HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

January 28, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


The Media's Campaign
January 22, 2008

The media, and in particular television commentators, have been exaggerating wildly the arguments between the Clinton and Obama campaigns, calling them harsh, nasty, and over-the-top. That's because the media care mainly about the horse-race aspects of the presidential selection process, and anything they can do to make the race seem more dramatic they will.

Both Clinton and Obama should be more attentive to the media's proclivities than they seem at the moment to be. As far as getting votes is concerned, what they say to one another in debates is far less significant than how the media portray it. Getting caught up in angry squabbles with candidates from their own party is not, over the long run, of benefit to either of them.

They should be concentrating on the Republicans and the Republican record. How they comment about George Bush will be more than sufficient to distinguish them from one another. If I were a leading strategist for either campaign I would immediately convene a meeting to discuss the implications of Jay Rosen's recent article, "The Beast Without A Brain: Why Horse-Race Journalism Works For Journalists and Fails Us."

Rosen points out that journalists generally fail to ask questions that might help the electorate make rational choices among the candidates. He's certainly right about that. But given the failure of the media to ask the right questions, why might not a campaign seize that role for itself? The most powerful query a candidate could raise is, why, really, did the Bush administration decide to use U.S. military force to invade and occupy Iraq? The campaign that pushed that question intelligently enough to spread understanding among the electorate would run away with both the nomination and the election. And once the media saw what was happening, they would jump on board and begin asking serious questions themselves. At that point, the campaign would be using the media instead of, as each is now, being used by them.

It's a great opportunity. But I doubt any of the campaigns has either the courage or the imagination to grasp it.


Presidential Function
January 22, 2008

In the New Yorker which arrived in my mailbox this afternoon, George Packer proposes to tell me about the kind of work we can expect from the two leading Democratic presidential candidates. That's what he proposes, but in actuality more than eighty-percent of the piece is about Hillary Clinton. She is, he says, smart, well-informed, knowledgeable about how the government actually works, and dedicated to accomplishing her goals. But, despite those virtues, she's missing what it takes to be the president. You know why? She's not inspirational.

Why a president needs to be inspirational Packer doesn't quite get around to saying. He went to one of Obama's final campaign appearances in New Hampshire at the old opera house in Lebanon, and came away inspired. Here's how he describes the aftermath: "Within minutes I couldn't recall a single thing he had said, and the speech dissolved into pure feeling, which stayed with me for days."

So, there you have it. Packer is telling us that what we need and want from a president is pure feeling.

Maybe that's what George wants, and maybe that's what lots of other people want. But it's not what I want. I want a president who can make the government work for the benefit of most of the people, and stop it from being little more than a tool in the hands of the wealthy. I'm not saying that Obama can't do that. But if he can, you certainly don't learn about it from George Packer.

I'm not interested in being inspired by the government. I want rather to be served by it. I want my tax dollars to be used for intelligent action. If I can see that happen then I'll take care of inspiration myself. And since I'm on this point I guess I had better go ahead and say there's something a bit creepy about looking to government for inspiration. If you go back to Packer's statement about the opera house experience, you can come away with the message that we don't need to care what a candidate says, and maybe we don't even need to care what he does, just so long as he makes us feel good.

I confess; I don't get that.


Corporate Ailment
January 24, 2008

In my local newspaper, I came on a statement by an IBM spokesman, explaining that a pay cut recently imposed on more than seven thousand workers wouldn't really reduce their income because the overtime they work will make up for it. But the whole point of a lawsuit initiated by the workers was to get paid for overtime, so they would make more money. They won the suit so now IBM is responding by cutting their base rate and claiming that they're not really being hurt. This comes at a time when IBM is making record profits.

The IBM statement is strong evidence for a mental disorder that's running amok among the ranks of corporate leaders. It's called criminal insanity. If it were hurting only those who have it, the condition would be sad enough. But in truth it leaks out to afflict our entire society.

This social neurosis convinces those who work in the upper ranks of corporate management that there exists some unseen power, somewhere, which justifies their gaining one hundred, two hundred, four hundred times the amount they pay their workers, that is, the people who actually produce the goods and services on which corporate wealth is based.

Anyone who doesn't understand that this is a disease is infected by the disease himself. It's the duty of all the rest of us to help those in the grip of this horror recover from it. They, of course, will claim that they're not sick. But that's the sickness.

The first step would be to elect public officials who will stop using public funds to make these people even sicker than they are already. It's inhumane for us to keep on doing it to them, especially since our only excuse is lazy-mindedness.

What kind of humanity do we have, anyway?


Focus
January 24, 2008

Media figures are ridiculing Bill Clinton for saying that journalists are concerned mainly with squabbles among the campaigns and seldom raise any questions about the candidates' positions on substantial issues. They can ridicule all they like. The former president is perfectly right about that. And it was a good thing for him to say so.

You can listen to the cable news programs for weeks -- Hardball,  for example -- and never hear a word about where a candidate stands on maintaining eight hundred foreign military bases, or how he or she would influence the policies of the IMF or the World Bank, or how the appropriate level of military spending can be maintained, or what the United States should do about its remaining arsenal of ten thousand nuclear weapons, or whether a larger percentage of our electricity should be generated by nuclear power, or what the actual legal provisions for launching a war are, or whether the president should have the power, without consultation, to destroy another country, or several countries, by using nuclear weapons, or on and on and on. It is inconceivable to imagine Chris Matthews ever bringing up such issues. But let Senator Clinton say that it required an alliance between Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson to bring about civil rights for black people in America, and Chris will spend weeks debating whether this was a racial slur designed to denigrate Barack Obama.

It's clear that journalists are not serving us well now. But exactly how they are failing is less clear in the minds of the people. If Mr. Clinton can bring some attention to that problem it will be a benefit regardless of what the pundits opine about it.


Buying Votes
January 25, 2008

In 2006, in Vermont, we had a candidate for the Senate, who resembles Mitt Romney so closely it's uncanny. His name was Rich Tarrant and he was described in the New York Times Magazine as being "a well-barbered, Bentley-driving Republican businessman." Since Tarrant had made a lot of money, he advertised himself as a person who knew how the economy works and who could, therefore, fix Vermont up. He spent millions of his own money running against Bernie Sanders, a guy who doesn't mind calling himself a Socialist and who never made much money at all. Tarrant got about a third of the vote and Bernie got two-thirds.

This tells us pretty clearly that if most of America was like Vermont, Romney would never get within sniffing distance of the presidency. You can't buy votes in Vermont. But now we're being told that Florida is as different from Vermont in that respect as it is meteorologically. Presumably because Romney has lots of money to spend on TV ads and the other Republican candidates are running short, he's likely to win the primary in the Sunshine State next week. Already the polls tell us he's edging ahead of John McCain.

Florida is widely -- and accurately -- seen as a mess politically and there's no better evidence for it than the power of TV ads there to affect voting patterns. No messages are more distorted and manipulative than those put on television by political candidates. It's pathetic that anyone would make his or her decision about whom to for on the basis of watching them. Yet, that's evidently what's about to happen. Or, at least, Mitt Romney is betting millions that it will.


A Frenzy
January 26, 2008

As we all know, it's not unheard of for the news media collectively to lose their minds, and we are now in the midst of one of those occasions, a journalistic frenzy that is sweeping up some of the normally sane people who report on public events.

I'm referring of course to the flood of commentary accusing Bill and Hillary Clinton of using crude racism against the Obama campaign. Just this morning in the New York Times, for example, Bob Herbert, one of the best balanced commentators we've had recently, associated the Clintons with a vile piece of internet blather without showing any connection between them and the person who posted it. In fact, he wrote his entire column accusing the Clintons of making racist appeals without citing a single thing either of them has said.

The delusionary feature of this campaign is the notion that the Clinton's control -- totally -- every word that comes from the mouths not only of people who are supporting Hillary's campaign, but even from the mouths of Republicans who have made insinuations about Obama. It's a kind of back-handed compliment, I guess. If the Clintons had that kind of power there would be no occasion for a campaign. They would simply exercise mind-control over everybody in the nation.

Part of this arises from the media's slavering desire to inject race into the campaign. They see it as a juicy topic and they can't resist exploiting it. But in this case, it seems to be something more even than that.

Even the Clintons' response to Obamba's comments about Ronald Reagan -- which, by the way, were essentially positive about the Republican hero, conflating his ideas with a readiness of the American people to take them up -- have, somehow, been made into a racist assault. If the Clinton campaign ought not to challenge Obama on something of that nature, they shouldn't challenge him about anything. And that, in effect, is what the frenzy at the moment is proclaiming.

Come to think of it, that really is racist.


Debate Points
January 26, 2008

I've seen quite a few clips from the Republican debate in Florida on Wednesday night, and almost every one of them featured John McCain announcing that Hillary Clinton said recently she wants to fly the white flag of surrender in Iraq.

I was somewhat surprised. I keep up with the news fairly carefully and I had seen no reports of when or where Hillary said that. You'd think a statement so dramatic would get quite a bit of coverage, with camera shots showing Senator Clinton proclaiming, "I want to fly the white flag of surrender." But ubiquitous as the media are, they appear to have failed to capture that record.

Shocking as it may seem, I've begun to suspect that Hillary may not have said she wants to fly the white flag of surrender, that John McCain may have put words in her mouth she never uttered. If that were the case, what would it mean?

Two possibilities rise up pretty quickly, one that he was lying and the other that he was merely being silly. I find myself gravitating toward the latter. And why? Because he was in a setting where pure silliness is expected, you might even say, demanded. What's a poor guy to do? He wants the votes of silly people so he has to say silly things. We can't blame him for that, can we?

I have a brain weakness such that I find watching Republican debates almost unendurable. The flood of silliness makes my head feel creepy and I generally escape before the thing is over. Rudy Giuliani telling us that the way to generate high tax revenues is to get rid of almost all taxes, Mitt Romney suggesting that running the country is just like running the Olympic games, Mike Huckabee saying that probably the weapons of mass destruction were there, we just haven't found them yet -- they generate a wave of silliness so massive I fear it might erase my consciousness were I to let it all wash over me.

I confess, I often run away.


Political Tone
January 27, 2008

On Book TV, I watched a panel discussion from twelve days ago at a synagogue in Washington, sponsored by the New Republic. The topic was presidential politics and the candidates who might have a chance of being elected.

The panel, made up of writers for the magazine, presented itself as ever so bright, far more prescient than the candidates themselves. They may have been right about that. The six people who talked all appeared fairly intelligent -- articulate, knowledgeable to an extent, willing to look a certain distance behind the scenes. Yet not a one of them expressed any interest in the underlying forces of human existence that politics ought to help us, at least to some extent, confront. It's as though ideas of that sort never visit their brains.

I suppose if Leon Wieseltier, one of the panelists, ever read these remarks, he would dissent vigorously from my observation, at least with respect to himself. He described himself as a national security voter and said he's concerned with a president's grasp of the entire international situation far more than he is with whether someone was right about the invasion of Iraq, or with a single vote to empower the president to make war. It was a good point, but he didn't leave me convinced that his notion of grasping the situation is anything other than a conventional, rather worn-out matter of taking into account the power aspirations of other nations. He's worried about China, and India, and whether their growth in power will diminish ours. He left me with no confidence that he has thought carefully about what power actually is and how it might affect my life here on Liberty Street in Montpelier. The way in which nationalism, and various group identities, interact with economics and the ability to reside in the upper financial regions was removed from anything he said. He symbolizes for me a semblance of sophistication without the substance.

He was, by far, the most obnoxious of the panelists -- endearingly obnoxious in a way. The others were younger and more engaging. Yet, they all radiated a sense of superiority immune to imagining how complex human aspiration is. Their take on Mike Huckabee and the people who support him was so supercilious it was astounding. It was not only that Christian right-wingers are wrong -- which in truth they are -- but that they're so wrong they don't deserve to be considered part of the same species the denizens of the New Republic are. The fury generated by that kind of arrogance has made George Bush president of the United States for the past seven years. I think we could well do without it.

Watching the New Republic panel -- attractive as they were -- I was constantly reminded of the old saying that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. If this is the best American journalism can produce, we aren't going to get from our writers on public affairs anything close to what we need.


............................................................................................................................................................................


Comment On This Article
(Please include your name so that we may publish your remarks.)


Return to the Table of Contents



Home           Contact Us           Mailing List           Archives           Books on Sale            Links



Articles may be quoted or republished in full with attribution
to the author and harvardsquarecommentary.org.



This site is designed and managed by Neil Turner at Neil Turner Concepts