FLOTSAM & JETSAM: How television turned off politics

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

How television turned off politics

Sam Smith

The trouble began when television and politics discovered each other. It was about 1960. Now politics no longer had to be a product of long history, varied communities, conflicting policies, favors, friends and funds. Now it could be reduced to two dimensions, measured in minutes and controlled by a small, powerful elite. You no longer needed to understand, help, or deal with whole constituencies. Now they were just more consumers who walked into the voting booth like it was a convenience store. You didn’t have know them or make their lives better, only how to sell to them.

The first big beneficiary of this new relationship was a young guy named John F/ Kennedy. Because of his tragic end a few years later, he became larger than life. But at the beginning he had little but looks, charm and money. Robert Caro tells the story in his new book on Lyndon Johnson, quoting fellow senator George Smathers as saying, “While he did from time to time make some brilliant speech about something or other. .. he was not what you would call a really effective senator. . . He had a couple of pretty good ideas that he talked about, but I don’t know that anything he ever really passed. . . was of significance.” Johnson was even tougher, calling him “pathetic” and adding, “He never said a word of importance in the Senate, and he never did a thing.”

But it no longer mattered. Politics was becoming personality rather than programs and policies.

But since history moves in thumps and bumps, it would be some time before TV took charge again. And so we had our last four traditional politicians as president: Johnson, Nixon, Carter and Ford.

Then a real TV pro showed up.

Ronald Reagan is still regarded by some as one of America’s greatest presidents.

That was his skill. He sold political lies just like the ones that gave people lung cancer from his Chesterfield cigarettes. As Robert Lekachman put it, “Ronald Reagan must be the nicest president who ever destroyed a union, tried to cut school lunch milk rations from six to four ounces, and compelled families in need of public help to first dispose of household goods in excess of $1,000.”

Yet that was one of the great assets of TV. It could make virtue seem stupid and greed appear noble. As I wrote in my book, Why Bother?:

Sometime around the middle of the 1980s I suddenly noticed that the truth was no longer setting people free; it was only making them drowsy. This realization first came in the midst of a meeting held to discuss a worthy investigative journalism project. We had considered every aspect of the proposal save one and now, unbidden, a heretical question wiggled into my mind, never to leave: did the truth being sought really matter anymore? . . .

We were, I had belatedly noticed, embarked upon an age that denied the existence of objective truth and, by extension, the value of any facts that might point to it. This was now an age, as philosophy professor Rick Roderick put it, when everything once directly lived was being turned into a representation of itself -- news no less than anything else. As one frustrated television journalist explained, "I used to be a reporter for the Washington Post; now I play one on TV."

In the end we are left not with reality but with a recreated memory of reality, the repeated replacement of human experience. We watched Michael Jordan, Roderick argued, to remember what a life filled with physical exertion was about; similarly it can be said that we view C-SPAN to remember what democracy was about.. .

But if there is no value in truth and the real, then there is no value in challenging the lack of these qualities. If nothing is real then what is left to report other than the image of what was once real? Hence the disappearance of facts from the media and their replacement by polls, pronouncements, and perceptions. Hence the growing feeling as we catch the evening news that we are watching a movie about television news that we've already seen and didn't like much.

Even more troubling questions emerge. If there is no reality, what guides us in our choices? Do we simply become one more perception that we market to other perceptions?

Everywhere we turn we are confronted with the hegemony of the artificial, the sovereignty of the fake. . . .

In fact, an extraordinary portion of the gross domestic product is currently devoted to deception in one form or another, concealed though it may be as marketing, advertising, management, leadership seminars, news, entertainment, politics, public relations, religion, psychic hotlines, education, ab machine infomercials, and the law.

We have become a nation of hustlers and charlatans, increasingly choosing attitude over action and presentation over performance and becoming unable to tell the difference. It's not all that surprising because, whether for pleasure, profit, or promotion, and in ways subtle and direct, our society encourages and rewards those who out-sell, out-argue, and out-maneuver those around them -- with decreasing concern for any harm caused along the way. As they say in Hollywood, the most important thing is sincerity. Once you've learned how to fake that, the rest is easy. . .
 And you didn’t even need a professional actor like Ronald Reagan to make it work. A reasonably appealing personality backed by well crafted scripts and a supportive media was enough. After all, the media was on TV as well and you didn’t get asked back for asking too many hard questions.

In Shadows of Hope I described it this way:

Without television, George Bush would have been just one more dull country club Republican. His media handlers, however, transformed him from a stiff flop in the early primaries to a television version of a president. To be sure, Bush was to JFK as Connie Chung is to Edward R. Murrow, but that was irrelevant because television no longer needed or wanted JFK or Murrow. It had discovered that complex, well-developed characters actually conflicted with the brutal simplicity of its message. It wanted primal symbols, Punch & Judy characters, myths and comfortable "concepts." If politics was to make full use of the medium it could not remain baroque theater occurring outside of television. It had to become simple enough for the camera to explain. It had to become television, each campaign another series pilot.

The disjunction between reality and appearance became our political way of life. Which is how Bush was able to get us into the Iraq War and how Bill Clinton was able to start dismantling 60 years of Democratic Party achievement.

With television, the public no longer mattered. Money and power increasingly called the shots, which is why our last two Democratic candidates were vetted by the rightist Democratic Leadership Council before the public was let in on the secret.

In the case of Clinton, conservative Democrats held strategy meetings at the home of party fund-raiser Pamela Harriman. The meetings -- eventually nearly a hundred of them -- were aimed at ending years of populist insurrection within the party. They were regularly moderated by Clark Clifford and Robert Strauss, the Mr. Fixits of the Democratic mainstream. Democratic donors paid $1000 to take part in the sessions and by the time it was all over, Mrs. Harriman had raised about $12 million for her kind of Democrat.

And what had Bill Clinton achieved as governor? Well, for one thing, he appointed Web Hubbell to head a new state ethics commission. Hubbell’s first task was to weaken ethics legislation currently under consideration by exempting the governor from some of its most rigorous provisions. Later, as a top Justice Department figure, Hubbell would go to prison after being convicted of tax evasion and mail fraud involving the theft of nearly a half million dollars from his partners at the Rose firm and failing to pay nearly $150,000 in taxes.

Or the time when Ronald Reagan wanted to send the National Guard to Honduras to help in the war against the Sandanistas, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis went to the Supreme Court in a futile effort to stop it but Clinton was happy to oblige. Further, winding up its tour, the Arkansas Guard declared large quantities of its weapons "excess" and left them behind for the Contras. That’s the sort of presidential candidate Washington likes.

Or, foreshadowing future Wall Street interest in Clinton, Goldman Sachs, Payne Webber, Salomon Brothers and Merrill Lynch all became financial backers of the governor. But Bill Clinton's funders included not only some of the biggest corporate names ever to show an interest in the tiny state of Arkansas but some of the most questionable. A former US Attorney will would later tell Clinton biographer Roger Morris, "That was the election when the mob really came into Arkansas politics. . . It wasn't just Bill Clinton and it went beyond our old Dixie Mafia. . . This was eastern and west coast crime money that noticed the possibilities just like the legitimate corporations did."

That’s the sort of thing that can be unnoticed when presidential candidates are chosen the way producers select stars for a new TV series.

Barack Obama was also vetted and approved by the DLC, but he asked them to shut up about it. After all, he was coming on as the new liberal hero and not as the latest toy boy of the Democratic right.

And so most of his supporters didn’t know he had voted present nearly 130 times in the Illinois state legislature, hardly a sign of courage. They didn’t know he had worked for a CIA front corporation. Or the sort of stuff Paul Street wrote about in Z Magazine:

Conventional wisdom holds that Obama entered national politics with his instantly famous keynote address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. But, as Ken Silverstein noted in Harper's in the fall of 2006, "If the speech was his debut to the wider American public, he had already undergone an equally successful but much quieter audition with Democratic Party leaders and fund-raisers, without whose support he would surely never have been chosen for such a prominent role at the convention.

The favorable elite assessment of Obama began in October of 2003. That's when "Vernon Jordan, the well-known power broker and corporate board-member who chaired Bill Clinton's presidential transition team after the 1992 election, placed calls to roughly twenty of his friends and invited them to a fund-raiser at his home. That event," Silverstein noted, "marked his entry into a well-established Washington ritual-the gauntlet of fund-raising parties and meet-and-greets through which potential stars are vetted by fixers, donors, and lobbyists."

Drawing on his undoubted charm, wit, intelligence, and Harvard credentials, Obama passed this trial with shining colors. At a series of social meetings with assorted big "players" from the financial, legal and lobbyist sectors, Obama impressed key establishment figures like Gregory Craig (a longtime leading attorney and former special counsel to the White House), Mike Williams (the legislative director of the Bond Market Association), Tom Quinn (a partner at the top corporate law firm Venable and a leading Democratic Party "power broker"), and Robert Harmala, another Venable partner and "a big player in Democratic circles."

Craig liked the fact that Obama was not a racial "polarizer" on the model of past African-American leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

Williams was soothed by Obama's reassurances that he was not "anti-business" and became "convinced...that the two could work together."…

By Silverstein's account, the good "word about Obama spread through Washington's blue-chip law firms, lobby shops, and political offices. . . . Elite financial, legal, and lobbyists contributions came into Obama's coffers at a rapid and accelerating pace.

"On condition of anonymity," Silverstein reported two years ago, "one Washington lobbyist I spoke with was willing to point out the obvious: that big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn't see him as a 'player.' The lobbyist added: 'What's the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?'"

But for every Roger Morris or Paul Street there were scores of reporters who had joined the club. And so few Americans heard such stories. When I had started as a reporter in the 1950s, over half of all journalists only had a high school education. Now they were going to graduate school and making it into the Style section of the Washington Post. This major cultural shift in journalism was reflected in the news stories that followed. The Washington media had become one with its sources

As for the Internet, which was meant to be a great liberating tool for democracy, it had exploded during a period when the U.S. has taken its most dramatic shift to the right in history. While this doesn’t mean it is to blame, it certainly - along with cellphones – redefined contact as a brief, one dimensional experience through Facebook, texting, or email - aiding the atomization of individuals. The media had become social but its users less so.

And now we find ourselves being asked to choose between two television personalities. We are not being asked which one has the best policy for Afghanistan, climate change, foreclosures or the forty year failed war on drugs, but which one put on the best show in a national debate inundated with hyperbole, deceit, and abstract clich├ęs. Which one seemed most clever, determined and willing to take on his opponent, even if much of what he said was false.

Romney stood up there with his smug, fixed smile – a cross between Jerry Falwell and the guy who sells you a vegetable slicer for $19.95 on Channel 52. Romney probably told more lies in less time than any presidential candidate in history, but in the embedded media’s view was that he did it well and that’s what we want these days.
Lost in all of this is that the election is not really a contest between Romney and Obama but between an unprecedented reactionary GOP movement and what remains of a Democratic Party that overwhelmingly provided America’s progress since the 1930s.

The two leaders of these movements are far weaker than the causes they presume to lead. In fact, seldom has there been such unimpressive enthusiasm even from those close to major candidates. The insiders at times seem almost apologetic.

But this is not an Emmy awards ceremony coming up, but one of the most important elections we have ever had, an importance created not by conflicting personalities but by the prospect of dramatically different policies over the next four years.

At stake is not Obama nor Romney but Social Security, employment, the environment, the homes of millions, a potential war with Iran, and so on. And there is no doubt – weak as Obama may be on many of these issues – that a Democratic president with a Democratic Senate able to confirm Supreme Court justices offers a far safer field of conflict that a GOP president, full Republican Congress and still more rightwing justices. An Obama victory would not a triumph but it certainly would offer a better chance for survival.

We can expect little help from a media that lives in the imaginary world it has helped to create, but sane efforts must be directed at demonstrating the dangers of a Republican harvesting of our entire government and the destruction of every part that doesn’t contribute to their profit.

So don’t vote for Obama. Vote for a better chance for Social Security, Medicare, jobs, sick folk, the poor, the middle class and Big Bird. And don’t vote against Romney vote against mean and greedy politicians even willing to screw veterans as they did in the Senate when Veterans Jobs Corp Act came up.

And vote against those behind Romney who have opposed 9/11 responders, AARP, Americorps, bicyclists and bikes, black men, census, children with pre-existing health conditions, college graduates, college students, consumers, the Constitution, cops, disabled people, disaster victims, earthquake warnings, employed women, the EPA, ethnically mixed couples, federal courts, fire fighters, gays, home owners, ill people who need medical marijuana, immigrants and their children, journalists, latinos, Medicare, Medicaid recipients, minimum wage workers, the minimum wage, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Institutes Of Health, the National Science Foundation, NPR & PBSthe , policemen, postal service, public school students, public workers, residents of DC-Guam-Puerto-Rico-Virgin Islands, scientists, separation of church and state, Social Security recipients, state workers, teachers, unemployed workers, the United Nations and women.

The struggle to change politics back from being just another TV show won’t be easy, but the best start is to help people step away from the myth. And one of the ways to do that is to make the issues – not the actors – the center of the debate.

There are other things we need such a counter culture that mocks and demythicizes flat screen politics. We need local democracy that redefines the real just as local food has redefined our groceries. And we need a revival of the sort of grassroots organizing that created the civil rights, environmental and labor movements.

If we use such tools and free our minds and methods from television’s definition of politics, we can seek, discuss and achieve the real and not just accept a Super PAC funded TV dream which ends in our real disaster.