"Let The Conversation Begin?" Who's Hillary Kidding?

05/25/2011 12:00 pm ET
  • Bill Katovsky Bill Katovsky is author of books on media, politics and fitness, including “Embedded: The Media at War in Iraq.”

When Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton kicked off her 2008 presidential bid with "Let the conversation begin!," many of us wanted to stick wadded-up cotton in our ears. Even Jon Stewart called her on this.

Who is she trying to fool? Hillary isn't swank with this bogus claim. The only real conversation she'll be conducting will be those with her staff and advisers behind closed doors--far removed from any snooping camera phones and open mikes.

She's the most scripted, on-message, and tightly wound Democratic candidate. No utterance escapes her lips that hasn't already been parsed, dissected, triangulated, focus group-tested, and scrutinized in private strategy meetings.

Even her coy response to an Iowan's question about her ability to deal with "evil men" in the war on terror smacked of faux sincerity. Excuse me, but blowing up the World Trade Center is not same as your hubby receiving a blow job from a White House intern. Yet her audience tittered, while she knowingly smirked and smiled--and Rush and the blogosphere had a juicy Kodak moment to gloat over.

The other Democratic (and Republican) candidates are equally guilty in publicly pretending that they plan to listen to voters--and based on this barnstorming and educating experience, their policy views will be shaped accordingly. As the truly evil Vice President would say, that's "hogwash."

In the madcap race to fill up campaign coffers with serious coin-- the winner will be known as the "100 millon dollar man/woman' --the only authentic conversations will be held with potential donors and campaign contributors at black-tie events. (On the other hand, a $20 online contribution will net you just more campaign spam.)

While an occasional anecdote about meeting with the displaced in New Orleans or unemployed in New Hampshire will likely surface in their speeches--empirical evidence that they in fact have engaged in honest dialogue on the campaign trail-it remains to be seen just how much listening we can expect from these presidential contenders.

The current White House occupant is a textbook example of The Man Who Tunes Out Others. For him, the conversation stopped on 9/11 with his same-day decision to invade Iraq. In that myopic respect, he's been consistent. Even after ignoring the recommendations from his top generals and the Iraq Study Group, Bush still trots out the absurd fiction that he's a great listener who had seriously considered all viable options about how to fight the war in Iraq before going ahead with the troop surge. (In the same way, he ignores the hard science on global warming.)

In the coming months, we will see conversation galore by candidates from both parties; these gabfests will primarily take place online, in television studios, and on the radio. Many voters will be sick, exhausted, or plainly confused from all the talk, especially as candidates are forced to outflank one another on Iraq. That will be the defining issue of the presidential race. And it's also a moving target that will soon be eclipsed by Iran.

For candidates, the real get is to be invited onto Oprah's daytime show. She is America's favorite listener. There's no one more empathetic and concerned in talk show land. (Jay Leno and Larry King are merely fawning and puppy-doggish.) We'll witness smiles and hugs and applause as each candidate takes his or her seat on Oprah's humanizing sofa. So long as they don't pull a Tom Cruise, these candidates will benefit from the added exposure at the same time allowing viewers to believe that they are indeed being treated to an intimate peek into their public selves. As if.

With the presidential race now slated to drag on for an eternity, the ones who will suffer the most from all this hot air billowing over the political landscape are the reporters assigned to cover the candidates. Can you imagine hearing the same speeches over and over? This Groundhog's Day affliction is one of the primary reasons why the media cherish the opportunity to pounce on a candidate's slightest miscue or errant slip of the tongue. Further reinforcing this pack journalism mob mentality are stay-at-home You Tubers who represent the populist, democraticizing side of 24/7 cable news.

Take last week. Hillary's "evil and bad men" retort lasted a news cycle or two before it was widely usurped by Sen. Joe Biden's "articulate and clean" Obama comment. Only time will tell if Biden's gaffe will be his macaca moment, thereby dooming him to premature retirement as a presidential hopeful.

It's really up to voters to stump the candidate on the campaign stump. They need to ask rude, impertinent and pointed questions. They need to force candidates to think quickly on their feet and to adequately answer their queries--not with deflection and obfuscation. The media must do the same. Instead of "Let the conversation begin," it should be "Let the gloves come off." Only then will there be meaningful dialogue.