The president is talking. It‘s 5:25 on a Thursday afternoon in Burbank, and I’m watching him, live from Atlanta, recite the usual platitudes about faith and patriotism, fear and fortitude, his small face glowing as the audience applauds. I keep waiting for him to talk about our strategy in Afghanistan, to address the goals of the war, but, as always, he avoids specifics. This is why I normally don‘t watch the president: I know he doesn’t have a thing to say. Tonight, I have no choice, for I am miked and wired, one of 16 members of a CNBCMSNBC focus group, in what I‘m reminded more than once is Jay Leno’s private screening room. The very moment this pep rally of a speech ends, we must be ready to go on the air with our reactions.
I thought this might be an opportunity to air some dissent on national television, to voice my opposition to the war. But at the moment, I‘m having my doubts. Here in our narrow sample of ”average citizens“ — a documentary film producer, a political science professor, a homemaker, a businessman, a born-again Christian and his wife — only two or three object to what the government is doing. When an African-American man suggests, just as the president’s speech begins, that we as a nation look at our complicity, he‘s shouted down by someone who accuses him of blaming the victim for the crime. He’s the only person of color, and there is just a smattering of women, strategically dispersed to make the group look more diverse. At the front of the room stands Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster turned media gadfly, who is in his late 30s and has hair like a bad toupee. In the moments before the cameras switch on, he‘s edgy, nervous, priming us with questions. ”Who did you vote for?“ he asks. When I tell him, ”Nader,“ Luntz, a master at the art of conclusion, stops and says, ”So you think they’re all equally corrupt.“
As soon as we get on the air, everyone gives their reactions to the speech, and immediately I‘m reeling, as my fellow panel members, one after the other, say they think the president did a good job. ”He reassured us,“ one woman notes. ”He’s standing strong,“ a man chimes in. Finally, I can‘t help myself. ”He said nothing,“ I argue, a bit strident. ”He’s a talking head. The only reason the speech wasn‘t disappointing is because no one in their right mind would have expected anything at all.“ I feel a flush of glee at having called out the president on national television, but the sensation is fleeting. I wish I had time to say more, but Luntz is already summarizing our views for Brian Williams, telling him about our overwhelming support.
Once the cameras are off, I turn to the woman next to me and say, ”The only good thing about the speech was that he didn’t use the word evil. It makes me nuts when he does that.“ She looks at me blankly for a second, then asks, ”Don‘t you think it’s evil that we‘re up against?“
”I don’t like those terms, good and evil. They‘re too simplistic, too black and white.“
”Are you a believer?“ she asks, and for the first time, I look at her, really look at her, the line of her blond pageboy haircut, the crust of lipstick around her mouth. ”Depends on what you mean by believer,“ I say slowly, letting the syllables trail off.
”I believe in the Bible,“ she tells me, with no hesitation. ”I believe in God.“
I ask if she believes that these are the end times, and when she says no, I give an involuntary sigh of relief. I don’t believe these are the end times, either, but I‘ve been known to think about it, and if anyone here has inside information, I figure it’s got to be her. Later, back on camera, she explains that all her days have ”been appointed, every one of them,“ which is why she doesn‘t despair.
On the one hand, I wish I had this woman’s faith, her assurance about good and evil, about the way things will turn out. At the same time, a faith like hers is frightening, in the same way the president is frightening, leaving me alienated and apart. It‘s just a quick jump, after all, from such a faith to the man behind us, who, in the next on-air segment, says that the attack on the World Trade Center had nothing to do with oil or politics, but was the inevitable outcome of an evil ideology. (Islam, I assume he means, although he never elaborates.) Or to the former Vietnam-era protester who waves his Old Left sympathies as a way of staking out his credibility, then claims that this is different, that we’re now fighting for our lives. No one wants to talk about how we‘re blundering into a region we don’t understand, with no well-defined course of action; no one wants to discuss the morality of revenge. In fact, the only time everyone quiets down is when the African-American man notes that blacks have survived for generations under ”terrorist conditions,“ despised for no reason, tortured, scapegoated, which is why he remains patient and unafraid. It‘s a good point, but it goes unanswered, as does every criticism of the war.
Partly, this failure has to do with the focus-group format, which is designed for quick takes, declarations, pronouncements: anything, in other words, but what it purports to be. In the hour and a half we sit here, we do four four-to-six-minute segments, each keyed to a single issue — the speech, security, bipartisanship and, appropriately enough, the efficacy of focus groups, which everyone seems to think of as an expression of democracy. Democracy, however, is a process that takes time. With a focus group, the best you can hope for is to shout out a couple of sentences, and some people never utter a word at all.
None of this is exactly unexpected; what I wasn’t counting on is how depressed, shocked and isolated I feel. I listen as we fall into that same old us-and-them rhetoric, and I find myself thinking, This is not my America. But do I even have an America anymore? For the last two months, I‘ve felt unheard, disregarded, as if there was something wrong with me. Reasonable people tell me I’m naive, idealistic, that I should stop worrying about peace and tolerance and start thinking about security. What ever happened to dissent, I want to know, what ever happened to discussion and debate? Sitting here, I realize, with a visceral awareness, that it has been reduced to soundbites, focus groups, that this is the new forum for democracy. And I realize one other thing also: My fellow Americans scare the hell out of me.