Fox: Just "a standard election"

Fox News' talking heads comb desperately through the night's rubble and ashes in search of a blackened emblem of symbolic victory.


Andrew O'Hehir
November 9, 2006 2:00AM (UTC)

If you tuned in to Fox News on Election Night hoping for a massive dose of schadenfreude, hoping to see a set littered with bloated bodies and empty bottles of insecticide, hoping for wailing, gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, as I did, you were disappointed. Sure, the mood on Fox was grumpy and a little depressed as the scale of Republican defeat mounted. There was denial. There was bargaining. There was lashing out. There was an apparition of the undead. There was a wacky racially coded moment. There was cannibalism (if only among liberals). But I could have encountered most of that in certain relatives' houses, where the drinks would have been better and the oaths more colorful.

Fox has never been so boring. For most of the evening, Brit Hume had the bemused, faintly condescending demeanor of the veteran TV newsman who has been reduced to anchoring the weekend local news in Bakersfield or Binghamton. He'd announce that yet another porcine congressional Republican was going down the slippery slide toward a future on K Street, defeated by some heartland Democrat nobody's ever heard of, as if he were discussing the garden show on Palisade Boulevard and the times for Sunday Mass at St. Stanislaus'. The first actual candidate we got to hear thank his family was Joe Lieberman. Yes, it was that boring.

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Several of the panelists in Fox's circle of commentators, most notably Mort Kondracke, Fred Barnes and Juan Williams, seemed devoted to combing through the night's rubble and ashes in search of any blackened emblems of moral or symbolic victory. This tone was struck early, when reporter Major Garrett raised the idea that "all these conservative Democrats" riding into Congress on the great wave of 2006 might be, well, almost like Republicans, except that they belong to a different party. (Granted, many left-wing Democrats might make the same observation.)

This new crop of Democrats was "going to get to Washington, and they're going to see a bunch of liberals leading their party," Garrett intoned darkly. "It's going to be interesting to watch." One commentator (possibly Bill Kristol, though I'm not sure about that) floated the notion that conservative Democrats like Rep.-elect Heath Shuler, the former NFL quarterback from North Carolina, might not support Nancy Pelosi for the speakership. This meme floated in the air, wistfully, for a second -- might the GOP lose the election but then magically convert those new Democratic members into Republicans? -- and then was abandoned.

One-time right-wing hero Rick Santorum was the first Republican senator to fall, and beyond that first news bulletin his name was not mentioned during the five hours or so I watched of Fox's election coverage. Defeated Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine was barely mentioned either, although his victorious opponent, Rep. Sherrod Brown, was described by Hume, with evident distaste, as a "true-blue liberal" and an "out-and-out liberal." Some point was being made there, but since it seemed to contradict the running theme that only conservative Democrats were winning, it never became clear.

Barnes and Kondracke acted irritated by the whole evening, as if the historic electoral upheaval they were witnessing was essentially a routine event and anyway, dammit, if they didn't make their Georgetown dinner dates on time the merlot would all get drunk by other people (possibly Democrats). Barnes insisted that "there was no ideological component" to the GOP's ever-worsening defeat, and that the widely despised Iraq war was not an ideological issue. That sounds smart until you think about it. In plain English, I think that means: Absolutely everyone has finally grasped that the president is an idiot.

Republican campaign honcho Ken Mehlman came on the show a bit past 9 p.m. EST. Always a graceful bullshitter, he didn't exactly concede defeat, saying, "We're seeing a number of different races that are sending different signals," and, "It's going to be a long and interesting evening." Then he started to talk about bipartisan cooperation, which is something only the losers are interested in.

At that point, the Foxies knew the jig was up. Kristol got giggly. "We could be talking about [a net gain of] 35 to 40 seats" for Democrats, he said with an odd smirk, knowing that was a naughty thing to say on Rupert Murdoch's network. (In fairness, while Kristol may be wrong on nearly every issue of substance, he's a vastly more intelligent person than most of those pinheads.) Barnes could hardly get the words out: "It's a, it's a, it's a chip shot for Democrats to take the House," he added.

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Then, as must happen on all Fox News broadcasts, things took a bizarre turn. It was as if the producers suddenly realized that their political movement was about to be cast into the wilderness, that their core viewers were all at home eating their own gizzards, and that changing the mood somehow, anyhow, was mandatory. That meant hearing Brit Hume utter the word "blogosphere" (it's still funny!) and it meant bringing in Michelle Malkin, looking as if she had showed up to fill out an application at the Hawaiian Tropic theme restaurant and sat down at the wrong desk.

It was she who chirpily informed us that NewsBusters and other right-wing sites were blaming CBS News for Santorum's defeat in Pennsylvania (and, no doubt, for global warming and the North Korean nuclear bomb). Moving along briskly to the so-called left of the spectrum, Malkin announced that Ned Lamont's defeat by Lieberman had "really opened up some fissures in the Democrat Party. There's a lot of cannibalism out there among liberals." Is that so, Michelle? I can't say I'm surprised; they are liberals after all. But tell me, who gets to eat Al Sharpton?

Right after that, just before 10 p.m. Eastern, Hume had to announce the defeats of Gov. Bob Ehrlich and Senate candidate Michael Steele, two well-liked Republicans, in Maryland. Whether it was Malkin's outburst or those losses that threw him off, Hume lost all pretense of objectivity, and spent several minutes dolefully dwelling on a lone Republican hold in a close seat, the 13th Congressional District of Florida. He seemed terribly eager for analyst Michael Barone to tell him this was a harbinger of better things ahead, and not just a Proustian remembrance of glorious elections past.

Inclining his forehead toward us at that familiar, if weird, 45-degree angle, Hume said, "Republicans' task now is to maybe hold the Senate and contain their losses in the House. They must realize in their bones now that the House will be Democratic, but, well, maybe not by too much."

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Alas, poor Brit, it was too much for him to bear in the end, I'm afraid. You almost had to feel sorry for the guy, shilling for the know-nothing protofascists with his officious, piss-elegant mannerisms and his cute little reading glasses. I said almost.

Normal TV manners reasserted themselves, and before long Sen. John McCain came on the show, supposedly to talk about how the Republicans would land on their feet. Of course this is the new, improved McCain, a pod person hatched in some Karl Rove greenhouse who at some point in 2005 replaced the old tough-as-nails, indie-Republican model. I have long felt that I'd actually prefer McCain to Hillary Clinton in '08, but, jeez Louise, have you seen this guy lately? He sits there in a chair with all the lifelike vividness of Lenin's corpse, smiling in this ghastly, dead way and reading from a script, with no evident conviction or even awareness. I'm not positive his lips move. Sca-a-ry.

Less scary, but even more mealy-mouthed, was Sen. Harry Reid, the wispy nonentity from Searchlight, Nev., who could become the Senate's new majority leader. He doesn't seem to want the job. At any rate, he tried really hard to concede defeat in the Senate campaign, a defeat that (at this writing) looks as if it might just turn into victory. "I never thought we would get to six [additional Senate seats]," he said. "I've been in the minority, I've been the majority whip, I've been in a tied Senate. I've done it all!" Just what we need at the helm of that august body: a guy so experienced he just doesn't give a crap.

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At 11:23 EST, Fox put up a graphic showing a cherry-picked selection of the incoming House leadership. Predictably, they'd found a photo of Nancy Pelosi with a bad puffball hairdo and a weird gape-grin. Below the speaker-presumptive were a few likely chairs of major committees: Charles Rangel, Alcee Hastings, John Conyers and Henry Waxman. These people were variously described as highly liberal (Rangel and Conyers), ethically challenged (Hastings) and overly aggressive (Waxman). No one on the show observed that the folks in the picture were a woman, three black guys and a Jew. (At least not out loud.)

Shortly before Hume's signoff at midnight, Kondracke asked him, "How do you keep track of all these blogs? There's a lot of them. It seems like anybody in their pajamas ..." He trailed off.

"It's a real marketplace of ideas, isn't it?" said Hume.

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All night long, it had looked like George Allen was going to squeak it out in Virginia, and the Foxies were clinging to that apparent result. Bill Kristol kept wanting to call the race and then talking himself out of it, but he did repeatedly exclaim with boyish wonder over the fact that it might be Allen who saved the Republicans' bacon in the end. Hume got to tell his viewers, right before departing, that Allen's lead had finally evaporated, and that a recount, and possibly agonizing defeat, would come with the dawn.

By the next hour under Shep Smith, Fox had totally dropped the mode of lamentation and moved on to a new message: Let's end this partisan bickering and get stuff done! It's time for new ideas! Change! Competence! Like I said earlier, it's the message of those who just got a can of whup-ass opened all over them. (It looks like condensed cream of mushroom soup, but tastes even worse.)

"This is sort of a standard election," Kondracke said crossly in summing up. "There's always something in the sixth year [of a president's tenure], whether it's Watergate or Vietnam or a recession." Yeah, Mort. There's always something. Here's the something this year: That big plan for a permanent Republican majority? It crawled out into the Iraqi desert, rolled onto its bristly back and died.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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