Not with a bang but a whimper

TV coverage of Clinton's victory: the hangover without the high

By Gary Kamiya

Published November 6, 1996 11:10AM (EST)

for my sins, yesterday I was placed, remote control in hand, in front of a television set, where I spent 12 hours watching a procession of dreary and disillusioned news celebrities announce the banal end of the most tedious presidential campaign in memory. Neither Peter Jennings' aristo-lite act, nor Tom Brokaw's aging-boy-next-door shtick, nor even Dangerous Dan Rather's vaguely fraying psychic aura, were able to give the Machiavellian proceedings a shred of grandeur, or even any significance beyond the two-square-inch realm of Post-Focus-Group Political Tactics. When it comes to democracy, 1996 may be remembered as the year that we finally stopped believing in Santa Claus.

It didn't help that the thing was over before it began. All the networks, along with CNN, announced Clinton's victory at 6 pm PST, but for all intents and purposes, Dole expired at 4 pm, when he lost Florida. The rest of the evening had a remarkably perfunctory quality, as if even the talking heads dimly realized that the whole deal had somehow become distastefully ingrown. Dole's campaign was dutifully eulogized as "heroic," but mostly out of pity. As for Clinton, I may have missed something, but none of the anchors seemed able to stir themselves to even minimal levels of enthusiasm for either the victor or the Great Democratic Process. They gamely asked their lineup of pundits and campaign managers the obligatory tactical questions — was it a mistake for Dole to have spent so much time in California, should the old hatchet-man have started his below-the-belt flurry earlier, etc. — but everyone involved seemed to know it was a sham.

There were a few feeble attempts to demonstrate that, despite the rigor-mortis feeling on the air, democracy was alive and well and living on that sensational new toy, the Internet. MSNBC trotted out its Web guru, Mary Kathleen Flynn, who explained to viewers how "fun" it was that "regulars come back and participate" in political chats. (Mary: we've got a few regulars we'd like to trade you.) Later, Bob Kerr asked "Can you show us some of the conversations?" and the camera obliged with a blurry shot of a computer screen from about six feet away. Lines of type — though not words — were clearly visible!

CNN also touted its Web site, claiming that its servers had received 5,000,000 hits an hour. "The system is about to crash," boasted CNN's Web person. CBS, not to be outdone in the high-tech sweepstakes, featured something called the "Cyberset," a lurid Technicolor screen apparently left over from an old "Outer Limits" show. Its purpose was apparently to introduce a cheesy psychedelic quality to the proceedings — which, considering the presence of Dan Rather, was somewhat redundant. Indeed, retro space-age seemed to be the motif of the day: ABC also trotted out a head-scratching, multi-level set, which Web rumor holds was actually scavenged from "Lost in Space."

As for analysis, the conventional wisdom — which seemed accurate enough — was that the American people had voted for Clinton because they were sick of politics and wanted to get things done. "The American people wanted it to be about them, not the candidates," said NBC's Jonathan Alter. Exactly what they wanted to get done remained unclear, however. The only commentator who dared to raise the possibility that the electorate itself might be dazed and confused was Michael Kinsley, who on Charlie Rose's strong postmortem show said that the American people were "self-indulgent and throw snit-fits." (Also appearing on the show, along with DeeDee Myers, Ed Rollins and David Frum, was Peggy Noonan, whose ethereal, sex-kitten-pundit, these-are-really-intimate-and-deep-thoughts voice was incredibly irritating, especially when she murmured dreamily "he changed the world" about Reagan's scandal-plagued second term.)

But despite the occasional outbursts of enthusiasm from the likes of likeable Brokaw sidekick and seedy cherub Tim Russert, and the gnomic, vaguely surreal utterances of death-mask-visaged David Brinkley, most of the anchors and their cohorts seemed sick unto death—of Clinton himself, and of the whole process. Clinton didn't even get a momentary second honeymoon: predictions of scandal, hand-wringing over the "character issue," and dire prognostications of Republican attacks took up most of the commentary. The coverage seemed to move directly into the hangover stage, without any intervening high.

The reason for this ennui was simple: the image-driven nature of Clinton's victory meant that politics had utterly triumphed, and total politics is a total void. For the first time, the Democrats had found a candidate as ruthless, cynical and expert in media manipulation as their Republican counterparts always seem to be. As Kinsley remarked, "For my entire adult life, the Democrats have always nominated goodie-goodies and the Republicans have nominated people who take the advice of people like [fellow Rose guest and Republican consultant/assassin] Ed Rollins ... Now we're even." Russert said the same thing in more polite terms: "This was a tactical, not a strategic, victory."

The triumph of Clinton's chameleonic, win-at-any-cost strategy may have disturbed the pundits more than they realized. Did they unconsciously realize that the whole system was imploding before their eyes, that Clinton's robotic triumph meant that the practice of power politics was becoming increasingly indistinguishable from the practice of power journalism? For a totally reactive candidate like Clinton—without opinions, a constructed mask, swaying with the breeze of received public wisdom—is in effect a pundit, no different from the newsmen themselves.

Watching Clinton's mechanical hour of feeble triumph, perhaps the spokesmen felt a certain dread. The image-system that creates modern power, a system they themselves were part of, had finally triumphed. Looking at the emptiness of that victory, were they looking at the emptiness of their own images in the monitors?

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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