OPEN UNIVERSITY MARCH 6, 2007
by David A. Bell
For the tribe of presidential candidates now beginning their campaigns, it must be the ultimate nightmare. They spend months working beyond the point of exhaustion to get everything right, and, amazingly, they do. Steadily, they begin to impress the voters with their savvy, their boldness, their talent, their sheer leadership ability. Their poll numbers rise dramatically, and a few reporters even start attaching the word "inevitable" to their candidacies. And then comes The Incident. It might be a true but wildly impolitic remark (Michael Kinsley's famous definition of a gaffe); the revelation of a trifling but titlliating peccadillo from deep in their past; a lame attempt at humor caught by a hidden microphone; a lucky verbal thrust by a normally ham-handed opponent; even an embarrassing photo-op arranged by an enthusiastic but clueless junior staff member. Whatever it is, news of it flashes through the infosphere like bubonic plague through a rat colony. Within hours, it seems that everyone in America is talking of nothing else. The phenomenon was bad enough in the days when the media consisted solely of print and radio and television news. Now the uproar is amplified by the blogosphere, talk radio, cable news, YouTube, late-night comedy--and, of course, the candidate's opponents. Attempts at damage control prove fruitless. Desperate pleas to "get back to the issues" fall on six hundred million deaf ears. The façade of inevitability cracks, the poll numbers plummet, the vision of the White House vanishes in a puff. A potential presidency has turned into a bad joke.
We can all think of half a dozen such Incidents without even trying--not all of them fatal by themselves, but all enormously damaging to the candidates in question. Ed Muskie allegedly crying in the snow in New Hampshire. "Where's the beef?" Mike Dukakis in his tank. Howard Dean's scream. One of the few certain things about the 2008 presidential campaign is that some candidate--possibly several--will find their campaign torpedoed by an Incident of this sort, and that they may well spend the rest of their lives regretting that single moment when, in a moment of near-terminal exhaustion, everything was thrown away.
The mainstream media, radio and cable hosts, and bloggers will all of course justify the attention they are paying to this modern version of the Roman circus by claiming that The Incident somehow magically reveals something about the candidate's inner nature. This is pure, rank hypocrisy. Who among us would like to see the most stupid or embarassing thing we have ever done seized upon as the key to our character? Particularly if it occurred when we were delirious with fatigue?
I don't want to sound curmudgeonly here, and suggest that the rise of The Incident marks a fatal degeneration of our politics from some lost golden age of American democracy, when presidential campaigns supposedly resembled advanced Kennedy School seminars on public policy. But the fact that this golden age never existed is no reason to resign ourselves to something that is nonetheless enormously destructive, and distracting from, yes, the issues. Because of The Incident, presidential races have come to resemble foot races held in a minefield, in which the result may well be decided by a single unlucky misstep.
Unfortunately, pleading for restraint from "the media" is hopeless, because even if The New York Times or Brian Williams ostentatiously take the high road, a thousand other commentators, bloggers, radio hosts, and talking heads will rush onto the low. But there is at least one possible source of hope. Precisely because of the huge expansion of the infosphere, we live in a country which is increasingly media-savvy. Ordinary Americans are coming more and more to understand how Incidents occur, or are manufactured. They are coming to see, in short, that these moments in fact generally say much more about the infosphere itself than about the unlucky candidate. These tendencies should be encouraged. As much as possible, when an Incident occurs, its artificial nature should be stressed, and examined with the eye of an entertainment critic, rather than a political analyst. The coverage should focus on the commentators as much as the candidates. We need to repeat, and repeat often, that while politics is always theater, sometimes it is only theater. Frank Rich, your hour has come.