I spent Martin Luther King weekend tooling the backroads of Ohio with the original "Fighting Democrat," Ohio Senate candidate Paul Hackett. It turns out I just missed meeting an eight-hundred pound media gorilla who was burning up a little gas on the same story. His take ran in Time Magazine this week. In it, Joe Klein calls Hackett a "flashy war hero" who is "something new under the sun: a blogger candidate-all attitude, all opinions, very little information."
A blogger candidate? As opposed to a Time candidate? Say it ain't so, Joe!
Of course, we know what he means. Hackett is a blogger candidate because he appeals viscerally to disgusted and angry people. He nearly won an upset victory in a Congressional race to represent one of the reddest districts in the country. How did he do it? Partly by wearing the shield every Iraq war veteran is issued against Republican charges that Democrats are unpatriotic. And partly, let's face it, by calling our President a "sonofabitch" on the record and refusing to take it back. That four-syllable epithet energized liberals and Bush loathers in his own district and across the nation who have been praying for a Hackett to come along for lo these long years.
I agree with Klein that neither Hackett's Marine service nor his indignation and profanity alone qualify him to take on the issues of this dark day - warmongering chickenhawks in office, torture conducted
in our name, warrantless eavesdropping, religious extremists in Washington. On the other hand, if Merlin floated down to earth right now, he would need a legion of wizards to bring our democracy back from the brink of the abyss. To paraphrase one of our President's advisors, we don't live in a fact-based reality anymore.
I didn't run into Klein in Ohio, and I don't believe I've ever met the man. I have, however, met his ilk before, on the election year circuit. Smart, sheepishly arrogant fellows with Ivy pedigrees and corporate
media institutions behind them, they fly out from Washington-"Reagan" or LaGuardia to stand in the cold for a day on street corners in Cornsyrup, Iowa and Icy Ditch, New Hampshire, comb-overs flapping in the breeze, taking notes on the candidate of the moment in situ before flying back to DC or New York with a story.
These guys are a distinctly 20th Century type, first proposed by essayist Walter Lippman. As James Fallows wrote, Lippman, writing after World War I, felt that that civilization had become too complex to be governed by mass democracy. Technology, economics, diplomacy were so specialized that no ordinary citizen could possibly keep up with them.
The only hope for effective modern government lay in cultivating a group of well-trained experts, who would manage the country's journalism as well as its governmental affairs. The newspapers and
magazines produced by these experts would lay out conclusions for the public to follow, but no one should expect the public to play more than a passive, spectator's role.
Lippman invented smart little guys with comb-overs invested with the important job of explaining the candidates to the nation. How did they acquire this immense power? Mainly because their peers were
uninterested in such an unseemly and ill-paying profession and went off to Wall Street or white shoe law firms or high levels of the government instead. Representatives of a certain gender and a specific social class, the media experts don't have much use for people from outside the box.
I have to admit I once aspired to the comb-over fraternity. I traveled the country on campaign buses and airplanes, notebook in hand, objective as an android. I remember the moment I began to lose my
ambition and objectivity. Three months into Pat Buchanan's campaign for President in 1996. We were somewhere in a western state - Colorado? Arizona? - between gun show and pro-life rally. A large, overheated gym, Pat pounding the podium, a roomful of fervent supporters waving small American flags. I was holding the tape recorder under the lips of an elderly couple who were both seriously ill and in need of prescription drugs they couldn't afford, "because," they explained excitedly, "of the socialist schemes of Hillary Clinton!"
Mind you now, Hillary's health plan was several years' dead by then and the medical system was safely out of reach of socialist designs. These two geriatrics were hardly the first people at a Buchanan rally to unreel this line, but in their utter feebleness and need, they seemed somehow different. As they talked, I had to physically fight the urge to turn off the tape recorder and gently lead them to a chair and
explain what was really going on in Washington, and who they ought to be supporting if they wanted to be able to pay for their pills. That would not have been very objective of me. I held my tongue. By the end of that campaign, I lost my voice to a long bout of laryngitis, poetic justice to be sure.
To the average political junkie, Paul Hackett seems to be the Democratic Party's dream candidate - a gun-toting, macho man who also happens to be anti-corporate, pro-choice, and "for the little guy" as
he puts it. For guys like Klein, though, it's never that simple. It's always about rotating that first impression, finding the counterintuitive spin, and exercising and displaying cleverness.
Klein flashes his badge in the fraternity almost every sentence (italics mine) of his piece: "Hackett is, flagrantly, an amateur; Brown first ran for office soon after graduating from Yale in 1974, and he
has been running ever since." He concludes: "What can I say? We really hit it off."
I don't really have a problem with Klein using his bully pulpit to admit that he personally just gets along better with a Yale-graduated career politician who can talk Social Security than a tall, macho man with a degree from Case Western who probably makes other men feel inferior. What I do have trouble with is the way he totally ignores the backstory in Ohio from which Hackett sprouted. The hapless voters in
that state were tricked, lied and stolen out of universal suffrage by the Republicans in 2004. The stories I heard from just one Democratic county chairman in southern Ohio about Republican get-out-the-vote stunts in 2004 were so craven and sinister they made the hair on the
back of my neck stand on end.
Forgive Ohioans if they're not buying politics-as-usual right now. The media experts' tendency to distrust the simple was at the root of the demise of Bill Clinton, a good candidate and a good president in good times. His outsider-ness made the media experts uncomfortable and
his positive qualities didn't give them enough grist. The religious fanatics and right wing lawyers easily led the pundits into the "he lied about sex!" attack. The very notion that any of these men actually
cared about sexual harassment was so laughable I lost what respect I had left for the club and my longing for membership in it. Had any of the old boys in Washington ever had the slightest inclination to worry about sexual harassment, to imagine what young women in their newsrooms experienced, or to ponder what it might feel like to need an abortion?
My objectivity in politics is long gone and I can't say I miss it. The media experts, however, refuse to relinquish the dream of a safe center held together by their herd instinct and power to control and shape opinion. These guys need to stop imagining that their own brand of filtered information will stabilize this wildly rocking ship.