“The Europeans are impotent, are they not?” barked Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly at Pat Buchanan a couple of hours before Senator John McCain took the stage on the opening night of the Republican National Convention. And sitting at home, I looked straight at the television screen and said: “Yes, Bill, they are. No European has had sex in years. That’s why they have such a low birth rate.”
You hear funny things on Fox, where women, particularly blond women, are for reading the news but men are for shooting their mouths off and “opining” on it. (Opining is a favorite O’Reilly word — on Fox, liberals pine, Republicans opine.) O’Reilly was, of course, not talking about the Old World’s urgent need for a shipment of Viagra but about the Old World’s urgent need to stop being such goddamn peaceniks and start lighting some fires under their collective derrières. At least I think that’s what he was talking about. After a while it’s all a bit of a blur.
The Republicans were in town, and the boys over at Fox News were among the few people in New York who were excited about it. Über-conservative Sean Hannity of Hannity and Colmes, whose hairline begins an inch above his eyebrows, was ready to rock ’n’ roll, or at least listen to some country music, and his beady eyes were focused like lasers on incoming Democrats. As for his co-host, designated liberal Alan Colmes, he seemed to be wasting away onscreen. With every passing show he looks thinner and paler, a man born not of the womb but constructed by a group of renegade scientists sponsored by Rupert Murdoch to prove just how ineffectual Democrats can really be. (An article about him that appeared in The Onion had the headline: “Alan Colmes Loses Argument With 9-Year-Old Nephew.”)
Earlier in the day, John Gibson of Fox’s afternoon show The Big Story With John Gibson had argued that there are a lot more Republican sympathizers in New York, or at least pro-war types, than most people think. As evidence of this he pointed to the fact that no big-name New York Democrats had taken part in the massive anti-Bush rally on Sunday. Why? Because although the Democratic Party itself is anti-war, Gibson argued, significant parts of the Big Apple are still “pro-war, pro-retribution, pro-revenge, pro-attacks” on those who might think about hitting us again. “Too many families here lost someone [on 9/11] and want someone bombed,” he concluded.
Yikes! Are we really that bloodthirsty? So callous that we just want “someone” bombed? I imagined one of my European friends listening to that outburst and watching his jaw drop as all his most paranoid fantasies about post-9/11 America were ratified. What’s so reprehensible about statements like Gibson’s is that they actually misrepresent what the military does anyway. If we were that casual about bombing people, there would, for instance, be no “Fallujah problem.” There would just be Fallujah rubble.
The classiest guy who pops up regularly on Fox News is probably Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, who is always smiling. I don’t think there’s another television news analyst who smiles as much as he does. (If he were female, people would call him a bimbo.) But the one time I met him, at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 2000, he wasn’t smiling at all. In fact, the expression on his face could accurately have been described as a scowl. Predictably, there wasn’t a television camera in sight.
So who is Bill Kristol? Is he Smiley-Man or (as Pat Buchanan claims) a power-drunk courtier who, along with Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, is one of the Princes of Darkness behind the Iraq War? I don’t know. We may be too deep into the Matrix to tell. But toward the end of the night, after John McCain had spoken and Rudy Giuliani had sung his three-hour aria, Terror (I Fear Thee Not!), Kristol seemed so exhausted, his eyelids so heavy, that I think he was talking in his sleep. Impressively, he made perfect sense nonetheless.
The convention’s opening night went well for the Republicans and, therefore, for Fox News. John McCain, Rudolph Giuliani — let’s face it, the Democrats would kill to have those two on their side. And on Tuesday night there was Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Hollywood star who, politically speaking, was worth about 400 Tim Robbins and several thousand Sean Penns, airfares to and from Iraq included, even before he’d become governor of California. Nor should we forget Ron Silver, the liberal actor turned foreign-policy hawk, who looked so ferocious as he spoke at the convention about 9/11 that I think even Sean Hannity might have found him frightening. “We will never forget, we will never forgive, we will never excuse,” he said, and he was, to put it mildly, believable.
Because they only covered three nights of the Democratic convention, the networks decided not to carry the Republicans’ opening night, which meant you could only see Giuliani on cable. So even if the ex-mayor gave the performance of his life — Kristol called it a “four elephant” speech, a rating system I’m unfamiliar with — how many people actually saw it? And any advantage star power might have given the Republicans on Monday and Tuesday was lost as soon as you saw that Dick Cheney was their scheduled speaker for Wednesday. Are Americans really going to turn on their televisions just to watch Cheney? I doubt it. Even Cheney wouldn’t watch Cheney, which may be the only endearing thing about him.
By the second night of the convention, the senior Fox news analysts — Brit Hume, Fred Barnes, Mort Kondracke, Mara Liasson and Kristol — were looking reasonably confident that the GOP was still on the roll that began with the Swift Boat Veterans shooting holes in John Kerry’s anti-war war-hero credentials. Not that all the analysts are Republicans, of course. Kondracke and Liasson are, I think, supposed to be Democrats, but if so they come very close to keeping it to themselves. This is also a crowd much lower in testosterone than the O’Reilly/Hannity faction. Hume, who anchors the discussions, is mild-mannered and droopy, and he rarely gets excited about anything. The panelists appear to have absolutely no vision of what politics might be in some different, better world. Idealism, if they ever had it, is something they left behind in college. But if nothing else, they prove that Fox can be just as dull as any other channel.
As definitive proof of this, Hume invited guest commentator Michael Barone of U.S. News and World Report, to whom he gave a rapturous introduction as a “leading expert on American politics and all-around renaissance man,” to offer us his “thoughts on tonight’s proceedings.” “Well, my thoughts on tonight’s proceedings, Brit,” Barone began, tipping off to the fact that there was only going to be one thought, “was . . .” And then he rambled on about this and that, and nobody will ever remember a word he said.
The big controversy of the night was whether the Bush twins were good for the ticket or whether they’d managed to sink their father’s election chances in five quick minutes of prime-time TV. (“My daughters are a pain in the ass,” Bush once famously growled, which suggests what he might think.) Actually, though they were unbelievably bratty, they also had some quite funny lines. (“Since we graduated from college, we’re looking around for something to do in the next few years — kind of like Dad.”) Kristol wasn’t having any of it, though. Wincing through his smiles, or smiling through his winces, he argued that putting Bush’s wife and daughters on the podium had not helped the president’s campaign. Liasson concurred — “The Bush twins were trying to poke some fun at themselves and at their image, but they seemed to confirm it” — and Kondracke was even more adamant. “If there’s a First Children’s contest,” he said, “I would think that Vanessa and Alexandra Kerry whupped the two Bush girls by miles. They came off, frankly, as ditzes.”
So who says Fox won’t criticize Republicans? (Or Republican teens, anyway.) The next thing you know, they might actually criticize Republican politics.