Richard Cohen: Ted Cruz, master of the media

September 30, 2013

Of all of Sunday’s great television shows — “Breaking Bad,” “Homeland” and “Masters of Sex” — the very best was the one mounted by Ted Cruz. It was nominally called “Meet the Press,” but the only press met was the clearly critical and somewhat overmatched David Gregory. The junior senator from Texas gave the day’s most dazzling performance. As a demagogue, he gets an Emmy.

Mine is not an original observation. Sen. Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat and fierce liberal, had earlier likened Cruz to Joe McCarthy, the senator with his own “ism.” Cruz met Boxer’s challenge. McCarthyism consisted of slippery truths, unfounded allegations and wild accusations — say, a frightening number of Communists hidden in the U.S. government, especially the State Department. Cruz attempted a bit of that when he accused Chuck Hagel of possibly taking money from America’s enemies. This is what prompted Boxer to utter McCarthy’s name — and, of course, she was right to do so.

McCarthy was a demagogue who couldn’t make the transition from newspapers to television. In print, he was formidable, hurling accusations as Zeus did lightning bolts. But on the telly, he cut a ridiculous figure, morose and tending to emit a weird giggle. Although he had overreached and earned the considerable hatred of his colleagues, it was his disheveled and foolish appearance that actually did him in. With television, appearance matters as much as content.

Cruz has both a comely appearance and a mastery of his message. A viewing of the show, as well as a close reading of the transcript, reveals a man who speaks in whole sentences, actual paragraphs and who feels no obligation, moral or otherwise, to actually answer a question. The English language exited his mouth ready for publication. Cruz does not clear his throat. He does not repeat the question while he riffles through memorized talking points. At every turn, he made Harry Reid the heavy — if only the Democratic Senate leader could be reasonable! — while he, Cruz, and his allies were the very soul of moderation. “It’s Harry Reid who wants to use brute political force,” he said, more or less matter-of-factly.

My grandfather might read the “Meet the Press” transcript with satisfaction. Cruz used all the right terms: “The ruling class.” “All of the voices of Washington.” “The Washington establishment.” “Career politicians in Washington.” To the naive, he sounds like a leftie. He combines the language of the left with the programs of the right. It’s a powerful combination.

Whose side are the Republicans on? (Ann Telnaes/The Washington Post)

Although Boxer had something else in mind, Cruz is most like McCarthy in his clever use of Obamacare as a cemetery ghoul. Just like the Communist menace of the past, the Affordable Care Act cannot be seen nor, given the Obama administration’s inept selling effort, even understood. Until just now, it didn’t even exist, although in Cruz’s telling it has already forced good people from their jobs and soon, no doubt, from their very homes as well. “Obamacare is the biggest job-killer in the country,” Cruz told Gregory.

Obamacare has been molded into something horrible, a stealthy socialist monstrosity (even though it relies on private insurers) that will devour little children, probably on their way to church. (Imagine if Social Security was called Roosevelt Retirement.) You would think that the program replaces some wonderful health-care system, instead of the Western world’s most expensive and dysfunctional one. It is admirable to die for America. It is very expensive to die in it.

In 1984 when Gary Hart ran for president, I accompanied him on a commercial flight to New Hampshire. On the plane, I asked him about his organization. He turned around and pointed to a television crew some rows back. “That’s my organization,” he said. Within days, the telegenic Hart was all over the airwaves — and formal organization or not, beat the former vice president, Walter Mondale, by a shocking 10 points in the state’s primary.

Hart’s insight is now commonplace. But it’s hard to think of another politician who has so mastered the art of attracting media attention as has Cruz. His 21-hour pseudo-filibuster was a narcissistic tour de force — as was, for that matter, his “Meet the Press” appearance. He came out of nowhere to take a Senate seat, but he remains a mere backbencher, widely disliked by his colleagues who, like those in a Senate of old, know a lean-and-hungry look when they see it. “Such men are dangerous,” Caesar told Antony.

Nowadays, such men are presidential candidates.

Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.

Read more in Opinions:

Ruth Marcus: Ted Cruz, making quite an entrance

Dana Milbank: Texas senator is Cruz-ing for a bruising

The Post’s View: Ted Cruz’s futile battle against Obamacare

Ted Cruz: What the GOP should stand for — opportunity

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