Essay by Martha Quillen
Politics – November 2004 – Colorado Central Magazine
THERE’S BEEN a lot of media criticism about negative campaigning in recent years. But this time around it seems like the media’s stance on nasty campaigning is more questionable than the offensive campaigns.
After the last debate, for example, The Rocky Mountain News ran a fat, black headline announcing “Town brawl,” in just this size:
It was not quite a “second coming” headline, which in the trade refers to headlines in type sizes that should be reserved for wars or the arrival of the Messiah. But it was close.
And it was a total fraud.
(Either that or I missed a really historic scuffle when that telemarketer called.)
So what “brawl” was the Rocky Mountain News story referring to? Well, in the Rocky’s words, “Kerry, Bush hammer at each other over weapons, taxes.” But no, the candidates didn’t literally hammer at each other.
On the contrary, Bush and Kerry were painstakingly — almost obsequiously — careful to thank their hosts, their moderator, each other, and their audience for being there. And during their second debate, the Presidential candidates never even frowned at each other (after Bush was criticized for scowling in the first debate).
In reality, Kerry’s smile was so broad it made him look like Howdy Doody — as if his jaw were not only hinged, but stuck in position. And Bush looked like he had to keep his teeth clenched to resist glowering. In fact, one had to wonder if the President left the premises earlier than Kerry because his tight-jawed grimace of a smile had given him a headache. But whether it took a great deal of effort or not, both candidates remained civil.
Of course, on occasion the candidates got passionate enough to convince you that they might actually care about some of the things they were saying. But that didn’t happen very often — and I expect we have the media to thank for that.
Although journalists are seldom as neutral as they pretend to be, they are very good at berating candidates for being unfair. Presidential candidates, however, are not supposed to be impartial. Nope, they are supposed to be explaining what they plan to do in the next four years.
So did Bush and Kerry do that?
WELL, LET’S HOPE NOT, because if they were actually being forthright and candid, we don’t have many choices in this election. Both candidates are going to support our troops, fight terrorism, champion democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, only engage in war as a last resort, cut the deficit, lower health care costs, and reduce the tax burden for working Americans.
Those recurrent, commonplace pronouncements are not surprising, though, since candidates generally display about as much intellectual depth and honesty as Barney and Big Bird.
Just a few years back, campaigners taught us all about spin. According to the arguments of the day, Clinton was either an immoral rapist or a repentant sinner. Clinton was, of course, neither of those things. But at least he was purported to be something.
The Bush administration has ushered in a new sort of disinformation age. In our era of branding everything from products, to the Arkansas Headwaters Region, the candidates are now vying to create the ultimate political “brand.” The strategy of the game is to stick with the script; the goal is to create the latest buzz words — and thereby dominate the airways with your message.
Whereas Bill and Hillary talked and talked about their faux pas, slowly explaining away all of their failings, the new administration tends to be emphatic, terse, and so simplistic that it borders on idiocy. Ask Bush anything and he answers that his opponent is wishy-washy.
Yet this bold, new style has taken hold. Ask Kerry anything, and he answers that he has a plan. Ask Edwards anything and he answers that Kerry has a plan. And when Cheney was asked about Halliburton, problems with the economy, and job losses, he didn’t answer at all; he just kept praising the Bush tax cuts.
On both sides, the scripts are ludicrously abbreviated and so repetitive that they could be worked into verses for a cheerleading squad:
“Kerry’s our man; he’s got a plan. He’ll fix it all, he can, he can. Kerry’s our man; he’s got the plan. He’ll fix it all, he can, he can.”
“No, Kerry’s wrong. He’s not so strong, I’m always right, because I fight. Oh, yes, I’m right, because I fight. I’m right, I’m right, because I fight.”
Yep, the theory dominating the 2004 campaigns is keep it simple. So Kerry and Bush dutifully repeated stock phrases over and over. And yet their debates weren’t half bad.
Since neither candidate wanted to sound like a total moron, they also outlined their positions fairly well. Their exchanges clarified their political differences, and both of them proved to be agreeably articulate. On the whole, I was heartened by the debates.
YET EVEN SO, the political process seems to have hit new lows in recent years. Headline reports, Fox News, television commentators, radio talk show hosts, and a lackluster press core, all seem to encourage clever lines, entertaining anecdotes, melodrama, and sound bites over substance. If there’s 45 seconds open on the evening news, the candidate is not going to garner that prime-time spot by explaining his budget for funding rural medical services.
Thus everything’s gotten ludicrously superficial — and misleading. According to the Republicans, for instance, the President can either tax and spend and give us more government regulations; or he can cut taxes and reduce the size of government.
Yet their man has cut taxes, multiplied the deficit, and increased the size of government. So go figure. Perhaps governing the world’s only superpower is not quite as moronically simplistic as the Republicans imply.
The political movers and shakers, however, and their spin doctors, and the media all seem to think that you and I are so simple-minded that we’ll fall for their evasive blather.
And damn, I think maybe they’re right.
The candidates, after all, have a reason for reducing their platforms into 30-second infomercials; they want to coin that catchy phrase that prevails in the media.
But what’s our excuse?
We criticize the media for turning political campaigns into horse races by reporting on who’s ahead and who’s behind while ignoring issues, stands, and details. But the citizens are equally culpable. We forsake learned inquiry and earnest documentaries and embrace cheerleaders like Rush Limbaugh and Al Franken. Forget the press, we’d rather get our political information from Fox and Comedy Central.
TODAY, WE’VE GOT MORE choices than ever before. We’ve got more radio stations, and more television channels — and you can read newspapers from all over the world on the internet. Yet we settle for empty commentary about the candidates’ posture and facial expressions from overeager pseudo-reporters — and comments about the candidate’s stateliness and sincerity from uninformed, undecided voters in unaffiliated states.
What kind of news coverage is that?
To be fair though, with the economy the way it is, a lot of people have to work several jobs, so they don’t have much time for news. But even so, Americans have been wrangling over war for two years now, and there’s been very little informative discussion on the issue. For instance:
When should the U.S. send military advisors and weapons into countries struggling against oppression? Under what circumstances should the U.S. go to war? What is our engagement policy? What should it be?
What are our obligations toward our allies? What is our relationship with the U.N.? What accords and treaties do we follow? What does the Geneva Convention say?
Bush is both praised and condemned for rushing into war, but what about other Presidents? Should Reagan have bombed Iran? Should we have intervened in Somalia and Bosnia under Clinton? Should we have gotten involved in Nicaragua and El Salvador under Reagan? Should we have done more or less to assist Tibet? Liberia? Nigeria? And Myanmar?
Despite all of the name-calling and hostility that we’ve expended on the topic of war in recent years, Americans have barely talked about any of these things.
At this point, John Kerry and dozens of authors and most Democrats agree that Bush’s war strategies were wrong.
But fervent Bush supporters don’t seem to care whether rebel forces were stronger in Iraq than the Bush administration had led us to believe. And they don’t seem too concerned about whether Iraq was involved in 9/11, or had weapons of mass destruction, or had any relationship with Al Quaeda, either. After all, Saddam was a dangerous bad guy, so what difference did it make why we attacked him?
According to Bush supporters, good Americans should support the war and their President and his policies in order to support their country and their troops.
Yet some conservatives are still angry because Clinton sent American troops into Bosnia. In fact, they gleefully accuse Democrats of deceit and hypocrisy for supporting Clinton’s campaign against Slobodan Milosevic but not Bush’s war against Saddam Hussein.
IT’S EASY TO SEE the hypocrisy in that position — since once upon a time those critics obviously didn’t support an American President and his war, either. But Republicans aren’t the only ones who have a problem with philosophical consistency.
Democrats also embrace a whole passel of conflicting sentiments regarding our President. In America, hypocrisy prevails.
A large number of Democrats, for instance, insist that a President’s sex life doesn’t really matter. And some Democrats even maintain that dynamic, sexually aggressive, philanderers make the best Presidents. Yet the Democratic Party promotes legislation condemning sexual harassment and discouraging inappropriate sexual relationships in the workplace. Why?
Well, presumably Democrats don’t really believe that Elizabeth Ray should have been paid a salary for her sexual favors. And one suspects that most Democrats also frown on having sex on company time.
— And darn it, I’m a Democrat, and I definitely don’t think that Monica Lewinsky should have gotten such a cushy job over at the Pentagon — a job that paid lots more than I’ve ever made — just because she was creative with a cigar. Hey, that’s just not fair. After all, I actually know how to type.
But sexual misconduct is certainly not a bipartisan offense. No matter how degenerate their guy is, Republicans don’t like it when the spotlight lands on one of them, either.
In fact, even though Republicans are trying to legislate everyone’s family values, some of their leaders haven’t even lived up to modest moral standards (including Bob Packwood, Buz Lukens, Bob Livingston, and Colorado’s own Larry Schwartz.)
— So no wonder everyone gripes about politics these days.
But it’s worse than that. When I watched the debates, I realized that a lot of Americans really believe that one candidate or the other is actually dangerous. And unfortunately, I’m one of them. I think President Bush may be hazardous to our health.
THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION was wrong in its assessment of resistance in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Bush has consistently underestimated Al Quaeda numbers and influence; Bush has alienated many of our allies; and he’s shepherded us into an era of declining employment and spiraling health care costs. But mostly I fear Bush because he blames Clinton for all of the bad things that have happened in the last four years.
As Bush would have it, Clinton let Al Quaeda gain power; Clinton ushered in a recession; Clinton established the conditions which resulted in job losses, and higher health care costs, and more uninsured citizens; Clinton fashioned the economy that made Bush run up a huge deficit.
All in all, Bush seems to think that he’s responsible for nothing bad, and everything good, and that makes me worry that he’s going to keep doing the same old things that are already overstretching our economy, overtaxing our troops, angering our allies, and making it so darn hard to afford health insurance, medical care, retirement, or just the status quo.
Yet I realize that other Americans are probably equally unenthused about Kerry.
A lot of Americans these days seem to feel like there’s a giant, monolithic alliance out there trying to mess up their lives, their country, and their world. You hear it from every side, Republican, Democrat, Nader supporter, political abstainer.
Of course, being a Democrat, I ordinarily think that Republicans are the dangerous ones. But occasionally, I realize that the Republicans may have launched their world-annihilating offensive in response to arrogant reformers who insisted that conservatives were responsible for racism, bigotry, greed, hatred, war, environmental degradation, and all things biased, inequitable, and ornery.
What I don’t get, though, is why so many Republicans seem to want to prove that their insulting, wise-ass, liberal critics are right:
Oh, yeah, let’s pour poison in our water; sell our national forests; rally around funerals with “I hate fags” signs; and make grieving parents keep their hopelessly comatose and anencephalic children on life support.
What kind of political movement is that?
Destructive and mean-spirited, that’s what it is.
Sometimes I wonder if Americans are really fighting a War on Terror at all. Or are the Republicans really just trying to force all of those peace-loving sixties hippies back into war?
THIS PERSONAL, LITTLE conspiracy theory of mine pales compared to what’s out there, though. I’ve met people who really believe that the U.N. is a tool of the anti-Christ. And I also know people who think Bush knocked down the World Trade Center towers so that his oil industry buddies could invade Iraq.
So how did we get here? Why are we so divided? Is this a split between warriors and peaceniks. Or is it about the economy? Or abortion? Or the environment? Or school prayer? Or gun control?
Actually, I have no idea.
But I think maybe it’s a matter of faith. I don’t mean to imply, however, as George Sibley would have it in his column this month, that the issue is any way religious. In fact, I found George’s grumbling about Billy-gods and religion, not only irresponsible, but illogical.
Bush is a Christian; Kerry is a Christian; Clinton is a Christian. So just what does religion have to do with how any of us stand on environmentalism, the upcoming elections, or the War in Iraq?
Hey, George, there are Christian environmentalists, Christian Democrats, and Christian biologists. There are Christians who believe in evolution, and Christians who believe in peace. There are Christians who are scientists. There are gay Christians, socialist Christians, and French Christians. And until Christ actually descends to tell us that he personally supports the current administration, I won’t assume that Bush’s policies are actually sanctioned by God. Nor will I believe that everyone who believes in God shares the same political agenda.
Ahhh, but I digress. As I said, I think the overwhelming issue these days is faith, but I’m not referring to faith in God. I think the primary issue dividing us today is faith in our country.
One side seems to have faith in our President, our history, our ancestors, our country, and our righteousness. And the other does not.
One side believes that America is a super-power, a trend-setter, and a moral leader, that represents democracy and righteousness, and therefore our country has the right, and the obligation, to protect its interest with force.
Whereas the other side believes that we are merely a country, one among many, powerful yet fallible, and therefore the U.S. may have to protect itself on occasion, but it doesn’t necessarily have the right nor the wisdom to advise or dictate to others.
And I suspect there’s still another side which believes that the United States is actually greedier and more militaristic than most of its neighbors, and therefore it shouldn’t be entrusted to “liberate” anyone.
Although these views don’t lend themselves to easy compromise, you would think we could still cooperate in order to do something about America’s ominous transfer of jobs overseas, and our escalating health care costs, and declining schools, and mounting personal debts, and bankrupt social security system.
Yet that doesn’t seem to be the case.
At this point, it’s hard to know how Americans are really doing. We’ve got so much stuff: clothing, furniture, cars, cosmetics, Game Boys. But most of us can’t afford what we really need: health insurance, dental work, adequate housing, home repairs, retirement accounts, more education.
Compared to its industrialized brethren, the U.S. has more homeless citizens; more children dying; more families living in cars; more mentally ill citizens wandering the streets without care or treatment; more chronically ill working people who go without adequate health care.
So what can we do?
Well, actually, I think George Sibley probably has the right idea. I think we need to start discussing serious but sensitive issues.
B UT THAT’S ONLY GOING TO WORK if we all come to the table. (And I suspect the best way to get people to the table is to refrain from insulting their religion, their God, or their politics.) And once we’re there, together, I suspect we are going to have to be very empathetic, and patient, and not take offense too easily….
And it’s not going to be easy because some people have lost their jobs and health insurance and the Republicans are encouraging them to blame liberals for not lowering corporate taxes, when everybody knows it’s really because those avaricious CEOs who got humongous tax cuts from Bush exported all of our jobs to Lower Slobovia….
Oh, forget it…. Nothing is going to work. I think maybe all of those people who keep telling me that they’re going to leave this country are right. Maybe we should all just get out of here. –Martha Quillen