Mugger: Class Clowns

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A week ago, the day after the New Hampshire primary, nine of us engaged in an animated, at times passionate, political debate in the course of a journalism class I’m teaching at Johns Hopkins University. Surprisingly, the students were split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, but John McCain’s victory was quickly dispensed with in favor of Hillary Clinton’s misty-eyed show of emotion less than 24 hours before the voting began. I half-joked that one of her operatives paid off a local worker five grand to peel an onion quick before her appearance—which was met with both darting eyes and laughter*[her appearance or the joke?]—but everyone agreed it was that moment that turned her fortunes around. Of course, it could’ve been the unseasonably warm weather that drove a higher percentage of older residents to the polls, but let’s stick to the moist eyes.

What hasn’t been mentioned often in the mainstream press accounts of that incident—and it was well reported—is that if this happened even 10 years ago the tender vignette would not have had the same effect. Put simply, that’s because four paragraphs in a news article or op-ed column, or snippet on television, doesn’t have the same effect of a YouTube video watched over and over and over during a 24-hour period. I viewed it at least five times myself, with delight at the apparent meltdown of her campaign, but I obviously came to the wrong conclusion.

Anyhow, we segued into a discussion of pack journalism—never more pronounced than during this presidential cycle—and the clichés of this go-round that one hopes will be forgotten four years from now. There are three of these that I find particularly annoying, and it’s worse now that daily newspapers require their reporters to double-up on duty by writing blogs. Is anyone else sick of journalists referring to politicians as “rock stars”? (Barack Obama has transcended even that glitzy description, as Charles Krauthammer pointed out in the Washington Post last Friday, complaining that Newsweek’s “adoring” cover story about the Illinois senator made one wonder “what is left for coverage of the Second Coming.”)

And are you tired of reading the word “narrative” in conjunction with a candidate’s life story, legislative record or election strategy? Finally, it’s apparent that dutiful voters are now encouraged to “parse” the policy proposals of Obama, Mike Huckabee (such as they are) or the mad-as-hell John Edwards.

We then considered an old chestnut that has stood the test of times—a generation qualifies, I say—and that’s maxim employed, at least by the New York-Boston elite media corps, that Life is Just Like High School. (In the interest of fairness, I used this theme in a long piece written after spending four days at the 1980 Democratic Convention in New York City.) When I asked the students if they thought this bit of shorthand was accurate, one young woman groaned and said, “God, I hope not!” Her friend was more circumspect, winning over the class with this opinion: “That’s total bullshit, and just another example of Baby Boomer narcissism.”

Michael Scherer, a new Washington correspondent for Time (and graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism with previous stints at Mother Jones and Salon) isn’t a Boomer, but in a Jan. 5 “Swampland” blog dispatch for Time, he continued the high school “typology.” And it was nauseating. A few snippets: “Here’s one thing you need to know about John McCain [not me, thanks, but let’s continue]. He’s always been the coolest kid in school … We [the reporter pack] ask him tough questions, and try to make him slip up, but almost inevitably come around to admiring him … He is, to put it simply, cooler than us.” Eight years ago, it was Democratic stalwarts like Slate’s Jacob Weisberg and pre-ABC correspondent Jake Tapper, among too many others, who wrote almost verbatim descriptions of the “salty maverick.”

Scherer goes on to describe Mitt Romney as “the kid in class who always does everything right,” an apple-polisher who’s a favorite among parents but not his peers. Huckabee, on cue, is the “class clown with the weight problem.”

We’ll have to wait for his next installment, but my guess would be that Hillary Clinton is the virtuous student who, to gain popularity, will let other kids copy her notes; Fred Thompson the fuck-up who’d win “least likely to succeed” and Rudy Giuliani the brainy but unpopular teenager who’s rumored to torture cats and tries to ingratiate himself with the star athletes.
It’d be more interesting if Scherer turned his attention to his colleagues in the press. Like the Times’ Frank Rich, who might be caricatured as the smart but surly malcontent who wants to be liked but just can’t help himself by making caustic jibes. In Rich’s Clinton obit two days before the New Hampshire primary (“They Didn’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow”), his lead sentence is a sterling example of the solipsistic, insulated liberal pundit: “After so many years of fear and loathing [and when will Hunter Thompson’s celebrated phrase be retired?], we had almost forgotten what it’s like to feel good about our country.”

Obama, of course, is the vessel, in Rich’s view, of letting Americans “feel good” about the U.S. I understand that a majority of citizens oppose the war—although that number is decreasing—but the presumption of the columnist to speak for those who aren’t in his incestuous social circle is outrageous. The Clinton administration drove me nuts, but it didn’t affect my opinion of the country; and it’s probably not overstating the case to say that a majority of Bush detractors aren’t embarrassed to be Americans.

The Times’ Bob Herbert might be thought of as the attentive student who reads a lot and then shares his wrong conclusions with other students. On the first day of this year, getting ahead of his colleagues, Herbert wrote about 1968, “the most incredible year of a most incredible decade.” He continues that after Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, “That seemed to be when, for so many, the hope finally died. The nation has never really recovered from the bullet that killed R.F.K.”

A more accurate assessment of when disillusionment really set in, at least for young adults, was the death*[killing] of four students at Kent State [by the Ohio National Guard] in 1970. The mass demonstrations against the war diminished, radical politics—whether it was the Panthers or Weathermen—got ugly and most of the “Pepsi Generation” either joined the working class or dropped *[out] and communed, figuratively and literally, with the earth.

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