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Media Beat

When a campaign spectacle makes a hollow thud



Shortly before the “Super Tuesday” primaries, I watched a presidential campaign rally on C-SPAN. In this instance, as in so many others, C-SPAN provided a service by allowing viewers to see an event in its entirety rather than relying on the usual filtration that’s involved with news coverage. But, also as in so many other cases, it was a mixed blessing.

This particular rally was a large event for Hillary Clinton at a state university campus in Los Angeles. On the stage, many elected officials stood and waited their turn to express planned enthusiasm for the candidate. Mayors, county officials, legislative leaders and members of Congress extolled her virtues and declared that she will be the next president of the United States – and an excellent one at that.

It requires not cynicism but mere rational skepticism to watch such media-aimed spectacles with some distaste. The candidate’s smiles seemed to be pasted on and frozen. The verbiage was dumbed-down and pre-masticated like some equivalent of strained political baby food. Much of it was, in a word, phony.

Well, that’s the way it looked to this observer. I don’t mean to pick on Hillary Clinton. But she appears to be so practiced at the dim arts of political artifice that her posturing and pantomimes of delight may now be genuine – in the sense that they come to her, so to speak, naturally.

And if her platitudes seemed simplified to focus-group specifications – calibrated to give minimum offense and gain maximum support – they were notably more respectful of human discernment than the political gold standard that is the currency of this year’s top GOP contenders for the White House.

Yet, to me, Hillary Clinton’s efforts to excel at mass-mediated political discourse were disheartening to watch. And the verbal maneuvers of her prominent supporters on stage – many of them longtime political figures who have worked hard to move government policies toward social justice – sounded and looked more than a little hollow.

Admittedly, the calibration of phoniness is a subjective endeavor. But I’d hazard a guess that a big reason why Barack Obama has made such strides in catching up to Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination is that he comes across as so much more real as a person.

The gaps between all the projected images of the “major” candidates for president and their records are wide and deep. The Republicans, while making populist noises, are so thoroughly enmeshed with corporate power that they rarely put much energy into claiming that they’ll take on Wall Street and its powerhouse corporations. The Democrats, in line with their less corporatefriendly policy positions, display a tougher stance toward big business. Yet it’s all a matter of degree.

A visit to the Web site of the Center for Responsive Politics can provide some clarity about the extent to which the still-inthe running presidential hopefuls have been sipping at the corporate trough. At the same time, the fact that Barack Obama’s campaign has increasingly been funded by small donations from individuals is a reflection of a reality that – although his launch owed much to such vested interests as mega-firms in the banking and financial-services sectors – his authentic base has widened out and diversified.

It’s true that Obama has been helped along as a presidential candidate by very good press for many months. Even quite a few conservative pundits, like the New York Times columnist David Brooks, have praised his personal and political qualities. (We can expect many of those same pundits to pull out the knives if Obama becomes the Democratic standard bearer.) In that sense, Obama is a media favorite in much the same way that John McCain has been the beneficiary of a prolonged crush from mass media.

For better or worse, the results of the presidential election in November may largely hinge on voter judgments about which candidate is least phony and most genuine.

©2008 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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