[originally published on CJR.org, the Web site of the Columbia Journalism Review]
Todd Gitlin watches Sunday morning talk shows so that you don't have to, and, every Monday morning, offers his take on selected programs. Goodbye, Russert Watch; hello, Sunday Watch!
George Stephanopoulos rounded up New England Senate surrogates for his Sunday show: Connecticut's Joe Lieberman sitting in for John McCain, Rhode Island's Jack Reed for Barack Obama. The week's inside-dopester news having focused on accusations that Obama had changed his views on withdrawal from Iraq, Stephanopoulos, not one to give the conventional wisdom a rest, led by saying that Obama "struggles to squelch any suggestion that he's shifting on the war." Then, blank-faced, he played a "Vets for Freedom" surge-boosting "finish the job" ad.
"So you think on Iraq [Obama]'s coming towards John McCain?" he softballed Lieberman.
"I do," Lieberman responded. "On Iraq John McCain has been right and consistent; McCain had the guts to say in 2003 to the Bush Administration, Secretary Rumsfeld, our policy is failing, we need more troops." And later: "McCain has been principled and consistent."
Did Stephanopoulos inquire into the principle about which McCain had been consistent? He did not. Did he ask what McCain had anticipated would take place in Iraq during the run-up to war? A month in? Two months in? He did not. Did he ask what McCain said about the dissolution of the Iraqi army, about the military standing guard at the oil ministry while looters were pillaging the rest of the country's infrastructure? He did not. A question for the questioner: Can the principles of a war hero be scrutinized when his debate partner, Reed, is too weak to do so? Is there an exit from the well-cushioned Straight Talk Express?
On the April 20 show, Stephanopoulos found that exit, pressing McCain hard on the budget and taxes. The next time he has the opportunity to question McCain on Iraq, I wish he would ask him the following: "In a New York Times op-ed just before the start of the war, on March 12, 2003, you wrote: '[N]o one can plausibly argue that ridding the world of Saddam Hussein will not significantly improve the stability of the region and the security of American interests and values.' Isn't it more likely that antipathy toward the United States in the Islamic world might diminish amid the demonstrations of jubilant Iraqis celebrating the end of a regime that has few equals in its ruthlessness?' Didn't those who argued that the war 'would not significantly improve the stability of the region and the security of American interests and values,' and that 'antipathy toward the U. S. in the Islamic world' would skyrocket, have a point? Didn't you underestimate the dangers of what you called 'rogue-state rollback?'"
Stephanopoulos also gave Lieberman a pass on this remark: "The Iraqi political leadership has reconciled. That's one of the great things that's come out of the surge." Granted, Lieberman is an expert at grinding his way through whole paragraphs unimpeded. As Joe Biden might say, the shortest distance between Joe Lieberman and a microphone is a sentence consisting of three parts: a subject, a verb, and Ready on Day One. (No, make that six or seven sentences.)
In any event, also granted, there have indeed been improvements in Iraq (not only because of the surge). But to let pass Lieberman’s claim about the joyful partisanship (a projection?) of “the Iraqi political leadership” is a stretch too far. Also left unquestioned by the interlocutor was Lieberman’s statement: “With John McCain I think they we know who he is and what they’re going to get as president.” It is not hard to summon facts to the contrary. (Matt Welch’s book McCain: The Myth of the Maverick is chock full of them.) Stephanopoulos did not.
Evidently, “the question” this week was not What kind of thoughtfulness has John McCain gleaned from his military experience? “The question” was not how McCain gets away with his claims of consistency? No, “the question” was whether Obama had flip-flopped.
When Stephanopoulos’ journalist-panelists squared off around the round table in the second part of the show, Time’s Mark Halperin declared that “I think this election is about two things: Is Barack Obama going to be trusted as commander-in-chief, and are people going to feel comfortable with him as their president?” Later, he repeated that the campaign was “about Obama,” that “you’re going to hear ‘He’s not ready.’” We’re already hearing it—from Halperin. This viewer wants to know: Why is the campaign “about Obama”? Why is it not “about” the relative merits—and weaknesses—of two candidates? Why the presumption that Obama has something to prove that McCain doesn’t? Aren’t there people who would feel “uncomfortable” with McCain as their president? Do they have reason to feel that way?
The “about” locution is one of the mind-enfeebling verbal tics of our time. And it’s circular. Isn’t what “the campaign’s all about” at least partly a function of what all the roundtablers say it’s “about”?