know how sportswriters talk about this or that record not being broken,
but smashed or obliterated? Well, that's exactly what we had on our
hands after the first presidential debate. This Bush-Kerry ordeal is
on the way to obliterating, if you will, a whole slew of records, each
of them an all-time low. Even counting the 2000 presidential contest
that made history by going into overtime, this election is already the
most over-covered news phenomenon in history.
sad fact became depressingly clear last week, when the national press
corps' post-debate analysis became the second man-made object, after
the Great Wall, to become visible from space.
bad was it? At least one newspaper, the New York Times, put so many
different people on the debate story that the resultant editorial confusion
has likely willed into being a whole new job title in the journalistic
profession - perhaps a newsroom pharmacist to make sure the contrary
prescriptions of the various writers don't jeopardize the mental health
of the unwary reader.
is Times political analyst Adam Clymer in his debate preview on Sept.
27: "Sometime in the 1980's political coverage began to confuse
itself with drama criticism. The word 'performance' started showing
up frequently in debate analyses, and reporters started citing Samuel
Beckett in their front-page articles."
of all things. Imagine!
but what does the Times offer us this Sunday in exactly the same slot
on the Times editorial page: Stephen Greenblatt playing drama critic
in a piece titled "Friends, Americans, Countrymen," comparing
Kerry and Bush to Brutus and Mark Antony, respectively.
piece was a marvel, the clear jewel of the debate post-mortems. Pretentious
beyond even George Will's wildest dreams, its desperation to keep its
preposterous thesis superficially plausible was, at times, breathtaking.
Consider this brazen attempt to cram the "flip-flop" theme
into Shakespearean design:
the heat of the moment this is a lot for anyone to process: how could
Brutus have shifted from friend to foe? Are his deeds the mark of
inconsistency or thoughtfulness? How could he be for and against the
Greenblatt was just getting started. About 150 words later, Greenblatt
- in his day job, a Harvard University professor (we repeat: Harvard
University Professor) - has Shakespeare retroactively add a video cutaway
to "Julius Caesar," catching Mark Antony sporting a Bush-like
if the crowd had glimpsed something in Antony's face when he did not
know he was being observed that gave away his cynical scheme? The
course of history - the collapse of order, years of bloodshed, wasted
lives and treasure, the loss of liberty - would have been startlingly
is wrong, of course - civilizations in the classical age did not have
armies of hysterical liberal arts grads staying up all night long blathering
into bullhorns about Brutus looking at his wristwatch, or Crassus sighing
during the rebuttals. That is a luxury only today's America, with its
penchant for excess in all things including political punditry, can
for example, the Washington Post, which over the weekend filed two full-length
stories about the Bush scowl alone. Both Post writers, Dana Milbank
and E.J. Dionne, spent about 700 words saying exactly the same thing.
"The Bush Scowl is destined take its place with the Gore Sigh,"
concluded Dionne on Saturday.
of the first debate of the 2000 presidential campaign, when Al Gore's
loud and pained sighs made the Democrat appear contemptuous and condescending,"
concluded Milbank anew, the very next day.
kind of echo effect within publications was common in the post-debate
feeding spree. The Times ran no fewer than four analyses whose principle
aim was to argue that the debates ended up being more substantive and
providing a greater contrast between the two candidates than expected.
That number doesn't include Clymer's Sep. 27 preview, which was titled,
unsurprisingly, "Look for Substance, Not Sizzle."
Times post-debate "substance" lineup included: an analysis
by Todd Purdum ("It was a real debate, sharp, scrappy and defining.");
a house editorial ("This campaign was starved for real discussion
and substance. Even a format controlled by handlers and spin doctors
seemed like a breath of fresh air."); an obscenely verbose piece
by burgeoning literary villain James Bennet ("The two men were
drawing contrasts with each other but also, unavoidably, with themselves.");
and, deserving honorable mention, the piece by Professor Greenblatt,
who looked up from his Cliffs Notes long enough to observe: "To
my surprise, substantive differences between President Bush and John
who has ever covered a presidential or a primary debate knows that -
to use that sports analogy - the game is pretty much over before it
starts. Literally hundreds of reporters pack into what is usually a
windowless room somewhere in the bowels of the debate hall. Every single
one of these writers then has to come up with something to say about
an event designed specifically to preclude real drama.
is a sad commentary on the state of campaign coverage that dozens of
reporters emerged on Friday with the exact same judgment, using the
exact same boxing metaphor: Kerry on points, no knockdowns, no knockouts.
Even the Wall Street Journal - perhaps the only remaining major U.S.
publication that has not yet described a poll lead in terms of a touchdown
- outdid itself with a triple-cliche verdict: "John Kerry didn't
score a knockout, but he climbed off the political ropes and took the
presidential fight to President Bush."
analogies or body language analysis is all but inevitable when each
paper has just one reporter forced to come up with his version of Much
Ado About Nothing. But when each paper assigns five or six writers to
cover the same event, the result is pure manic gibberish. Just read,
for instance, this passage by Bennet, which cannot be read as anything
other than a desperate cry for help:
with the presidential debate as its axis, the campaign appeared tonight
to be collapsing in on itself and spinning more and more rapidly,
not unlike one of the hurricanes that periodically twist through this
state, laying waste to the landscape and leaving beleaguered residents
question - why? We wish we knew, James. We wish we knew.