April 20, 2008
Shoddy! Tawdry! A Televised Train Wreck!
By FRANK RICH
“THE crowd is turning on me,” said Charles Gibson, the ABC anchor, when the audience jeered him in the final moments of Wednesday night’s face-off between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
I can’t remember a debate in which the only memorable moment was the audience’s heckling of a moderator. Then again, I can’t remember a debate that became such an instant national gag, earning reviews more appropriate to a slasher movie like “Prom Night” than a civic event held in Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center:
“Shoddy, despicable!” — The Washington Post
“A tawdry affair!” — The Boston Globe
“A televised train wreck!” — The Philadelphia Daily News
And those were the polite ones. Let’s not even go to the blogosphere.
Of course, Obama fans were angry because of the barrage of McCarthyesque guilt-by-association charges against their candidate, portraying him as a fellow traveler of bomb-throwing, America-hating, flag-denigrating terrorists. The debate’s co-moderator, George Stephanopoulos, second to no journalist in his firsthand knowledge of the Clinton White House, could have easily rectified the imbalance. All he had to do was draw on his expertise to ask similar questions about Bill Clinton’s check-bearing business and foundation associates circling a potential new Clinton administration. He did not.
But viewers of all political persuasions were affronted by the moderators’ failure to ask about the mortgage crisis, health care, the environment, torture, education, China policy, the pending G.I. bill to aid veterans, or the war we’re losing in Afghanistan. Those minutes were devoted not just to recycling the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Bosnian sniper fire and another lame question about a possible “dream ticket” but to the unseemly number of intrusive commercials and network promos that prompted the jeering at the end. The trashiest ads often bumped directly into an ABC announcer’s periodic recitations of quotations from the Constitution. Such defacing of American values is to be expected, I guess, from a network whose debate moderators refuse to wear flag pins.
Ludicrous as the whole spectacle was, ABC would not have been so widely pilloried had it not tapped into a larger national discontent with news media fatuousness. The debate didn’t happen in a vacuum; it was the culmination of the orgy of press hysteria over Mr. Obama’s remarks about “bitter” small-town voters. For nearly a week, you couldn’t change channels without hearing how Mr. Obama had destroyed his campaign with this single slip at a San Francisco fund-raiser. By Wednesday night, the public was overdosing.
Mr. Obama did sound condescending, an unappealing trait that was even more naked in his “You’re likable enough, Hillary” gibe many debates ago. But the overreaction to this latest gaffe backfired on the media more than it damaged him. For all the racket about “Bittergate” — and breathless intimations of imminent poll swings and superdelegate stampedes — the earth did not move. The polls hardly budged, and superdelegates continued to migrate mainly in Mr. Obama’s direction.
Thus did another overhyped 2008 story line go embarrassingly bust, like such predecessors as the death of the John McCain campaign and the organizational and financial invincibility of the Clinton political machine against a rookie senator from Illinois. Not the least of the reasons that the Beltway has gotten so much wrong this year is that it believes that 2008 is still 1988. It sees the country in its own image — static — instead of as a dynamic society whose culture and demographics are changing by the day.
In this one-size-fits-all analysis, Mr. Obama must be the new Dukakis, sure to be rejected by white guys easily manipulated by Lee Atwater-style campaigns exploiting race and class. But some voters who lived through 1988 have changed, and quite a few others are dead. In 2008, they are supplanted in part by an energized African-American electorate and the young voters of all economic strata who fueled the Obama movement that many pundits didn’t take seriously before Iowa. And that some still don’t. Cokie Roberts of ABC predicted in February that young voters probably won’t show up in November because “they never have before” and “they’ll be tired.”
However out of touch Mr. Obama is with “ordinary Americans,” many Americans, ordinary and not, have concluded that the talking heads blathering about blue-collar men, religion, guns and those incomprehensible “YouTube young people” are even more condescending and out of touch. When a Washington doyenne like Mary Matalin, freighted with jewelry, starts railing about elitists on “Meet the Press,” as she did last Sunday, it’s pure farce. It’s typical of the syndrome that the man who plays a raging populist on CNN, Lou Dobbs, dismissed Mr. Obama last week by saying “we don’t need another Ivy League-educated knucklehead.” Mr. Dobbs must know whereof he speaks, since he’s Harvard ’67.