Character flaws

The TV networks obsess over personality while the candidates try to use them to convey some substance.

Published February 3, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Early Tuesday evening, as television's news networks and political talk programs were wading waist-high into their coverage of the New Hampshire primaries, CNN's Jeff Greenfield rounded up the reporters covering the race's chief contenders. After weeks, even months of bus rides and photo ops, of doughnut shops and canned insights, were they suffering from "Stockholm syndrome"? Were they identifying with their captors now?

The answer, for the most part, was a qualified no. After living with a candidate and his handlers day after day, being told to stay on message and generally having your access controlled, most reporters are jaded. It's like being in a telescoped version of a failing marriage: By the end of your short run, you're plenty sick of the other person's routine.

It's a clichi to say that the media coverage of the primaries has become as much about coverage of the media -- one of those life-threatening, suffocating clichis that needn't be mentioned but still seems to be strangling us. Where once the viewpoint of "the boys on the bus" was novel, now it is expected and worse. In a sense we are all on that bus and we're the ones who've been taken hostage. But our captors are like one of those splinter groups that can't decide what to demand or who to kill.

After about six solid hours of viewing on Tuesday, I can say that the reporters covering the primaries fall into two camps. One is the conventional wisdom side, prognosticators who made predictions months ago and seem rather annoyed when things go other than as expected. (These are pundits for the most part, professional commentators and often former players themselves.) Many of them are pissed that John McCain beat the spread and think that Bill Bradley should have been eliminated in this round. They point with glee to the flotilla of Republican congressmen headed for South Carolina to blow the Arizona senator's boat out of the water and savor the thought of Bradley going up in a puff of black smoke, like a latter-day Mario Cuomo.

The other camp consists of foot soldiers, the men and women covering the candidates from the front lines and they are the ones savoring a good story. McCain defies gravity? God bless him. Bradley scores going negative? Thank you sir, may I have another. George W. Bush may have to start talking to people? Recalling his father's famous trip to the supermarket (during which he was seemingly introduced to the miracle of universal price coding), they rub their hands in anticipation.

It is worth noting that the candidate who fared the best with voters and reporters was the one who was most accessible, in both senses. Not only was McCain ubiquitous in New Hampshire and on television (I sometimes think there are two of him), he was the reporter's best friend. When asked by Greenfield if the candidates they were covering regretted anything, the reporters might as well have cued up Edith Piaf: "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien."

Except for McCain's people, who (according to Candy Crowley) were starting to regret the nonstop 24/7 availability the senator offered reporters. Footage of McCain was notable for the flying wedge of press people who surrounded him, notebooks in hand. (The Weekly Standard's Tucker Carlson appeared to be joined at the hip with McCain.) And frankly, she admitted, it could be a bit exhausting, with McCain going late into the night answering questions reporters hadn't even asked yet.

To their credit, McCain, Bradley and even Al Gore all sense that the voters want substance, and McCain at least still sees reporters as a conduit through which to reach voters. (Quaint idea.) Unfortunately, many of the people handling the reporting seem unprepared to deal with substance when they are dished it. For so many elections now, the story has been about image -- usually referred to Tuesday as "character" -- that talking about the issues qua issues is viewed as a chump's game.

McCain won because he had the best story, according to MSNBC's Chris Matthews. "There's an Audie Murphy quality to John McCain," he said, halfway through the evening. "He fought for his country, he came back." And story, in political coverage as in Hollywood script meetings, equals character. Or, perhaps, caricature.

Bradley and McCain were discussed in terms of being mavericks and outsiders (which must make Steve Forbes, who seems to have contracted a bad case of cooties between Iowa and New Hampshire, a true space alien). It may not be totally true but it makes the race interesting. And as Howard Fineman on MSNBC quoted Richard Nixon as saying, "The worst sin in politics is to be boring." The Newsweek scribe went on to accuse Bradley of being just that -- boring -- while McCain was "the Ho Chi Minh" of this war, taking advantage of every opportunity the Bush camp has left open to him.

Never mind that the former Arizona senator was once a reluctant guest of the North Vietnamese president; the imagery is what matters. Ho Chi Minh, Audie Murphy, Stalin, Satan -- someone once called it the "Maureen Dowd syndrome," but all this iconography and pop-culture reference is ultimately unfulfilling. We respond to these images for the same reasons the reporters come up with them: They are part of our lingua franca, and a hell of a lot easier than coming up with something fresh. But after a while it's like staring at the cover of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band": Who are all those people and why are they with the Beatles anyway?

It's a matter of record now that everyone's favorite Beatle -- I mean candidate -- is John. The access, the underdog stuff, all of it combined to make Tuesday night a McCain love fest all across the dial. While even I found my hopes somewhat buoyed by his success, I heard the nagging doubts of TV news mullahs and felt my heart sink.

Adding another childhood icon to the crowded metaphor scrum, CNN's Greenfield invoked Willie Mays. After an incredible game-ending triple play, according to Greenfield, the rival Dodgers' manager said simply, "Let's see him do that again." This is how the Bushies (who are a lot like the Blue Meanies, according to most of the evening's commentators) viewed McCain. The one-shot kid. One and done. Gary Hart sans bimbo.

The only thing less popular than the big green Bush machine was the press itself. The coverage began in the wee hours Tuesday as 29 voters went to the polls just after midnight in Dixville Notch, "the first-in-the-state polling place for the first-in-the-nation primary."

And yes, there were exit polls. "We call it exit polling but it's basically snooping around polling places," said CNN's Bernard Shaw. No wonder everyone hates the press. They're there when you vote, they're there when you are indicted, they're there when you shoot everyone in your office -- is nothing sacred anymore?

But how press-shy can the citizens of Dixville Notch -- or for that matter, New Hampshire -- really be? Why the hell would they go to vote a few minutes after midnight if they weren't hoping to be noticed? Barring the possibility that it's a village of insomniacs, one can only conclude that they like the attendant publicity and are dying to be asked what they think about anything and everything.

And everything was what the electorate was asked about, too -- everything but the issues, it often seemed. We learned (on both the Fox News Channel and MSNBC) that a lot of Democrat voters liked Bradley because he was "a stand-up guy." Did that mean any of them had actually been in a fight with the former New Jersey senator, had him cover their back? Well, no.

But Gore was vice president, which many see as a "lie down" job. Though voters seemed to like Bradley's late attacks on Gore's character questions, like that bit of Buddhist fund-raising (and before this campaign, how often did the words "Buddhist" and "fund-raising" appear in the same sentence?), the press was more attuned to his attire.

MSNBC's Brian Williams was one of many to comment on the veep's changing sartorial style, from blue suits to three-button shirts. (Like Hillary's hair, it makes for a great photo op while leaving us none the wiser.) And curmudgeonly former Sen. Alan Simpson gave the makeover the Wyoming sniff test and found it wanting.

It was like a middle-aged guy donning a turtleneck and a saber-tooth necklace, he said. "This is goofy."

Time's Margaret Carlson (who also managed to appear on several different networks almost simultaneously) attributed the change in style to the changes in New Hampshire. It was the same reason tax cuts didn't play to the traditionally tax-phobic voters of the Granite State. "It's not Live Free or Die anymore," she said, "it's"

Does that mean the GOP will change with the times, perhaps even allowing a candidate like McCain, with his unorthodox views on things like campaign-finance reform, to fly? Not according to those who would know.

"The Republicans have a terrible habit of eating their young," Simpson said, in one of the evening's more remarkable observations. "Then they sit around and bitch for four years about why they didn't win the White House."

Did he say "bitch"? One of the most jaw-dropping experiences of watching this year's political coverage lies in seeing former political predators don the gay apparel of the color man. Many of us remember Simpson as one of the more evil inquisitors at the Clarence Thomas hearings -- remember him fingering that letter in his pocket, like Joe McCarthy ready to name a few more names? To see him in this guise -- cynic and moralist, betrayed by his party -- is almost breathtaking. Or would be, if I thought he took it seriously.

For television, finally, is the great equalizer. It doth maketh the lamb lie down with the lion, or at least the Paul Begala trade spit with the Ollie North (as they do regularly on MSNBC's "Equal Time"). It's enough to make Bill Kristol agree with Jim Hightower, at least for an instant. (It is not enough to make former colleagues Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward appear on the same dais together, however. The former can be found on Geraldo Rivera's show on CNBC while Woodward is a regular on CNN's "Larry King Live.")

The wisdom available on election night could probably be contained in a few sentences -- which certainly won't stop the commentators from spinning more wool. I lost count of the number of times various authorities said, "This was a big win for McCain." Well, duh. My mother could have told you that. What she couldn't tell you is what separates these competitors politically. And neither could I.

Around midnight, after I'd been watching election coverage for over six hours, my wife asked me if I could explain the difference between Gore and Bradley's health-care plans. For a second I felt like George W. caught in a pop quiz until I realized she was just curious. Uh, no, I had to confess, though I was pretty sure that Gore said Bradley's was too expensive and Bradley said Gore's didn't cover everybody. But I hadn't heard an explanation of their positions all evening, even though the so-called exit polls indicated it was a key issue for many voters.

"You would think they would have time to cover that," she said before going to sleep.

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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Al Gore George W. Bush John Mccain