Ask A Stupid Question

Like most of us, I've been following a great deal of the presidential "coverage," and like most fervent supporters of Barack Obama, I am starting to have that sinking feeling. This has little to do with the candidate, or even his campaign, and a lot to do with what Obama's called "the silliness." Philip Roth once said that when he was in graduate school in the early 50s he assumed that the score would be University of Chicago 22, Popular Culture 6. The most serious reason for queasiness is that I assumed, well, serious reason could squeak out a victory this time.

What's Obama's problem? Bill Maher--whom MSNBC rolled out for the opening of its convention coverage, and then seems to have taken out back and shot--caught the mood (or, at least, mine) when he remarked that, with every election, the talk seems to be getting dumber, and the country will no doubt get the leaders it deserves. Maher then threw a left hook at Mormonism, as he has at all religions (Mitt Romney came up and, lucky for Jews, not Joe Lieberman) which prompted Chris Matthews to reassure his viewers that he--or was it the management of MSNBC?--considered Mormons "a great religion," an endorsement that seemed in tone and trenchancy about right for a Chevy, and was really (Maher no doubt thought) more of the disease that presumes itself the cure.

YOU CAN'T SAY we weren't warned. John Stuart Mill wrote in 1861 that representative government might be a necessary feature of liberal commonwealths, but also that educated people should have disproportionate voting power. He assumed that the franchise was not a right, but a trust; that discriminating choices could only be made by people who understood scientific methods and, hence, valued the rules of evidence and the pursuit of truth. He assumed that uneducated people could not really be trusted to make the most of their liberties. He actually pointed to American presidential elections, and lamented how campaigns were decided by those "most timid, most narrow-minded and prejudiced, or who cling most tenaciously to the exclusive class-interest."

Mill failed to see that ordinary voters could now and then outdo themselves (Lincoln had just taken office, for God's sake). But he also failed to see that--if, indeed, educated people assumed that most of the population was "timid," "narrow-minded," etc.--then our conspicuously, inescapably educated people, that is, journalists, would eventually busy themselves with one science only, what business schools lovingly call Marketing.

Journalists would not much question whether leaders were telling the truth (which was, to be sure, the work of an elite and, at best, a provisional thing). Journalists would prove themselves, rather, by showing they were (presumably, like political leaders) successful in anticipating the manipulation of the poor shmucks who looked for, as pursuers of happiness will, "red meat."

What is starting to bug me particularly is that even NPR, which we pay in advance, seems utterly wrapped up in whether Obama can "close the sale." Yesterday, to take just one example, I heard a report on a talk-show I otherwise admire (have appeared on, and will not name, so that I can appear on it again) about why Hillary voters were still "angry" about "the process": One person interviewed told the host that giving Michigan's "undecided" votes to Obama was, in effect, an example of the party bosses cheating Hillary. The host might well have asked why Hillary alone had broken her promise, made along with all the other candidates, not to compete in Michigan, which violated party rules. But that would have implied that the story was whether Obama, or any candidate, was honorable. The story, silly me, was whether Obama is as competent a con as Hillary.

I GUESS MY real fear (and pride) is that Obama cannot compete on these terms. That he will have less trouble refuting McCain than bobbing-and-weaving around a press that sees itself as the arbiter of this disgusting, democratic competence. Can Obama prove to the "white working class" that he is not "an elitist"? Can he be "commander-chief"? Can he prove he is not "just a celebrity" who "speaks well"? Can he get people to stop seeing him as black or male or young or brilliant?

Listen for these stupid questions, or variations on them, especially on NPR, the best of the best, and ask yourself if any decent person will ever get elected again. OK, so the press pre-killed a liar's book this time. And somewhere around October 20, it will start tsk-tsking how the election is not about "issues." But the problem is not really Karl Rove and the Republican attack-machine. It is a press that seriously defines its job as the judge of who lies best, which commercials work, that is, in ways hired consultants like Rove cannot resist.

I HAVE A suggestion. Instead of using the money we've contributed to buy more ads, which nobody who's watched hundreds of thousands over the years believes anyway, perhaps Obama should run against the junk-culture itself, of which this kind of press "coverage" is a part. Why not just buy television time for open town-meetings, and speak also about the way we do politics? If he can speak honestly about race, can he not tap into our buried despair about a political culture run by cons and a press handicapping their performance? Is the long-term damage from warming air really of greater concern to ordinary citizens than the relentless closing of sales on the airwaves? Watch, again, Jon Stewart's (no relation to Mill) grilling of Chris Matthews, and ask yourself if this won't bring change we can believe in.

Anyway, Obama was never so inspiring as when, on Father's Day, he told a crowd in a black church that it was time for parents to shut the televisions. At least it is time to say why.