Saturday, March 29, 2008

McCain Cool and the Political Illusion

So, I had a Letter to the Editor published in today's New York Times. That's not earth shattering news, I know, but on the other hand, it's not too shabby, either. The letter was in response to an Op-Ed piece by Neil Gabler that was published on Wednesday, March 26th, entitled The Maverick and the Media. So let's see what Neil, who does know a thing or two about media, especially film, had to say:

IT is certainly no secret that Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, is a darling of the news media. Reporters routinely attach “maverick,” “straight talker” and “patriot” to him like Homeric epithets. Chris Matthews of MSNBC has even called the press “McCain’s base” — a comment that Mr. McCain himself has jokingly reiterated. The mainstream news media by and large don’t cover Mr. McCain; they canonize him. Hence the moniker on liberal blogs: St. McCain.

What is less obvious, however, is exactly why the press swoons for him. The answer, which says a great deal about both the political press and Mr. McCain, may be that he is something political reporters really haven’t seen in quite a while, perhaps since John F. Kennedy.

Seeming to view himself and the whole political process with a mix of amusement and bemusement, Mr. McCain is an ironist wooing a group of individuals who regard ironic detachment more highly than sincerity or seriousness. He may be the first real postmodernist candidate for the presidency — the first to turn his press relations into the basis of his candidacy.

Of course this is not how the press typically talks about Mr. McCain. The conventional analysis of his press popularity begins with his military service. If campaigns are primarily about narratives, he has a good and distinguished one, and it would take a very curmudgeonly press corps to dismiss it, even though that is exactly what a good portion of it did to Senator John Kerry’s service record in 2004. Reporters also often cite Mr. McCain’s bonhomie as the reason for their affection. As Ryan Lizza described it last month in The New Yorker, a typical campaign day has Mr. McCain rumbling from one stop to another on his bus, the Straight Talk Express, sitting in the rear on a horseshoe-shaped leather couch surrounded by reporters and talking “until the room is filled with the awkward silence of journalists with no more questions.”

The Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, citing the conviviality during the 2000 campaign, wrote that “a trip on his bus is, well, a trip.” And as the party master, Mr. McCain is no longer the reporters’ subject. He is their pal.

While other candidates have tried to schmooze reporters this way without success, what has made Mr. McCain’s fraternization so effective is that it comes with candor — or at least the illusion of it. Over the years, reporter after reporter has remarked upon his seemingly unguarded frankness. In 1999, William Greider wrote in Rolling Stone that, “While McCain continues examining his flaws, the reporters on the bus are getting a bit edgy. Will somebody tell this guy to shut up before he self-destructs?”

Imagine, reporters protecting a candidate from himself! But, then again, since the reporters on the bus liked Mr. McCain too much to report on his gaffes, he really didn’t need protection. His candor was without consequence. It was another blandishment to the press.

Yet however much his accessibility, amiability and candor may have defined the news media’s love affair with him in 2000, and however much they continue to operate that way in 2008, there is also something different and more complicated at work now. Joan Didion once described a presidential campaign as a closed system staged by the candidates for the news media — one in which the media judged a candidate essentially by how well he or she manipulated them, and one in which the electorate were bystanders.

By this standard, Mr. McCain’s joviality and seeming honesty with the press in 2000 constituted a very effective scheme indeed, until it came time to woo actual Republican voters. As Time’s Jay Carney once put it, “You get the sense you’re being manipulated by candor, rather than manipulated by subterfuge and deception, but it is a strategy.”

So far, Gabler has concentrated on what is sometimes referred to as elite integration, the close connections that develop between the press corps on the one hand, and politicians and public officials on the other. This is not a phenomenon unique to McCain, but rather pervasive throughout politics and journalism. For example, the White House Press Corps gain special access to the President, and in return for that access, tend to follow certain rules and are subject to certain restraints. In effect, they not only have exclusive access to a politician or public official, but they are initiated into an exclusive club, and it's only human to feel some loyalty to that group identity, and the individual at the center of it (in addition to the altogether human tendency for journalists to get attached to, and feel sympathy for the individuals they cover).

But Gabler did introduce the point about postmodern irony earlier on, and needs to return to it:

What makes 2008 different — and why I think Mr. McCain can be called the first postmodernist presidential candidate — is his acknowledgment of the symbiosis between himself and the press and, more important, his willingness, even eagerness, to let the press in on his own machinations of them. On the bus, Mr. McCain openly talks about his press gambits. According to Mr. Lizza, Mr. McCain proudly brandished an index card with a “gotcha” quote from Mitt Romney that the senator had given Tim Russert of “Meet the Press,” a journalist few would expect to need help in finding candidates’ gaffes. In exposing his two-way relationship with the press this way, he reveals the absurdity of the political process as a big game. He also reveals his own gleeful cynicism about it.

This sort of disdain might be called a liberal view, if not politically then culturally. The notion that our system (in fact, life itself) is faintly imbecilic is a staple of “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report,” “Real Time With Bill Maher” and other liberal exemplars, though they, of course, implicate the press in the idiocy. Mr. McCain’s sense of irony makes him their spiritual kin — a cosmological liberal — which may be why conservatives distrust him and liberals like Jon Stewart seem to revere him. They are reacting to something deeper than politics. They are reacting to his vision of how the world operates and to his attitude about it, something it is easy to suspect he acquired while a prisoner of war.

Though Mr. McCain can be the most self-deprecating of candidates (yet another reason the news media love him), his vision of the process also betrays an obvious superiority — one the mainstream political news media, a group of liberal cosmologists, have long shared. If in the past he flattered the press by posing as its friend, he is now flattering it by posing as its conspirator, a secret sharer of its cynicism. He is the guy who “gets it.” He sees what the press sees. Michael Scherer, a blogger for Time, called him the “coolest kid in school.”

The candidates who are dead serious about politics, even wonkish, get abused by the press for it. Mr. McCain the ironist gets heaps of affection. In this race, though, it has forced some press contortions. While John McCain 2000 was praised for being the same straight talker off the bus as he was on it, John McCain 2008 is praised precisely because he isn’t the same man. Off the bus he plays to the rubes (us) by reciting the conservative catechism; on the bus he plays to the press by giving the impression that his talk is all just a ploy to capture the Republican nomination.

Yet the reporters, so quick in general to jump on hypocrisy, seem to find his insincerity a virtue. When an old sobersides like Mitt Romney flip-flops, he is called a panderer. When Mr. McCain suddenly supports the tax cuts he once excoriated, or embraces the religious right, or emphasizes border security over a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, we are told by his press acolytes that he doesn’t really mean it, that his liberal cosmology will ultimately best his conservative rhetoric. “Discount his repositioning a bit,” Jacob Weisberg, the editor of Slate, wrote two years ago, “and McCain looks like the same unconventional character who emerged during the Clinton years.” The article was subtitled “Psst ... He’s Not Really a Conservative.”

This suggests that love is blind. It also suggests that seducing the press with ironic detachment, the press’s soft spot, may be the best political strategy of all — one that Mr. McCain may walk on water right into the White House.

So, I do find the point about postmodern irony interesting, especially in the way that Gabler connects it to liberal politics, and I have no quarrel with him on that score. But, before getting to my own letter, let me share with you the letter that immediately preceded my own, which offers an interesting alternative perspective:

To the Editor:

To the extent that Neal Gabler is right when he states that John McCain is “a darling of the news media,” it’s not so much because he shares their sense of irony. It’s because he’s a Republican who is not reliably conservative.

So here’s a prediction from someone who’s been a full-time working journalist since 1967: The love affair will end as soon as soon as the general election begins (if not sooner). That’s when every gaffe by Mr. McCain will be portrayed by the media as “evidence” that he’s old — really, really old. That’s when every grimace will be “proof” that he’s got a hair-trigger temper.

When the Democrats stop beating each other over the head, and one of them starts running in earnest against John McCain, the media will no longer find their “darling” nearly as “ironic” — or nearly as lovable.

From a media point of view, it’s one thing when Senator McCain sticks a finger in a fellow Republican’s eye, quite another when he’s taking aim at a liberal Democrat.

Bernard Goldberg

Miami, March 27, 2008

The writer is the author and former CBS News correspondent.

So, this is pretty neat, I'm in good company, and Bernie here thinks that it is all a matter of liberal media bias. And maybe that's true, but I have a different point of view on the matter, one based in part on Jacques Ellul's notion that the two-party system is essentially a political illusion, an illusion of democracy, and whoever wins, it won't make much of a difference because most decisions are made by technical experts behind the scenes, the candidates simply being technical experts at getting elected and molding public opinion.

And then there's McLuhan's notion of hot and cool media, and that the cooler candidates tend to defeat the hotter ones, as was the case for Kennedy over Nixon, Carter over Ford, Reagan over Carter, Clinton over George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush over Gore and Kerry. So, anyway, here's the letter I wrote, as they published it (with minor edits):

To the Editor:

Neil Gabler’s article, while insightful, implies an extreme contrast between John McCain as ironic and Barack Obama as idealistic, and yet both are treated well by the press. And more significantly, both are what Marshall McLuhan called “cool” characters, tailor-made for cool electronic media like television.

Both have a soft, indistinct personable image that the cameras love as well as reporters, and that allows audiences to project their own hopes and desires onto them. Expect the general election to be all about which of the two is the coolest of them all.

Lance Strate

Bronx, March 26, 2008

The writer is a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University.

For the official citation, this was published today, Saturday March 29, 2008, in the New York Times, p. A16, and can also be found online at the New York Times website. And I should add that I knew I needed to keep the letter short, not to mention the fact that I wrote it on the fly, to be honest, so I didn't go into longer explanations.

But let me at least say here that one shortcoming of Gabler's approach is that labeling something postmodern is not an explanation. It's a label, plain and simple. That's where media ecology comes in, because media ecology provides an explanation, which in this instance is, simply put, the electronic media environment.

And just to deal with the point about ironic detachment, that phenomenon is a part of celebrity logic, and a consequence of, really a response to always being under surveillance, always being on camera, always in the midst of a performance. This situation essentially blurs the distinction between putting on an act or performance in the conscious sense, and acting in a genuine manner (of course, Erving Goffman and others note that all behavior is performance, but I am making the distinction here based on a conscious or better yet self-conscious sense that you are putting on a performance, especially for the cameras and the media). And it is true that television and the electronic media seem to encourage less in the way of formal acting and more of just playing yourself. But by the same token, it means that anyone who seems to be just being themselves is putting on an act, or perceived to be when they are on camera. So this can't help but breed cynicism about any media appearance. And when all performance seems to be false, ironically it is the ironic stance that seems to be genuine, the stance that says, hey, I know it's all an act, so I'm not taking it at all seriously.

The logic may be hard to follow, and hard to swallow, but no one ever said the electronic media, being based on the nonlinear circuit, are logical.

1 comment:

Mike Plugh said...

You and I had a truncated version of this conversation in your office last week and I think it's the most important and telling direction of the campaign season.

Hillary Clinton is one of the "hottest" candidates I can remember in my lifetime and probably explains the reason that the television news critiques her more harshly than Obama or McCain. When we turn to an Obama/McCain general election (as it appears we will eventually see) we will have the first instance of cool/cool personalities in a presidential election since the introduction of television.

As you rightly said, whoever is cooler will win. I'm an Obama supporter and therefore I have my own bias, however I doubt we will ever see a cooler candidate than Barack Obama in a presidential run. He is almost too cool for his own good actually. Obama appears almost aloof in the face of hot attacks, which has allowed him to take on a teflon quality, but also add to the ambiguity about his positions and his character.

McCain is generally very cool, but mixes in enough hot moments to leave no doubt as to what his ideology may be. The confusion with him is more straightforward and content related. I think the trump card in this analysis is McCain's age, which manifests as a hot characteristic when he's on camera. He'll lull you to sleep with his style of speech, and he often stumbles over words.

It will be very interesting.