency and Beck’s role in reviving their will to live. After the economic collapse and the elections of 2008, the panic on the right was completely understandable. Bush made it clear that everything conservatives had fervently believed was false: tax cuts and deregulation don’t create jobs, American armies can’t remake the Middle East, capitalism is really socialism for the very rich, and the party of fiscal conservatism is in fact more profligate than generations of Democrats.
Taken together, this succession of ideological impossibilities hit the Republican base like the two bullets in Jason Bourne’s back. (Unfortunately, the rank and file do not have a laser signal for a numbered Swiss bank account buried in their hips—only their leadership gets that.) They underwent a severe psychological break, and when they came to they were no longer Republicans at all: They were Tea Partyers.
These conservative voters might well have awakened as progressives, given what had happened to them and at whose hands. Hollywood’s national security thrillers always have an anti–right-wing spin (even when the books they’re based on don’t, like the Tom Clancy adaptations), because the idea of leftwing authoritarians taking over the country is, frankly, not believable.
But through the alchemy of wild hysteria and Vick’s Vapo-Rub-induced tears, Beck convinced his audience that their values had never been wrong, they had simply been betrayed by conservatives-in-name-only—that the GOP’s ideology wasn’t flawed, only its leadership was.
Like, mirabile dictu, George W. Bush himself. To them, Bush’s worst lie wasn’t about weapons of mass destruction but about just how conservative he really was. During the Egyptian uprising, Beck told his audience that both Bush administrations “told our bombers not to bomb…ancient Babylon. Why? Because the Bible tells us that that is the seat, right here”—he points to a small blob on his chalkboard—“of power, of a global, evil empire. Well, that's also where the twelfth imam from Iran is supposedly going to show up…” (See?)
Beck’s querulous, portentous, giddily apocalyptic delivery was perfect for this message of shocked—shocked!—realization. Once through the looking glass of Bush’s perfidy, you could sell these people almost anything: the Democrats had somehow managed to steal away the bonny effects of trickle down, the stimulus had actually made things worse, taxes just never got low enough or regulations lax enough to really let the free market deliver us its riches, and so on and on. There were enough conspiracy theories in the John Birch archives to keep it all spinning like a top, at least for a year or so. By that time, Obama had been in office long enough to own America’s problems—and Beck’s form of extreme psychotherapy, once so useful in nursing the right through a kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome, was superfluous.
So now it’s time for Beck, like the dead girlfriend in The Bourne Supremacy, to float off into the dark river of talk radio and the Internet, his role accomplished, the hero—a k a “the base”—restored. With the confused, nerve-wracking, touch-and-go exposition now over, Fox is moving on to the part of the script where the beleaguered hero begins to take his vengeance. And for that, there’s a new supporting cast made up of 2010 freshman governors—Walker, Scott, Christie, Kasich, LePage—each a union-slaying, New Deal–demolishing enforcer.
Which brings us to the Beck Ultimatum. Glenn has jumped so many sharks in the past year that he couldn’t possibly have satisfied even his shrunken audience’s sense of impending doom day after day for much longer. Toting a sign around that reads The End Is Near will, sooner or later, force you to deliver an event of commensurate desperation—even if it’s only your own departure. Fortunately, the oligarchic economy itself, crippled by the radical policies of those Republican governors and their cohorts in Congress, is making good on Beck’s prophecies. The world is ending, in a way, for a lot of people, and so is that idyllic postwar dream.
“I have a strange relationship with you,” Beck confided to his TV audience in one of his “Final Chapter” shows. “I feel you when I look into the camera.… I feel you say, ‘We get it. We get it. Now what?’ ”
As Josh Marshall points out, the more “he-manish” and bellicose Tim Pawlenty acts, the more cowardly and weak he looks. The iconic moment for T-Paw’s desperate tough-guy act will always be when he whiffed at repeating his neologism “Obamneycare” to Romney’s face at the New Hampshire debate earlier this month. But he’s been over-manning-up ever since. Last night he complained to Bill O’Reilly about Obama’s speech on Afghanistan: “He said we need to end the war ‘responsibly.’ When America goes to war, America needs to win.”
“Pawlenty has been telegraphing this over-compensation for months,” Josh writes, and he refers us to Pawlenty’s Independence Day–like pre-campaign video from January.
Telegraphing is right: What I noticed about the vid only now is that at the very end, at the final, climatic drum beat, as the camera closes in on our would-be hero’s face, Pawlenty literally blinks.
Minus some new graphics and backdrops, the new Countdown with Keith Olbermann is identical to the old Countdown with Keith Olbermann. It includes his best—his delight in ridiculing the powerful and the awful, and his worst—his delight in ridiculing the weak and the merely foolish. For the premiere Monday night, Olbermann chose to publicly humiliate a previously unknown woman as the Worst Person in the World.
The woman, riding a train to visit her parents, had apparently been talking loudly and swearing on a cell-phone conversation when a conductor told her keep it quiet. The woman gets obnoxious, saying, “Do you know how well educated I am?…. I’m not a crazy person. I’m a very well-educated person.” Another passenger tapes and then posts the scene on YouTube, where it becomes yet another “sensation.” “You haven’t seen the video of the woman on a train? The greatest cell-phone video ever?” Keith giddily asks us, as if we just must keep up with the permanent mob’s latest piñatas.
He didn’t stop at showing the video. He gave out the woman’s name, and quoted from her LinkedIn profile, where she (like the other 50 million people on LinkedIn) claims to have “excellent management and communications skills” with “a passion for pushing the limits on expectations.” Those were ironies Keith couldn’t help but grind in. And get this knee-slapper: She’s “likely to be driving to her folks from now on rather than taking the train—today’s worst person in the wooorld!”
We’ve all had bad days and have said things we regret, but do those moments really deserve YouTube and then “Worst Person” notoriety? Even the person who originally posted the video has removed it (for reasons that aren’t clear). Keith, however, revived it and gave it a whole new audience. But he seems unaware that the segment is far more embarrassing to him than to the woman, who you only end up feeling sorry for. As one of Olbermann’s commenters wrote: “Keith, are you going to do stories that make a difference or just post cellphone videos to ruin the lives of people who are trying to get work on LinkedIn? Sickening.”
Olbermann’s had a hot-and-cold relationship to WPITW. After Jon Stewart’s Rally for Sanity, in which he equated Olbermann and other media liberals with Fox News’s O’Reilly and Hannity (I defended Keith against that gross false equivalency), Keith actually dropped the segment. “Its satire and whimsy have gradually gotten lost in some anger,” he explained. “So in the spirit of the [rally], as of right now, I am unilaterally suspending” it. He soon brought it back, though, but with an awkward “whimsy” alert, calling it “(Not Really) The Worse Persons in the World.”
As tired as the bit now is it still has value. The lies and sleaze of pols and pundits are simply made more memorable when stuck with a “Worse Persons” label. Last night, for instance, the WP runners-up were Sarah Palin (for trade-marking the term “Sarah Palin”) and Fox News’s Chris Wallace and Bill Sammon (for editing out of Wallace’s interview with Jon Stewart, Stewart’s mention of Sammon’s memos that tell those freedom-loving Fox News hosts what propaganda to mouth on any given issue).
But by taking as much glee at shaming some little guy as he does the Sammons of the world, Keith is doing his own false equivalency dance.
And this meanspirited tendency is almost the mirror image of the mission statement Keith proudly announced for the new show last night.
“This is to be a newscast of contextualization,” he said. “And it is to be presented with a viewpoint: that the weakest citizen of this country is more important than the strongest corporation.”
Conservative Democratic senator Mark Warner is on the secretive Gang of Five—the three Dem and two Republican senators (Tom Coburn took a powder a few weeks ago) who are trying to cut a deal on the deficit in return for raising the debt ceiling. You must see this from today’s Morning Joe: Economist Jeffrey Sachs takes down Warner’s—and by extension, most corporate-friendly politicians’—fallacious argument that you can raise revenues by lowering tax rates for billionaires if only you close a few loopholes. And Sachs leaves no doubt about what he thinks of letting the top 2 percent run away with such an outlandish share of the American economy.
Sachs: These billionaires and multimillionaires have gotten away with the biggest increases of income and wealth in the history of this country, in the history of the world, since 1980. What are we talking about? Are they so fragile, so desperate that we need to get the billionaires’ top rates down? It’s outrageous.
Warner: We’re talking about trying to make sure they actually are paying close to…
Sachs: Make sure? Go after them! Make sure! This is what’s ridiculous—that we have to come beg them to pay their taxes?
Later in the clip, Sachs zaps the Simpson-Bowles commission as “filled with gimmicks” even as Warner repeats its formula of three dollars of cuts to one dollar of revenue as if that’s somehow a square deal. Warner is the sixth-richest congresscritter, with a reported net worth of between $65 million and $283 million.
Moderating the GOP debate on Monday night, John King was mint-fresh and emcee-efficient. Ever alert and well-informed, he cut short most of the candidates’ flights of rhetoric and moved them along briskly, almost as if they were holographics he could touch-move on CNN’s “Magic Wall.” He even produced a potential game-changing moment: When he asked Tim Pawlenty about his much-hyped coinage “Obamneycare”—“If it was Obamneycare on Fox News Sunday,” King said, “why isn't it Obamneycare standing here with the governor [Mitt Romney] right there?”—Pawlenty weaseled, and was instantly transformed into this year’s flip-flopping Romney.
But overall, King’s no-nonsense, staccato style of moderating had the inadvertent effect of toning down the crazy. Most of what these candidates said verged on the delusional—the Ryan plan to kill Medicare will actually save Medicare, or slashing taxes, spending and regulations will bring prosperity to all (or, as Pawlenty insists, will grow the economy at 5 percent a year!). But forced by King to compress their talking points and answer in a check-the-box way, the standard GOP red-white-and-blue rhetorical fireworks were largely neutralized.It was like bringing your batty uncle down from the attic and getting him to talk reasonably in the parlor by limiting him to simple, declarative sentences.
In the 2008 GOP debates, Tom Tancredo was allowed to ramble on for minutes about how brown people are destroying this country; Giuliani had time to repeat “9/11” so often he made himself into a joke before Joe Biden provided the punch line. But this year, with King interrupting the candidates constantly to hurry them up (the annoying grunts and “uh”’s you hear in the background are his), Newt barely had time to pull the pin on his verbal grenades before King made him fall on them. Newt began, for example, to call for loyalty oaths for anyone (read: Muslims) serving in a Gingrich administration, but King moved on from him before he could demand we all greet each other with “Hail, Freedonia!” and turned to Herman Cain to ask, “Thin crust or deep-dish?”
Michelle Bachmann, apparently newly trained to not look “hypnotized” (as Chris Matthews likes to put it), didn’t call anyone a socialist. She did start to sound familiarly wacko when she explained that economic recovery required not only the repeal of Obamacare but the death of the EPA, which, she said, “should really be renamed the Job-Killing Organization of America.” Rather than ask what would that do to drinking water, cancer rates, etc., King directed our attention to the tweets lighting up a big screen. (Bachmann still managed to win applause for some statements, be they nuts or neutral, by applying her rah-rah cadence, which always sounds as if she’s climbing a mountaintop. “I want to announce tonight, President Obama… is… a… one-term president!” she said to cheers. To which King responded, “I'm being polite so far. But I want to remind everybody about the time.”)
Maybe time on the Magic Wall does something to you, makes you think as well as act digitally—King, at least, seems to have picked up the synapses of a high-frequency trader. He still does the Wall, but since taking over Lou Dobbs’s old slot with his own hour-long show (and ably spoofing himself in a John Oliver parody a couple years ago), he’s grown. And at the debate, King did touch on the Republicans’ core illogic, asking Pawlenty, “Where's the proof that just cutting taxes will create jobs? If that were true, why during the Bush years, after the big tax cut, where were the jobs?” But other than pursuing Pawlenty—five times—on Obamneycare, King generally didn’t push hard enough to get at the nub of self-delusion that has consumed the Republican Party.
The GOP is approaching the point where outright crazy is passé, even counterproductive. They needed to go wild, even birther, in 2010 to fire up voters, but now, to win general elections and sometimes even primaries, going the way of Palin and Trump won’t always do. Oh, they’ll still pander to the Tea Party, but they’re slowly realizing that they need to lay out their barely sane policies in a sane-sounding way just to keep from scaring the horses (not to mention the independents).
For that, John King did them a favor. Still, despite the clipped and anodyne tone of the debate, not even all Republicans are buying it. Terry Pfaff, a former New Hampshire state senate candidate, asked from the audience:
I'm not a libertarian Republican, I'm not a Tea Party Republican. I'm just a mainstream Republican. And we need both—the independents and mainstream Republicans to win in November.
How can you convince me and assure me that you'll bring a balance, and you won't be torn to one side or the other for many factions within the party? You have to have a balanced approach to governing to solve our serious problems.
King had the Tea Partiers—Bachmann, Cain, Rick Santorum—respond, and they all made nice Big Tent noises. But Pfaff seemed frightened, even queasy, just listening to them. Take a look at his face:
Whether or not you think Anthony Weiner should resign, remember this: Republicans have kindly provided the frame in which to argue the question. For some reason, the following query isn’t allowed into that frame: Why aren’t members of Congress and the media demanding that Senator David Vitter resign?
If you recall (and how can you forget?) Vitter was outed in 2007 during the DC Madam sex scandal as a frequent client of prostitutes. (The mental picture of him allegedly wearing diapers during these visits is nearly as damaging as the actual pictures of Weiner—Vitter’s just lucky his fetish wasn't photographed.) But yesterday, as calls for Weiner’s exit by Republicans and quite a few Dems were reaching a fever pitch, the GOP hosted a fundraiser for Vitter in a lobbyist’s fancy DC townhouse, video of which Rachel Maddow aired last night.
Her must-see piece takes us through the sex scandal and resignation of almost Speaker of the House Bob Livingston—a leader in President Clinton’s impeachment—to the Louisianan who inherited his seat, Mr. Vitter.
Maddow asks members of both parties, “If you do not now feel moved to demand that David Vitter resign—now, in June 2011—how on earth can you demand that Anthony Weiner needs to resign?”
Others have eloquently discussed whether Anthony Weiner should resign (no, say Mike Papantonio and Andrew Sullivan, and they’ve convinced me), or whether lying about sex necessarily reveals anything about one’s character (nope, says Rick Hertzberg, who made me rethink the character issue).
But I’m still stuck on the postmod question that haunts every political sex scandal: Why didn’t you learn from the last schmuck that got caught?
And its corollary: How can you be so stupid?
So stupid to think your well-known mug wouldn’t be recognized (Eliott Spitzer, David Vitter, Chris Lee), so stupid to think you won’t eventually be caught (Gary Hart, Clarence Thomas, Larry Craig, John Ensign, John Edwards, Arnold), so stupid to try to a cover-up (Bill Clinton, Ensign, Edwards, etc. etc. etc.) and, especially in this day and age, so stupid as to ever, ever send pictures, chats, or anything even halfway creepy—lord, even a little risqué—online, much less on an open, public Twitter account.
Weiner surely exulted in Kathy Hochul’s victory in NY-26, which was made possible, after all, by the aforementioned former Representative Chris Lee, who couldn’t or wouldn’t learn from his predecessors. The married Lee sent hubba-hubba photos of his shirtless self to a woman on Craigslist (and, apparently unlike Weiner, tried to establish personal contact with). The tweeted photo that did Weiner in was sent May 20, long after the Lee scandal had produced the political earthquake of Hochul’s victory and established online gaminess as fair game.
Of course, Weiner didn’t fess up until he realized that more photos, and more women, were about to reach the public eye, forcing him to end his Nixonian limited hang-out of the previous ten days.
And that invokes the ultimate question for such a rising Democratic star: How could you have been so stupid as to make Andrew Breitbart look good?
At yesterday’s crazy, painful press conference—painful to watch him cry, painful to imagine losing such a passionate progressive champion in Congress—someone did ask Weiner the “stupid” question:
Q: When Chris Lee sent that photo and was caught and had to resign, did that make you stop and think, maybe I shouldn’t be doing this because I could be caught next? Did that ever go through your mind?
REP. WEINER: I didn’t think of it that way. From—I would think about—from time to time, I would say to myself, this is a mistake or this conversation—someone could listen in on or translate to someone else. This was a—I know that there is the sense that everything is part of a plan, and it was thought through and calculated. In this case, it was just me doing a very dumb thing, and for that I accept the responsibility.
At this point, the usual answers to male idiocy are that a lot of men, especially those in power, don’t believe they’ll ever be caught; or conversely, that they unconsciously want to get caught, perhaps to punish themselves because they feel undeserving of their status.
I can’t possibly know what was really going through Anthony Weiner’s mind when he did this, and neither can anyone else. But breaking through the wall around your public image with a private urge can be a transgressive thrill.
Can the next pol in line eager to bust through that public/private wall just please think about Weiner and Lee and Edwards a little more than “from time to time”?
Friday was Savannah Guthrie’s last day as co-host of The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. As she moves to her new gig co-hosting the third hour of NBC’s Today Show, here’s hoping she gets a much better position. Literally.
Although she’s been a stronger presence than the often flat Chuck Todd, Guthrie was physically positioned as his helpmate: he’d face straight forward, while she sat in a three-quarter profile, often leaning in from the side, as if she were trying to squeeze into the picture. Their postures said it all—she was an appendage to the main man, a vine to his trunk.
The Chuvannah tableau was a variation of the stereotypical male-plus-female pose that people often strike for photos: the woman turns her head to gaze at the guy while he manfully looks into the camera, setting his sights far beyond mere domesticity.
Of course, Guthrie never gazed into Todd’s eyes, and her role on the show was anything but ancillary. An attorney and now Today’s chief legal analyst, Guthrie was the sharper and more aggressive interviewer, often putting questions right past Todd, holding their subjects’ feet to the fire, pinning down Trump on abortion here or nailing Bachmann on her falsehoods there. Chuck, meanwhile, often seemed to be diligently checking off a list of questions.
And so having her sidle up to him at their desk seemed a very odd throwback. Even Fox News’s female hosts face forward or sit equally angled with the guys.
But except when Guthrie hosted solo, she’s had to assume the sidekick position, placing herself just so every weekday morning since Rundown debuted seventeen months ago.
Since talk show seating arrangements are meticulously designed, you have to wonder whether MSNBC producers put Guthrie in a physically secondary position in the same way they’ve put Mika Brzezinski in a verbally secondary position on Morning Joe, where she tries to squeeze into the conversation dominated by Joe and the boys.
Maybe having Brzezinski talk less than Scarborough was meant in some twisted way to justify paying her less than Joe—fourteen times less!—and less than the male regulars, even though it’s Mika, and not Mike Barnicle or Willie Geist, who’s billed and heavily promoted as Joe’s co-host. She almost left the show over the pay disparity, as she writes in her new book Knowing Your Value, but she says the problem has since been fixed.
Did the Daily Rundown create Guthrie’s Lean Forward From the Side angle to justify paying Todd more, and is that one reason she shifted horizontally to the Today Show?
I have absolutely no idea what either of them have been paid, or if money was a key factor in her departure. I’m just sayin,’ as Chuck would say.
At least as likely an explanation is that the producers thought the solid but stolid Todd needed to appear more like The Man. If Guthrie came in sideways, he’d look like the center. Remember, he once played an ancillary role himself. He was the cool geeky guy that the anchors—stronger personalities like Brian Williams, Chris Matthews or Keith Olbermann—would rely on to interpret polls, give dimension to stats, explain Congressional districts and generally grind through the information that was too emotionally inert to merit their attention. His passion was to dispassionately reveal the telling detail.
Todd was actually fun to watch in that role, because he was often able to tease out meanings others overlooked. In fact, he was so popular—with his own fan club yet—that NBC promoted him to chief White House correspondent and then to a show of his—and Guthrie’s—own. But the promotion has changed him from someone who calmly analyzed politics at the granular level to someone who tries to kick up a little dust, straining to achieve the emotional range needed to keep viewers’ attention for a full hour. (Not to mention that the network severely overworks the guy.)
Maybe Todd will continue Rundown without a partner, and maybe he’ll grow into the space, even absorbing some of Guthrie’s livelier, more unpredictable spirit.
But if they do give Chuck another female co-host, let’s hope they’re both allowed to Face Forward.
Remember how the right-wing media excoriated John Kerry in 2003 for ordering a Philly cheese steak with Swiss cheese instead of Cheez Whiz? That was proof positive, Rush Limbaugh said, that the “reputed Vietnam veteran” thinks he’s “better than all the people in ‘flyover country.’ You can tell that this cheese steak looks very foreign to Kerry.” Or remember how they pilloried President Obama for eating a burger with mustard? “What kind of man orders a cheeseburger without ketchup but Dijon mustard?” asked Laura Ingraham. Signs of Frenchification! Of feminization! Of being traitors to American Exceptionalism!
Mustard may be the evil condiment, but eating pizza with a fork—as the supposedly NYC-bred Donald Trump did yesterday with the supposedly family-vacationing Sarah Palin—well, that doesn’t offend the right at all. But food-borne indignation over that is red meat for Jon Stewart: