Originally published on CJR.org, the Web site of the Columbia Journalism Review.
The campaign has lasted as long as a rhinoceros stays pregnant, but at the end, for both candidates, will come delivery if not deliverance. Ten days before that blessed day arrives, though, the campaign's duration seems to have cast a certain pall on the Sunday shows.
With a this-hurts-me-more-than-it-hurts-you air, Tom Brokaw plopped unfavorable poll results on a dogged but visibly weary John McCain, and while McCain tried to show his game face, it was not his strongest performance. When you're reduced to insisting that "polls have been consistently shown me much further behind than we actually are," and that "we are very competitive in many of the battleground states," you're in trouble and you know it. It doesn't matter that, as McCain bragged, "I think I still have been more appearances on Meet the Press than anybody else," which elicited from Brokaw the memory of Bob Dole, an comparison that does not serve McCain well.
Brokaw asked McCain how seriously his charges against George W. Bush's administration can be taken. He posed serious questions about the consistency and longevity of his complaints about Bush. He noted that, according to Congressional Quarterly, McCain voted with Bush 92 percent of the time between 2006 and 2008. All this emerged, however, in a muted, even perfunctory tone--suggesting, perhaps, that Russertesque indignation might sound like taking advantage, for McCain was as wobbly as he has sounded during all these rhinoceros months.
McCain strained, but his heart wasn't in it as he gamely repeated his clichés: "My friend." "I respect that." "The worst thing we can do is increase taxes." Sarah Palin "has more executive experience than Senator Biden and Senator Obama together." "I could not be more proud of her." McCain abandoned all hope of cogent argument, cobbling together his phrases as if the repetition might trigger Pavlovian responses and persuade a still-undecided voter who hadn't heard the phrases often enough.
It was deft of Brokaw to remind his listeners exactly who sets the heart of the Republican base fluttering. He played a clip of Rush Limbaugh shouting on his radio show that Colin Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama last week "was totally about race." McCain did not agree, and quickly changed the subject. To the Powell endorsement he countered that he had five former secretaries of state on his side--Henry Kissinger, Lawrence Eagleburger, James Baker, Al Haig, and-- He enumerated again, and still came up one short. A few minutes later, he remembered the name of the fifth: George Shultz.
Meanwhile, over at ABC, for economic wisdom, George Stephanopoulos turned to Jack Welch, ex-CEO of General Electric. (Sunday Watch will donate a, well, Sunday watch to the first Sunday show that features a present or former union official opining on the global economic meltdown.) Welch had nothing particularly interesting to say, although the sentence "Small business is being murdered" might be something of a first, and "we will see a sunny late '09, early '10 period" might be the least heartening cheer-up line since, oh, 1932. Welch assured viewers that there was "light in the tunnel," presumably at the end of it. He meant to be reassuring, but when I hear that phrase, I reach for my delete button, for the last time it circulated, the tunnel was called Vietnam, and Robert Lowell was contributing the immortal lines: "If we see light at the end of the tunnel, it's the light of the oncoming train."