Magazine article The American Prospect

THE TV CAMPAIGN: A Kabuki Theater of Dirtyclean

Magazine article The American Prospect

THE TV CAMPAIGN: A Kabuki Theater of Dirtyclean

Article excerpt

The morning after the first televised debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush, I awoke to the voice of an earnestly boyish reporter on National Public Radio proclaiming that at long last America has been allowed to hear its candidates "without the filter of the news media." At which, in wearied frustration, I promptly fell back asleep.

I dreamed about an uncanny universe whose logic is slightly askew from our own. Its two most ostentatious planets orbit each other in binary symbiosis, but curiously, the astronomical charts call them adversarial entities.

I awoke. And suddenly I understood the relationship between the presidential candidates and the media that "cover" them.

Over the past six weeks, I have spent a portion of nearly every evening flipping among the three networks' nightly news shows, watching their campaign coverage. It didn't take long, just two or three minutes most nights. (It would have been longer had NBC not given over so much time to covering its Olympic Games, Tom Brokaw standing up each evening outside Stadium Australia with its five-ring glyph positioned neatly in frame above his right shoulder.)

I left the cable channels and the Internet out of the survey. Breathless statistics inform us that they're up and the networks down, the loss of cultural cachet signaled by the products advertised during the networks' commercial breaks: laxatives, denture creams, gas neutralizers. Forget about this. What statistics aren't able to think about is form. Electronic electioneering is an art of mass persuasion, and it remains the networks, with their bigger-than-any-alternative dominance, with whom the campaigns negotiate the unspoken rules of the game--its constitution, in the sense Great Britain has a constitution. It's the networks that teach us what counts and what does not, that instill in us all the metaphors that soon become nothing like metaphors at all because they are tunnels for thought, not bridges: in play, battleground state, middle-class, filter. It is they who have scripted this year's Kabuki theater of dirtyclean, which has come to dominate the two main campaigns: You must never "attack" your opponent; you must wait for him to "attack," for which you may attack him back. The efflorescence of cable and Internet coverage is deceiving. Instead of one hundred flowers blooming, we have a coral reef--each new iteration merely adding an operationally identical component to the sprawling whole.

On CBS one Tuesday night, we learn about Bush's new turn toward "policy" and his pamphlet A Blueprint for the Middle Class, featuring pictures of women on every page. Explains the candidate: "Mine is a plan that speaks to the aspirations and hopes of middle-class Americans." Interprets the network: Bush's "former lead among women has evaporated.... Al Gore has made something of a personality breakthrough.... There was, of course, the kiss."

Around that same time, Gore makes the "gaffe" about his mother-in-law and the family dog. Thursday night he "finally" (as CBS explains it) proffers his lame explanation. "It took the campaign two days just to come up with that response," the network reports. "Just the kind of opening Bush is looking for."

Next evening, dog days bygone, oil prices rising, Gore is reported to be in his worst position "in months." Within the week comes his proposal to open the strategic oil reserve. The next night: "Yesterday's proposal to open the strategic oil reserve was labeled `political.' So today Gore is emphasizing ..."

Such is the freaky syntax of this parallel world, where there is much talk of character--which both candidates, mostly, are said to possess. But on the planet where we live, a dictionary couldn't give a better illustration of absence of character than the following: Yesterday his proposal to do X was labeled "bad." So today he says, "Not X."

In this parallel universe, but nowhere else, a politician is taken at his word, and a change in rhetorical positioning can change the picture of a man's soul in all the time it takes a soap bubble to live and die. …

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