|Illustration by Peter Bennet|
The bitterest sniping in Boston last week involved no politicians. It was a catfight among the members of CNN’s Capital Gang.
Flashing his teeth like a wicked shopkeeper in a Bollywood movie, Robert Novak sneered at John Edwards’ familiar Two Americas speech, predictably dubbing it “class war.”
“Listen, Bob,” responded Time’s Margaret Carlson, “the other America is cleaning your room today, and her husband is probably working two jobs.” “They’re also taking care of your vacation home,” added Al Hunt, The Wall Street Journal’s porch liberal: “Believe it or not, most welders and librarians don’t have things like that.” Whoa! Hunt had broken the First Commandment of the TV-pundit biz: Thou shalt not reveal that your colleagues are loaded.
The furious Novak lashed back. “I get nauseated,” he growled, “when I hear multimillionaires talking about the class struggle, whether they’re politicians — or members of the Capital Gang.” Double whoa.
As usual, Novak was on the wrong side of the issue: He used bluster about “class war” to shut down discussion of social inequality and protect his own economic privilege. Yet his attack on fellow Gang members laid bare a truth they normally keep hidden: The TV gatekeepers at the Democratic convention — even the liberals — are all pleasantly embedded in the economic elite.
In this, they’re at one with those who run the Democratic Party. It was hilarious watching the Republican oppo guys insist that those sneaky Dems were putting a centrist face on a party that’s actually run by run-amok liberals. If only. I kept wishing the Democrats actually were the wild-eyed left-wing party the Republicans kept describing. But as one well-known commentator scoffed, “If you walk through any of the parties here — with all the corporations — it’s not exactly the party of the people.” And who was this radical firebrand pulling the mask off the capitalist oligarchy? Ralph Nader? Michael Moore? Noam Chomsky? Nope, it was Tom Brokaw, just back from winning WWII and easing into Cronkite mode.
This was Brokaw’s last Democratic convention before handing over his NBC anchor’s chair to Brian Williams, and like everyone else, he couldn’t fail to remark how scripted the whole event was. Well, of course it was scripted. Ever since the hallucinatory convention of 1972 (when McGovern had to give his acceptance speech in the wee hours), the mainstream media have judged presidential candidates on their skill at packaging their conventions as television shows: If you can’t run a streamlined convention, you can’t run the country. (Just think how the cable gabbers tried to pretend that Teresa Heinz Kerry’s harmless “shove it” might take the convention “off message.”) Trouble is, the very stage-managing that makes a convention go smoothly also makes it wretched TV. In a world with The Apprentice, who wants a reality show with no surprises?
Then again, some pleasures are no less keen for being predictable. Everyone knew that Bill Clinton would swan onstage like a god and convey the joy of an expert craftsman at work. He was lucid and commanding, yet as relaxed as an anemone. Exuding sensual delight at being the center of attention — God, the man enjoys being Bill Clinton — he even dazzled right-wing mouth-breathers like OpinionJournal’s James Taranto, who then used Clinton’s effortless mastery to suggest that he would make plodding John Kerry seem like the world’s lankiest dwarf.
If the week held any drama, it turned on whether Kerry could make the country see him as a “credible commander in chief” while showing his own party that its candidate wasn’t a New England stiff. Democrats needed to see him yell and sweat.
That’s precisely what he did, working up a lather and braying his lines with genuine passion. Although the text itself was vague hokum — and though Kerry still continued to step on his applause lines like a drunk stomping on roaches — it was the best speech anyone had ever seen him give. The pundits agreed: He’d made himself “credible.” Of course, it was inconceivable that any TV commentator would dare say otherwise of a major-party nominee. Heck, pundits even praised Dukakis’ dreary drone back in 1988. Sure, they were eager to write off Howard Dean after his Iowa yearrgggh, but back then, there were still scads of other candidates. Now it’s down to two serious contenders (plus the fastidiously dreary Ralph Nader), and it’s in everyone’s interest to make the horserace seem exciting. For this election to compel us, they must make us think we’re watching two thoroughbreds, a metaphor that the long-jawed Kerry embodies a tad too literally.
For all their maundering about the good old days of rumbustious conventions, nearly all TV commentators actually find such unruliness disturbing. Good upper-middle-class souls, the vast majority of them white, they identify with the convention organizers — they take the side of order. Nowhere was this more blatant than in the reception given the two big speeches by nonwhite orators.
They were primed to approve keynote speaker Barack Obama, the mixed-race son of a black Kenyan and a white Kansan, who had listeners gushing that he could be our first African-American president. He did give a terrific speech. Delivered with Clintonian ease, it appropriated “responsibility” themes copyrighted by the right, even echoing crotchety Bill Cosby, while making the liberalism sound brand-new. The TV pundits adored him — maybe a little too much. With his measured tones and Harvard Law credentials, Obama is the kind of African-American politician they feel comfortable with. Sort of comfortable, anyway. The giveaway came when, after the speech, The New York Times’ David Brooks instantly compared him to — you guessed it — Tiger Woods. Not Clinton or Cuomo or a latter-day Malcolm X, but a mixed-race golfer. Such are the workings of “benevolent” racism. Although Brooks was trying to be generous, he saw Obama through the prism of his racial profile — precisely the kind of thing that Obama’s speech had rejected. Then again, what can you expect from the Keith Van Horn of columnists?
If Obama represented the pundits’ dream politician of color, Al Sharpton was their nightmare. In Boston, he transcended, however fleetingly, his reliably unreliable Al Sharpton–ness to give a beautiful, galvanizing speech that, for once, couldn’t have been written by Tom Wolfe. Still, it left the commentators in a froth — why, he even ran over his allotted time. “Al Sharpton just hijacked the convention,” sniped CNN’s Judy Woodruff, and her normally sensible colleague Jeff Greenfield declared that the speech contained the convention’s most “incendiary” line (about Bush and the Supreme Court). A revealing word, incendiary. Although Sharpton’s speech actually left the delegates dancing, not burning, the CNN pundits smelled in his words the smoke of an impending riot. Roger Ailes, you can now safely retire. Your work in TV news is done.
The worst offender was hardballer Chris Matthews. I’m sorry to say this, for I once spent time with Matthews and liked him enormously; moreover, his MSNBC coverage of the convention was by miles the liveliest. He spent countless hours in a media pigpen outside Faneuil Hall with a panel including NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, Newsweek’s Howard Fineman and creepy-crawly Congressman–turned–MSNBC commentator Joe Scarborough (who, with a few more millennia of hard work, might just evolve into a mammal). You could tell Matthews really dug being at the convention — gassing on about JFK and LBJ, comparing Teresa Heinz Kerry to Anouk Aimée and Jeanne Moreau, and (sheer ecstasy, this) being able to cut off his more vaunted NBC archrival, Tim Russert, marooned up in a Fleet Center skybox. Take that, Little Russ.
But Matthews despises Sharpton, and after breaking into the reverend’s speech to declare that his career was built on a lie, he plunged MSNBC into coverage so flagrantly shallow and one-sided that it prompted The Daily Show to produce the most lacerating piece of media criticism I’ve seen all year. Jon Stewart showed us Fineman (known as DJ Smuggles in my corner of the hood) calling Sharpton’s speech an insult to black people — who, of course, loved it. He showed us Brian Williams asking Sharpton to explain “his riff on whatever you did a riff on.” For once Stewart’s trademark mock outrage melted away like burnt cling wrap to reveal the genuine outrage lying beneath. “You were there!” Stewart shrieked at Williams’ screen image, then let his audience see the so-called riff — Sharpton declaring that the vote is “sacred” to African-Americans because it came soaked in the blood of martyrs. Normally, The Daily Show pretends it’s just chronicling the absurdity of our time. Not this time. From beginning to end, the segment was shot through with perfect contempt for the media gatekeepers who felt entitled to hijack a convention.
A couple of days before that show aired, Matthews had breezily told TVGuide.com, “Jon Stewart is my hero.” If Big Chris is half the guy he thinks he is, he should still feel the same way.
John Powers’ Sore Winners (and the Rest of Us) in George Bush’s America (Doubleday, www.sorewinners.com) is now available in bookstores. He will be speaking Thursday, August 5, at the Writers Guild theater in a conversation with The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg.