Posted on Wednesday, January 9, 2008
Chances are that the 2008 Democratic presidential nominee will have been
chosen by the time you read this column. Chosen, that is, by a cadre of
self-promoting New York/ Washington pundits with fewer than 1 percent of
primary voters having registered a preference. After promoting the Iowa
and New Hampshire contests as a cross between “American Idol” and the
Super Bowl when few Americans were paying attention, TV pundits now
appear eager to pronounce the contest over. They’ve gone half seer and
half Simon Cowell, rehearsing acid put-downs of the presumptive losers.
Some of this derives from the need to appear worldly-wise and knowing,
like tipsters who peddle gambling tips. It’s also symptomatic of the
inexplicable Clinton hatred that’s been epidemic in those circles since
1992. No need to vote, fellow peasants; MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, The New
York Times’ Maureen Dowd and the rest of the Beltway All-Stars have
saved you the trouble. Ponder this recent passage from the allegedly
liberal Dowd: “Has Hillary truly changed, and grown from her mistakes?
Has she learned to be less stubborn and imperious and secretive and
vindictive and entitled? Or has she merely learned to mask her
off-putting and self-sabotaging qualities better? If elected, would the
old Hillary pop up, dragging us back to the dysfunctional Clinton
kingdom?” (My italics.)
Translation: “Bitch!” Having basically grown up in a Maureen Dowd
column, albeit with less wit and more profanity, I’ve known this variety
of Irish Catholic misogyny forever. My sainted mother warned me against
the cunning and duplicity of women almost to her dying breath. It’s a
sorrowful remnant of sexual Puritanism.
Led by the hyper-thyroid Matthews, MSNBC’s nightly bitchfest has been
something to see. Not everybody invited to play “Hardball” shares these
odd passions. As Bob Somerby points out on his Daily Howler weblog,
however, pundits know better than to object if they want to be invited
back. If they aspire to be face cards in Washington’s stacked deck, that
Clinton’s ability to transcend this madness has always been the big
question mark in her campaign. Lacking her husband’s natural stage
presence, the effort sometimes shows. Nevertheless, as one who finds
merit in all four candidates who debated in New Hampshire, I’d argue
that TV sooth-saying is bad for the Democratic Party, bad for the
eventual nominee and bad for democracy.
True, American political campaigns can be insufferably silly. Worse,
though, would be no campaign. It’s worth remembering that this same
cohort of cocktail party chums declared George W. Bush a charming fellow
and Dick Cheney a wise and seasoned statesman back in 2000. Their
judgment is shaky at best.
The real news out of Iowa was the record number attending Democratic
caucuses—more than double the number of Republicans. Had former Gov.
Mike Huckabee run as a Democrat, for example, he’d have placed a weak
fourth. Meanwhile, the night’s big GOP winner, according to the same
pundits, was Sen. John McCain, who placed fourth. So it ain’t
necessarily about the numbers.
Exactly what it is about is harder to say. Sen. Barack Obama possesses
undeniable personal charisma. Most of Clinton’s supporters will back him
should he become the nominee. But voters need to see him tested first,
because the same kind of Oprah-fied, pundit-driven, “American Idol”
media crush that’s anointing Obama today can turn him into an object of
contempt overnight. If you don’t know that, you’re not paying attention.
If I were Clinton, and could speak with perfect frankness, I’d say
something like this: “Everybody’s sickened by Washington-style partisan
warfare. We all have Republican friends and relatives whose ideals we
value. It’s never been true that all the good ideas belong to one
faction or party.
“ But when I cross party lines, they call it cynical ‘triangulation.’
When you do, it’s praiseworthy ‘bipartisanship.’ Until you’re nominated,
that is. That’s when the GOP smear machine will start on you. It’s a
Washington thing, run by paid political operatives who have browbeaten
and bribed much of the Beltway media into seeing things their way. “
Their way means that, as a Democrat, you’re either a weak, ineffectual
man or an unnatural, bitchy woman—effete, unpatriotic and downright
weird. Your marriage is a sham, your religion a fraud. If you think
you’re above it, you’re dreaming. “ Nothing’s sacred to them, not even
the sacred. Some of it circulates in anonymous e-mails; some on dubious
Web sites, on far-right talk radio; some in ‘conservative’ newspapers,
magazines and TV networks, which will broadcast almost anything. “
Eventually, ‘mainstream’ pundits chatter about it on ‘Hardball’ because
it’s ‘out there.’ Since 1992, I’ve been accused of everything up to and
including murder. Then after the charges were proved false, they decided
I was ‘polarizing.’ And I’m still standing. “ Today, you’re the great
liberal hero because job one is taking me out. Tomorrow? Well, ‘hope’ is
not a plan. Remember, the original ‘man from Hope’ was my husband.”
•–––––—Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and
recipient of the National Magazine Award.