The Spectacle of Campaign 2008


Exit Poll: Your Enthusiasm and the Media’s

“Drawing from the best resources on national and local platforms, Fox will bring together America’s two greatest passions — politics and football.” So said Marty Ryan, Fox News executive producer of political programming, describing that network’s addition of a three-hour “Super Tuesday political preview” to the usual day-long football festivities. In that way did Fox News manage to catch the zeitgeist of the moment, creating a 24/7 spectacle of super-entertainment by merging the number-one top-draw extravaganza, Super Bowl Sunday, with the mid-week surprise of a writer-starved TV season, Super Tuesday.

Each was guaranteed to be a dawn-to-midnight entertainment spectacular. Each was to be a talkathon of experts and pundits (including the Las Vegas odds-maker Fox interviewed Sunday who was “handicapping” both events in more or less the same breath), interspersed with mega-ads and mega-ad stories, as well as some thrilling action, leading toward results that, in each super-case, we, the viewers, would sooner or later have known, even if no one had said a word. Don’t be surprised, if, on this Super Tuesday, you see Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw, and Jimmy Johnson calling the shots alongside the Fox News crew. After all, the “showdown” under the dome of the University of Phoenix Stadium was to be followed two days later by what ABC News termed a “showdown coast to coast.” (Normally, O.K. Corral-style “showdown” logos have been reserved for cruise missile shoot-outs on Main Street with global perps like Saddam Hussein.)

By the time you read this, you’ll probably already know more about the immediate American political scene than I do. You may know whether Barack Obama, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, or Mitt Romney was the Eli Manning (or Tom Brady) of politics. Maybe you’ll have stayed up as network news and cable outfits analyzed the election into the morning hours as if this were November 4th.

That, in itself, will be unprecedented. In 2004, the networks relegated (somewhat less) Super Tuesday to intermittent news updates. This time, with Charles Gibson anchoring ABC News’ five hours of coverage, it will be another “historic occasion” in the “election of our age.” There’s already been the Huckabee ambush in Iowa, the McCain return from the politically dead in New Hampshire, the fall of America’s Mayor in Florida, and round-the-clock Obamania, not to speak of endless media and pollster mis-predictions, which only provided yet more riveting stories for the race of the century.

Let’s face it, for media and candidates alike Primary 2008 has been Survivor, The Amazing Race, American Gladiator, The Apprentice (“You’re fired!”), and American Idol rolled into one — and a ratings wonder as well in which nothing fails. Two testy opponents meet elbow to elbow in a debate in Hollywood — with the camera flicking to the star-studded audience as if it were the Oscars… Gasp! Is that really George from Seinfeld? — and no sparks fly; yet the story has wings anyway. Barack and Hillary were cordial! Were “a black man and a white woman” the “perfect future running mates”? Could they team up as “a Democratic dream ticket”? Or would they be back at each other’s throats, just the way John McCain and Mitt Romney have been?

It couldn’t matter less, not when everything in Campaign 2008 glues American eyeballs to screens without a writer in sight. Who needs on-strike vendors of fiction when a teeming crew of stand-up pundits is eternally on hand to produce political fictions at a moment’s notice? Can anyone deny that more of them have been predicting, projecting, suggesting, insinuating, bloviating, and offering authoritative conclusions than at any time in our history? If that isn’t “historic,” what is, even if so many of their predictions prove wrong in the morning light?

It’s been feeding-frenzy time in medialand — and it’s your enthusiasm off which the media’s been feeding.

The Enthusiasm of the Young

Let me take a shot at creating a minor countercurrent in the flow of superduper-commentary by taking The Pledge. Here and now. On this very spot.

In this piece, I swear that I will not “handicap” any primary race, nor predict who is going to win Super Tuesday in either party. I will not handicap the race to the conventions. I will not speculate on who will be the vice-presidential candidate for whom in the fall, or who will win the presidency in November and enter the Oval Office on January 20, 2009, and I will not discuss polling results, nor mention a margin of error.

Don’t think this is easy. I’m just as addicted as any other red-blooded American. After all, this election is the media equivalent of a barreling train. And not Amtrak either. Think the Japanese bullet train or the French TGV. If I fall off the proverbial caboose, it’s going to hurt and yet it’s so hard not to. Just the other day — and I had already vowed to reform — after checking out a range of reliable reportage and punditry, I assured my bored wife and son, with all the authority that the political wisdom of our age bestowed on me, over dinner no less, that John Edwards would be in the election for keeps, no question about it; that he could well be the kingmaker at the Democratic convention. It was a slam-dunk — until, that is, he dropped out so that history could “blaze its path”! But, hey, even if he didn’t oblige, there were always those superdelegates! They could still save the kingmaking day and keep the media express rolling right into the Democratic convention.

Anyway, think of this dispatch as an exit poll of a different kind, starting with this question: What exactly do most Americans want to exit from?

Recently, the Washington Post’s online columnist Dan Froomkin noticed this little tidbit: While George W. Bush proudly exhibits Saddam Hussein’s captured pistol in a small study off the Oval Office, his pal Dick Cheney has “on display at his residence a piece of the house where Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the al Qaeda leader in Iraq, was killed.”

Call that exit-poll symbolism. The imperial President and Vice President, the “one percent solution” guys, the we-don’t-torture waterboarding folks, exhibit as memorabilia a gun and rubble. That pretty much sums up their legacy, the one that, on January 20, 2009, they’ll dump on a populace only 19% of whom believe their country to be “on the right track.” When it comes to guns ‘n rubble, give them credit: They managed to set the oil heartlands of the planet ablaze, ensuring that oil prices would go sky high; they turned the two countries they tried their “nation-building” hand at — Afghanistan and Iraq — into the world’s leading purveyor of opiates and a charnel house.

If they had had their way, they surely would have left much of the planet in ruins. As a hurricane showed, facing ruins at home, they were incapable of rebuilding even a single city, no less whole nations. Everywhere they turned, they proved not builders but dismantlers; not investors but looters (along with their crony corporations and private security firms). Domestically, they ruled by a politics of fear. They committed crimes with alacrity and — possibly the greatest crime of all — fiddled while the glaciers melted. They were the Republicants — and darn proud of it — in a country that had once prided itself on its can-do tradition. (And, since 2007, a Democratic Congress, voted in to do something before the rubble spread, turned out to be a body of Democraticants as well.)

You want an exit poll? Well, here it is: Americans are now stuck in the world that George W. Bush had a major hand in crafting and a sizeable majority of them, sensing doom, want out.

All of this, however, can only be blamed on Bush and his pals at our peril. After all, they simply tapped into a deep vein of American exterminatory fears. In the “good times” of the 1990s, those fears were less obvious. In a sense, most people probably didn’t know they had them. But look at the young today and you can sense how they’ve been ensnared in an exterminatory grid of some sort. For them, dreams of the future have essentially been replaced with dystopian fears of global warming, global pandemics, global depressions, and other forms of planetary doom and disaster. Through no fault of their own, they have been living without hope.

In this election, Barack Obama in particular has seemed to show a number of them a possible exit and, beyond it, a little daylight, a tiny swatch of blue sky (as, for a smaller number of young people on the right, did Republican candidate Ron Paul). If, of course, you can’t imagine building, or saving, or investing in something for your children or grandchildren (no less someone else’s), then it’s hard to imagine doing anything lasting. To lack a future is to have an enormous weight of despair placed squarely on your shoulders. If, even for a moment, it seems to lift, you suddenly feel free to dream; hence (I suspect) the burst of enthusiasm and hope seen this year — and the outpouring of new primary voters which has gone with it.

I had my own youthful moment in which a sense of doom lifted and it was indeed a liberating feeling. Back in my day, there was only one danger to life as we knew it — nuclear war (which, in the twenty-first century, has to elbow its way into a roiling queue of world-ending possibilities for its 15 seconds of exterminatory fame). When the Atomic Test Ban Treaty of 1963 finally drove nuclear tests out of sight and out of mind, the nuclear issue disappeared from political debate and popular culture. The last end-of-the-world films of that era appeared in 1964, just as bomb-shelter and civil defense programs were heading for the graveyard. By 1969, the National Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy had even eliminated “nuclear” from its own name. And, for a brief period, you could look to the future with a sense of hope, which was exhilarating.

Think, in this context, of the import of that affirmative call-and-response chant Barack Obama so often uses with crowds of young supporters at his rallies: “Yes, we can…!” “Yes, we can…!”

At my age (63), I tend to be struck by the lack of objects in Obama’s uncompleted sentences: Yes, we can… what exactly? But who can deny the chant’s appeal, conjuring up as it does a can-do future and, implicitly, a past America in which “we can” seemed like a given. These days, newspaper headlines like this one from the Washington Post are commonplace, no matter what part of the government is under scrutiny: “U.S. Park Police Rebuked for Security Lapses: Force plagued by low morale, poor leadership and bad organization has failed to adequately protect iconic landmarks, government report shows.” (And remember, it’s the Washington Monument, the Statue of Liberty, and the Lincoln Memorial we’re talking about.) So the sense that “we” can “do” anything is bound to be refreshing.

You can’t help being moved, because you know that, underneath a rising tide of youthful enthusiasm lies the vortex — a United States, and possibly a planet, transformed beyond recognition. In such a situation, even a hint that the burden of futurelessness might be lifted should send anybody searching the sky for a good omen, for a dose of — in the mantra of every candidate at this moment — “change.” That’s why another vague Obama formulation — that he represents “the future,” not the “past” — is potentially so powerful. When was the last time an American presidential candidate invoked the future and seemed to mean it?

That perhaps helps account for the upwelling of enthusiasm in our electoral moment, even after the elections of 2000 and 2004.

A Torrent of Enthusiasm

None of this, however, can account for the media enthusiasm that has accompanied it and is easy enough to mistake for its matching mate.

The media is, in Todd Gitlin’s classic tag from his book Media Unlimited, “the torrent.” Its images, its soundscapes flood through our everyday world, a surging river that never stops even when we officially turn off our machines. In a sense, the media has neither future, nor past. Instead, it devours both in an eternal present and still remains hungry. In our Super Bowl/Super Tuesday culture, all those pundits, talking heads, reporters, and entertainers collectively might be thought of as if they were the mad spawn of Anne Rice and Rupert Murdoch, swarming to a source of blood that, in this election season, is your enthusiasm, as well as any momentary hopes you may have for the future. Their enthusiasm is to bite deep into your enthusiasm and suck it dry.

They, too, are chanting: Yes, we can…! Yes, we can…! They’ll happily chant it until a new administration enters the White House in January, inheriting that pistol and that piece of rubble, inheriting an American world in deep trouble and a planet spinning on a dime. And then they’ll take their enthusiasm off to another eternal present where children are being shot up by some maniac, or giant buildings are collapsing into dust, or some celeb is heading for the nearest dry-out clinic. They’ll walk away happy into another present, leaving the rest of us high and dry. Yes, they can…!

And now, yes I can… pop the popcorn in that hot-air popper, melt the butter, and settle in front of my TV with my crucial electoral tool, the channel zapper, in hand to prepare for the most epic battle of all, Super Tuesday, not to speak of all the epic, historic, thrilling battles to come. Don’t call me for the next few months, I’ll call you.

Just for a moment, though, let me turn that screen black, step out, head for my local polling place, and… well, you know… make the epic gesture.