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Catching Election Fever, Be It Fahrenheit or Celsius

By Tina Brown
Thursday, October 28, 2004; Page C01

People tell each other they can't wait for the election to be over, but in the last days the suspense has become its own addiction. The big finish will be bigger than the last episode of "Friends," bigger than the finale of "The Apprentice," bigger than Mr. Big's reunion with Carrie.

Graydon Carter famously said after 9/11 that the new era meant the "end of irony." The end of apathy is what we got instead. Once torpor returns we'll miss the rush. We may be drowning in blog smog, but at least the data that rain down are about something more consequential than shopping. All the discord is weirdly uniting. One day we'll look back on Divided America and realize how much we miss it -- the toxic late-night e-mails, the fights about polls, the browbeating to write checks.


Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman, left, beat up on Kerry strategist Bob Shrum on the Oct. 17 "Meet the Press," but Shrum got even last Sunday on "This Week With George Stephanopoulos." (Alex Wong -- NBC via Reuters)

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 U.S. President
Updated 2:09 AM ET Precincts:0%
 CandidateVotes % 
  Bush * (R)  60,693,28151% 
  Kerry (D)  57,355,97848% 
  Other  1,107,3931% 
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Friday's Question:
It was not until the early 20th century that the Senate enacted rules allowing members to end filibusters and unlimited debate. How many votes were required to invoke cloture when the Senate first adopted the rule in 1917?
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_____Recent Columns_____
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In New York, thrill is now outrunning angst in the election mood-swing sweepstakes. That's because the momentum seems to be with Kerry, even if Democrats still guard their optimism more closely than the oil ministry in Iraq. The hope is too intensely felt to be willingly shared, especially as there are plenty of polls that will tell you something else.

You can see the new energy reflected in the performances of the spinners doing battle on the talk shows. On ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos" last Sunday, Kerry campaign strategist Bob Shrum had a festive, Falstaffian air. He kicked butt in his face-off with Bush's ferocious campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, who only seven days before had reduced Shrum to gelatin. It was the same dynamic on Tim Russert's "Meet the Press" on NBC. Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe came on like a big laughing horse, rearing and whinnying as he trampled the arguments of his Republican counterpart, Ed Gillespie.

Bill Clinton's rising from his sickbed to head for Pennsylvania worked like Democratic Zoloft, whatever it does or doesn't do for voter turnout. It made Kerry spokesman Mike McCurry so happy he even broke out his old saxophone tie. Plus, the former president's weight loss and "bone-white hands," as two Kerry aides put it, according to the Boston Globe, allowed him to deploy the old magic without suffocating the candidate. At Clinton's side Kerry suddenly looked big and strong and tenderly protective.

Clinton's "Good Morning America" interview with Diane Sawyer, besides offering useful Clintonian tips in that familiar bedroom drawl on how to recognize an impending heart attack, trumped Bush's same-old same-old broadcast just before. "I don't get to decide who goes to heaven," the president informed "GMA" viewers, in case we were in doubt. "The almighty God decides who goes to heaven. I am on my personal walk." Forward march!

Another clue to which way the energy's flowing: The once and once again liberal New Republic is on a roll. Iraq War advocate Andrew Sullivan's journey from Bush to Kerry on the grounds of postwar incompetence is his best piece all year. In the same issue Leon Wieseltier gives us a killer epigram: "The Bush administration has done bad things well and good things poorly."

The Republicans' inner sense that they are losing their winner's sheen is punched up by every headline. Bush is now running against the news as much as he's running against Kerry. It's got all the fascination of risky stagecraft. Can the president keep himself suspended in the air through Nov. 2, or will the news from Iraq finally snap the wires and bring him crashing down into the orchestra pit?

Making the final week all the more excruciating is the growing suspicion that Nov. 2 won't settle the matter after all. The 2004 election could be 2000 on steroids, a contest without a winner, a drama with a climax that misfires. Perhaps the presidency will eventually have to settle down to mimic the 14th-century papacy -- a Roman pope in Washington and an Avignon antipope in Boston or Crawford.

The escalating media wars have exponentially increased the chaos. What with the CBS/Dan Rather fiasco, the Sinclair counterattack and the Republican campaign to marginalize the New York Times, the politics of media have never been rougher. The most unsettling thing about the splintering of TV audiences, the rise of the blogs and the loss of authority in leading media institutions is that the credibility of everything is called into question. If you don't know whom to believe, you can't know what to believe. There will always be one partisan blog to fact-check the facts and another to come up with a new version that keeps a lie alive.

This means that news organizations now have to report on not just the story but also the meta-story, the alternative narrative of whether what they are reporting on is really a story at all.

The confusion was comically borne out on CNN's "Lou Dobbs Tonight" show Tuesday night, which featured former U.S. chief weapons inspector David Kay, former U.N. weapons inspector David Albright and CNN senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre discussing the missing 380 tons of deadly explosives.

Since CNN has been battered with accusations that it's too liberal, Lou not only had to juggle the baffling, contradictory, undigested information each panelist was half-willing to impart (on top of trying to pronounce Al-Qaqaa without going gaga) but also had to project appropriate reverse-P.C. skepticism that the New York Times had been ethical to break the news at all.

"We can say all the things we don't know," he told us in his redoubtable way. "But in summation we have to say we just don't know. Which is remarkable considering we are now trying to assess what happened." He then went to the night's poll, which must count as the meta-poll of the month: "Do you believe it would have been fair for the New York Times and CBS News's '60 Minutes' to broadcast the missing explosives story one day before the election as they apparently planned, yes or no?"

Voting on what the media institutions didn't do drew a 70 percent yes. Which sums up the kind of madness I will miss once Election '04 is over. If it ever is.

©2004, Tina Brown


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