16 September 2008

Lipstick Traces

There’s plenty of reason to be concerned that, in the week leading up to the worst financial crisis in United States history since the Great Depression, the candidates for the Presidency were mired in a debate over lipstick. If the upheaval on Wall Street and the bailouts in Washington had any benefit to the rest of the country, it may be simply that the candidates have changed the subject — at least for now.

Yet the political climate in America has my friends on both sides of the Atlantic worried. Both Democrats and Republicans are telling stretchers about each other and themselves, and both campaigns obsess over trivia, not issues. My left-wing friends put the blame squarely on the shoulders of Senator McCain’s operatives, who promote blatant lies about Senator Obama and who suck their opponent into futile arguments. (And it’s true that Obama’s misrepresentations of his opponent are smaller-scale and have less traction.) Yet the finger-pointing is perhaps the smallest of their concerns: they’re more worried, indeed panicked, that the American voters may be fooled by all this nonsense, and wind up making their choices on the wrong grounds. That is, they worry that McCain’s smoke and mirrors will distract Americans from his real positions on the economy, foreign policy, judicial appointments, and all the rest, positions that they believe contrary to the public interest and in many cases dangerous to the world at large.

My friends are bemoaning Obama’s cool, possibly calculated responses to attack. Moreover, they castigate the press for excessive devotion to “balanced coverage,” which leads to a failure to expose McCain’s lies, and Governor Palin’s. Trouble is, the press has already done so, and as one of her handlers observed, it doesn’t matter. The more that the “mainstream media” point out that Palin didn’t say “no thanks” to the Bridge to Nowhere, didn’t sell a plane on E-bay, saddled Wasilla with debt, etc. — the more they pick apart her résumé, the worse they look.

This is (I hope) the culmination of the ages-old Republican drive to turn journalists into enemies of the State. In the build-up to the Iraq War especially, the American press rolled over and played dead, more lapdogs than watchdogs, while continuing to take repeated beatings. Long accustomed to Republican attacks, reporters feared more of the same if they didn’t come to heel. When Dan Rather lost his job at CBS News, primarily because he’d reported about President Bush’s National Guard record what even the White House admitted to be true, you can bet that other, less secure, less well-paid reporters paid attention — as they did in 1988, when Dan’s attempt to question President Bush’s father about the Iran-Contra affair blew up in his face. (In the aftermath, only one other journalist, Bryant Gumble, dared question Bush Senior on the subject — the next morning. Bush’s possibly illegal and impeachable activities never came up again.)

The credibility of the American press had suffered already by the time that Bush Junior orchestrated his propaganda drive to war with Iraq. That credibility is lower now, and we are only beginning to see the results. When the press tries to report important news — Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo; the outing of Valerie Plame; the firing of U.S. attorneys for political reasons; the serial abuses of Constitutional power by Bush, Cheney, and Addington; the incompetence of Rumsfeld, Gonzales, and “Heckuva Job, Brownie”; the false representations of McCain and Palin — nobody pays much attention anymore. Excepting left-wingers, of course, who were already convinced of the wrongdoing.

In the past few weeks, Ron Suskind has delivered evidence that the Bush Administration knowingly cooked the books, inventing false justifications for a war that Barton Gellman now reveals to have been started arbitrarily: hitting somebody, anybody, was viewed by Dick Cheney as a signal of American determination. Iraq was merely a convenient target, and the lofty declarations of American security interests and Mid-East stability were only window-dressing. Bob Woodward has painted a portrait of Bush as alarmingly detached from reality, more interested in political gain than in loss of human life. Yet thus far there have been no repercussions. No Congressional investigations, no criminal proceedings, no popular backlash, no demonstrations in the street.

Much like the current financial crisis, the loss of credibility of the American press is far worse than it appears at first glance. The McCain campaign has so far been able to flourish with its contradictory message (“Republicans have damaged America, so elect Republicans to fix things”), to shield Sarah Palin from questioning and scrutiny, and to persuade significant portions of the electorate (including some of my relatives) that Obama is a secret Muslim operative who favors sex-education for kindergartners and will raise taxes for most Americans — these things are, in their way, only a narrow indication of the scope of the problem.

Will voters be fooled? That remains to be seen. But it will be a long time before the jitters subside. The game plan has been clearly established, it’s been proven to work, and other campaigns — whether Republican or Democratic — will follow it scrupulously (or un-) in years to come. To defeat these tactics will require legions of gifted candidates, an even greater number of courageous journalists, and an electorate that learns, by whatever means necessary, to tell the difference between truth and lipstick.

I can understand why so many of my friends are pessimistic.