By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, March 23, 2008
THE CRUDDIEST MOMENT OF THE CRAPPIEST DAY OF MY LIFE ON EARTH happened as I found myself watching five televisions simultaneously, each containing a different political pundit opining on the same subject. When I looked down toward my computer screen to see what the bloggers were saying about it, I noticed that a button on my shirt had come undone.
There I was, literally contemplating my own navel. But I didn't even crack a smile because, in the relentless drone of insipid opinion, irony no longer held any meaning.
I knew then that this whole thing had been a very poor idea, one from which I would not return undamaged. Because the clock on the wall said I still had 14 hours to go.
THE BEST-INFORMED PERSON I EVER KNEW was a friend of my grandfather's back in the Bronx, where I grew up. Every morning of every day of his life, this elderly man -- his name, as I recall, was Boris -- would dress impeccably in a suit and waistcoat and shuffle to the public library, where more than a dozen of the day's local and out-of-town newspapers were threaded through bamboo poles and hung from racks. One by one, Boris would read them all, front to back; at dusk, he would walk home alone. This daily pilgrimage was conducted with ecclesiastic solemnity, a quiet, dignified homage to the majesty of knowledge. Even as a little boy, in that intuitive if primitive way that children comprehend important things, I understood the fundamental truth that Boris was, in some clear but compelling way, a douche bag.
It is possible to know too much. It is possible to care too much. Hunger for information can become gluttony.
This has always been true, but it is more so now because the opportunities for abuse are greater. There are too many voices, competing too hard, fighting for attention, ranting, redundant, random. The dissemination of fact and opinion is no longer the sole province of people and institutions with the money to buy network monopolies or ink by the ton, as it was a half-century ago when information was delivered to us, for better or worse, like the latest 1950s-era cigarette: filtered, for an illusion of safety. Now, all is out of control. Everyone with a computer is a potential pundit; anyone with a video camera can be on a screen.
And so it has come to this: a Web site called Meme-orandum.com, which brags, in its mission statement, that it "auto-generates a news summary every 5 minutes, drawing on experts and pundits, insiders and outsiders, media professionals and amateur bloggers." Driven by algorithm, largely unimpeded by the human mind, this information-aggregating Web site offers an obsessively updated menu of hyperlinks to hundreds of morsels of political news and commentary, many of which lead to dozens more of the same, creating a bottomless pyramid of punditry, a tessellated spider work of interconnected news and opinion that canvasses virtually everything that is being publicly written or uttered minute by minute on every subject everywhere by everyone.
There's a colorful analogy for living in an age of information overload. When I couldn't remember it, I went to Google and typed in "analogy" and "information overload." Twenty-six hundredths of a second later, after combing through the published thoughts of millions of people, the search engine served up a 6,100-page hierarchy of Web hits sorted by frequency of recent usage. And there it was, second from the top:
"Information overload is like drinking from a fire hose."
Right. We're all getting hosed. No one can consume it all, nor would anyone want to try. You'd drown. So, as best we can, we try to reduce our intake to manageable, gasping, horking gulps, and, in so doing, are able to remain ignorant of the breathtaking, mind-numbing totality of it. But what of that breathtaking, mind-numbing totality? It's not like if you don't see it, it's not there. We are like those 2-year-olds who try to hide, in hide-and-seek, by standing in the middle of a room and covering their eyes.
Surely this neurotic impulse to hear and be heard means something, good or bad, about our national character. Doesn't the world need one individual with the courage and audacity to expose himself to it all -- punditry in newspapers, punditry on TV, punditry on the radio, punditry on the Web -- for 24 hours straight?
No? Well, too late.
I'm back, and I'm here to make my report. I should begin by correcting one important impression.
Not fire-hosing, exactly. Waterboarding.
IT IS THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 14. (For the men in the audience, that would be Valentine's Day.) I have chosen this day not just for its iconic value -- notions of affection and comity might tamp down hostility and partisanship -- but also for the day's position in the cycle of spin. I want an ordinary, representative day; this one is 48 hours after the Potomac primaries and five days before the next one. There is not yet a clear Democratic nominee. Roger Clemens has just unconvincingly twitched, glowered and harrumphed his way through his congressional testimony about the use of performance-enhancing drugs and has already been taken to task for it. Nothing big and newsworthy is on for this Thursday.
For this experiment, conducted alone in a windowless room on the ninth floor of the Arlington offices of washingtonpost.com, I chose my wardrobe carefully. I remembered something I'd learned 35 years ago from James Howard Kunstler, my friend and colleague. At the time, we were both young reporters in Albany, N.Y. Kunstler had been assigned to wrestle a trained grizzly bear. He knew there was no way to win, but he figured he could at least get flattened in style.
So I, too, wear a tux.
I begin at daybreak, on the theory that this will permit me to get my sea legs as a nation wakes up, yawns, scratches and sleepily begins contemplating the news and assembling its opinions. So, 6 a.m. is when I turn on the six TVs, the two radios and my laptop, which is set to the following rotation of blogs: the Drudge Report, Daily Kos, The Fix, the Corner, Captain's Quarters, Buck Naked Politics, Instapundit, the Page, the Hotline, Michellemalkin.com and, of course, Memeorandum, to make sure I will miss nothing else. When I need to use the bathroom, the computer will go with me.
The clock hits 6, everything blinks to life, and, instantly, all manners of hell are in the process of breaking loose.
MSNBC says James Carville told Larry King that Hillary Clinton has to win Texas and Ohio to remain in the race! On the Moderate Voice, a poster named Damozel says John McCain has capitulated on torture and is now dead to right-leaning Dems! A caller to Joe Madison's radio show complains that Tavis Smiley was an arrogant snob when he snubbed Michelle Obama by not letting her speak somewhere! A body language expert on "Fox & Friends" believes Clemens was lying because he clenched his jaw and licked his lips! On MSNBC's "Morning Joe," someone named Chuck is venturing the bold opinion, and I'm quoting this directly, that to get the nomination, Hillary's best strategy has to be "to start winning, not losing." Because a beagle has won the Westminster dog show, FoxNews is predicting a wave of beaglemania. Instapundit links to another blog that links to another blog, where a blogger says he "still can't decide whether Obama is an empty suit, or worse, a truly excellent dissembler." On something called Israellycool.com, a blogger wonders with suspicion why the mainstream media have ignored the insidious fact that, for his birthday, North Korea's Kim Jong Il got a floral basket from Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. The Page reports that Hillary Clinton campaign chief Terry McAuliffe says he is "more confident than I have ever been" that Hillary will get the nomination. Immediately, at least four blogs furiously link to a quote by David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, saying that an Obama victory is nearly inevitable.
People are awake. People are opining, furiously. Only a little more than an hour has passed.
I've got these TVs set up so that five of them are muted. The sixth is my master control; this one has sound, and, minute by minute, I punch up on it whatever seems, from the images, headlines and crawls, most interesting on the silent ones.
There's an item on FoxNews that I switch to hungrily, even though it does not belong in this story because it is not punditry. But, under the circumstances, it has an insistent power of its own. That is because it offers no toehold for discussion, deconstruction or serious argument. It is, in the end, simply and wonderfully no more or less than what it is. I live and breathe in it for the moment.
The headline reads: "Funeral Called Off After Mom Wakes Up!"
"KNOWLEDGE IS NOT INTELLIGENCE." -- Heraclitus of Ephesos.
"Information is not knowledge." -- Albert Einstein.
". . . the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth." -- Umberto Eco.
Print journalism is famously dying; everyone knows it. Reports of its imminent demise are everywhere, and serious reservations exist as to whether the potentates of ink can stay financially afloat by converting to an all-pixel format. If they cannot, it will be bad news for the pundit industry, or pundustry. (This is a word I just coined. As I write this, "pundustry" returned no Google hits. By next month it will generate hundreds. The pundustry will see to it.) Opinion flingers feast on the print media as a source of both information and outrage; on this day, much of the snide and snarling portion of the blogosphere erupted from newspaper stories of the day. One of these, appearing in several newspapers, reported that Hillary Clinton was likely to fight tooth and nail for the nomination, even at a grave cost to Democratic harmony and the party's chances for success in the general election. This story alone, by my imprecise count, was cited by at least 45 blogs, which in turn cited at least 240 other print media stories, online media stories or blog entries, creating a towering souffle of more than 1,400 breathy comments by blog readers.
One blogger on Brilliant at Breakfast is comparing Hillary to Scarlett O'Hara: sullenly possessive of what she deems her property, willing to sow the earth of her plantation with salt to keep it from the grasp of the cackling, evil overseer Jonas Wilkerson, in the person of Barack Obama. I thought this an imperfect but charmingly original analogy; alas, a quick search reveals it is a variation of a recurring pundustry theme, going back at least a year, tweaked and twisted to assert whatever point is to be snarked at the moment. Sometimes, Obama is Scarlett; more often, Hillary is. In one variation, Bill Clinton is Jonas and Hillary is Emmie Slattery, the evil overseer's felicitously named trashy mistress-turned-wife. The pundustry is self-pollinating, but mutations abound, and, when they happen, they advance the narrative. In this way, the Web replicates evolution.
On the radio, Laura Ingraham is finding it outrageous that New York City is going to give out free condoms under the jaunty, double-entendred slogan "Get some!" Laura sneers: "Sex out of wedlock! Let's celebrate!" On TV, Pat Buchanan is thinking John McCain will no longer consider Mike Huckabee as his running mate. The Corner says Slate says Obama could steal the Catholic vote from McCain. The Hotline says Edwards is seriously considering backing Hillary. ABC News says Obama says he and Edwards are buddies. Michelle Malkin calls the mayor of Toledo a "jerk" for somehow dissing the Marines. Politico.com says the New Republic's Jon-athan Chait says that the reason McCain is attacking Obama is that he secretly would rather run against Hillary. The Huffington Post links to a site that worries that Obama's economic plan might be unworkable. Drudge says an Arizona newspaper says insiders say McCain says he may soon resign his Senate seat. In a crawl, FoxNews asks, "Should McCain Consider Sexy Rice as VP?"
Sexy Rice? I mean, true, but . . . ?
I do a double-take. My bad. It's "Sec'y Rice." Some things are beginning to happen around the start of Hour Five involving the nature of perception. Drowned in information, the brain gets soggy and sloppy.
During the last years of his life, when my father's eyesight began to go, he started hallucinating. He was seeing colorful little people in military uniforms dancing into his fuzzy line of sight; of all the images he could still make out, only these little people were completely and consistently clear. Diagnosis: He was not going mad. He was going blind, and when the brain finds itself starving for imagery, it sometimes creates its own.
Something of the opposite was happening to me: Overwhelmed with words and imagery, harangued with opinion, beset by twaddle, my brain hungered for simplicity and found it. What happens is that you focus on small things. For example, you suddenly become aware that sometime in the last few years, as if in a heinous conspiracy of the dimwitted, Americans have decided that the second month of the year is pronounced Feb-ooh-ery. Not Feb-RU-ery, which is correct, or Feb-YOU-ery, which is ignorant but tragically legitimized by the dictionary, but Feb-OOH-ery, which is a national disgrace far greater, in my opinion, than dissing the Marines. Or so it seems at the moment.
I am still seething over this when I notice an interesting two-pronged phenomenon. Prong one is that there is often an amusing disconnect between the subject of a broadcast and the subject of the news crawl beneath it. Prong two is that if you have five TVs on at the same time, and each features a talking head with the sound muted, and you also have a radio playing, it is very often possible to find one muted talking head whose lips happen to synch uncannily with the radio. And so, with only a little mental effort, one can watch a TV screen upon which George W. Bush strides purposefully down a path beside the White House, looking solemn and concerned, stands at a lectern and begins to speak in Laura Ingraham's voice, whining about condoms, while below him runs a crawl reading, "Man Carrying Adult Diapers Kills Woman With Meat Cleaver."
AT THE START OF HOUR SIX, I realize I am doing something no one else likely has ever done before, something no one should ever do again. I am listening to both Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly simultaneously, on two radios.
Both Rush and Bill start out by disclosing that, earlier that day, Jane Fonda had used the c-word live on NBC's "Today" show; it went unbleeped and at least initially unapologized for.
Somehow, I'd missed it. Fortunately, the gaffe is all over the Web in streaming video, and, yes indeed, here she is, Hanoi Jane herself, the bete noire of right wing radio, flagrantly uttering the unutterable. Clearly, Rush and Bill are courageously willing to address this shocking and distasteful subject even at the risk of driving their audiences into multi-orgasmic rapture.
Limbaugh joyfully eviscerates Fonda and moves quickly on to other things, but O'Reilly is in high dudgeon and is all over this reprehensible event. He's morally outraged, and seems to want to wring all he can get out of it, as though it were, say, a luffa sponge.
As someone in the broadcasting business, he says, he doesn't want to become "the scold police," but he wonders just the same if someone ought to call the FCC and demand punishment. (Later at night, on Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor," he will devote an entire segment to the issue, practically sputtering in exasperation when he can't persuade his guest, lawyer Anita Kay, to agree with him that heads must roll. Kay will point out, reasonably, that Fonda wasn't using the word in a hostile manner; she was simply stating the actual title of one of the monologues from the play "The Vagina Monologues," which is, ironically, about how the word should be destigmatized.) B-b-but "this is the most vile word in the lexicon of obscenity!" O'Reilly protests. Laughing, Kay basically tells him to calm down and grow up, that the average 12-year-old girl has heard this word, and it's no big deal. It's my favorite moment of the day. (Anita Kay, the cure for the common scold.) The peril of listening to Limbaugh and O'Reilly at the same time is that you tend to compare them, and these are dangerous waters for an unapologetic, unreconstructed New Deal liberal like me. The comparison makes you actually like Rush. He's funny; O'Reilly is not. Limbaugh teases and baits his political adversaries; O'Reilly sneers and snarls at them. Limbaugh is mock-heroic; O'Reilly is self-righteous. So, when Limbaugh speculates that the Democrats in the House committee went after Roger Clemens because liberals hate cherished American institutions such as churches, the Boy Scouts and baseball, you know he's sorta kidding. When O'Reilly says liberals who oppose torture of prisoners just don't care how many people will die in a terrorist attack, you know he's as serious as an aneurysm.
Bathed as I am in my new, grudging affection for Rush, I nearly miss out on the experience of witnessing, on live TV, the explosion of a genuine Washington foofahaha.
Foofahahas are half foofaraw and half brouhaha. They occur on Capitol Hill with some regularity, identifiable by their momentary intensity but fleeting duration; typically, they cause a flurry of speechifying and accusation launching, dominating the day's spin cycle. Then they instantly disappear like water in the sand. In this case, congressional Republicans have staged a walkout that had the effect of disrupting the memorial service for Democratic Rep. Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor and human rights activist. Democrats say the Republicans were disrespecting the memory of a great man; Republicans say they were forced to do it because of a devious, cynical procedural maneuver by the Democrats, who obviously had less regard for the saintly Lantos than the Republicans did. Blogs light up. Each side thinks the other sucks. They are fighting for the moral high ground, which in this case appears to be overrun with weeds.
Meanwhile, The Fix is quoting an unnamed Democratic strategist who says Hillary's best option may be to go negative. The left-leaning Daily Kos is accusing President Bush of "holding another fear-mongering news conference in yet another attempt to scare the living daylights out of the American people for no good reason." But the right-leaning Corner says the president is absolutely right.
The Pentagon reveals it is going to try to shoot down an American spy satellite that is falling out of orbit and contains potentially hazardous fuel. This is met with huzzahs from the pundits on the right, who see this as an affirmation of U.S. technological superiority and a bold strategic message to potential enemies. It is greeted with enormous skepticism from pundits on the left, who mistrust the president, envision an environmental catastrophe from the dispersal of some sort of poison mist and believe we aren't being told the truth about why we're shooting this puppy down and that the real reason probably hides some diabolical administration malfeasance. Each side thinks the other sucks.
A caller named Esther tells O'Reilly he is handsome, and O'Reilly thanks her. A caller named Gary tells Limbaugh he is "an American genius," and Limbaugh playfully adds that he is also a narcissist. Sucking up, Gary then volunteers to Rush that he, Gary, is "so conservative I make Bonnie and Clyde look like Dale Evans and Roy Rogers." Rush wisely lets this inscrutable statement go unquestioned.
Something is bothering me, here as I approach Hour Nine. It's this damned thing with Rush.
It's complicated, but here it is: There's something real about all this palaver all around me; in its own overheated, perfervid way, it's inspiring. You can't get away from that. Unfettered discourse is the sign of a robust democracy. It's a genuine war of ideas out there, being fought by highly committed people who care about the world. And I am no conscientious objector. I'm not a witling. I have opinions. There are timeless truths; there are friends and there are enemies; there is right and there is wrong, and, by God, Rush is wrong. To admire Rush in any way is to consort with the enemy. It's treachery. It's siding with them.
I focus on Rush once again and finally notice something. A toehold.
Limbaugh mocks Obama mercilessly for what he sees as the thinness of his message and the mooing, unquestioning devotion of his supporters. That's all fair game, and Limbaugh prosecutes it with bite, flair and humor. But there's this, this . . . thing he sometimes does -- how did I not notice it before? -- when he pronounces the candidate's last name. He lowers his voice a register and booms it out from his chest, drawing out each syllable. I'd taken it as just a theatrical embellishment, but now I see it for what it is. Rush is reducing Obama's name to an African tribal chant.
"O-bahh-mahh." He makes it sound like: Booga booga. Yo' Mama.
Now, that's ugly.
I'm right. I know I'm right. I'm so right.
I lean back in my chair, at peace again.
At war, again.
It won't stop, or even slow. It's getting worse.
On CNN's "Situation Room," lefty Donna Brazile and righty Cheri Jacobus are yelling over each other so loudly that it's impossible to hear what the subject is. Something about Mitt Romney, I think.
In the blog Real Clear Politics, the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Henninger says Obama is too gloomy about America.
On more than one TV station, Hillary decries politicians who campaign by issuing packaged sound bites, then offers this: "Some people think words are change. Well, you and I know better. Words are cheap." Nicely done, Hillary, at 7.5 seconds.
Hotline says that polls tell it that some congressman named Harris is in good shape in his district, but someone else named Kirk isn't.
On the radio, Glenn Beck says he knows he will be called a racist, but he is still going to predict that Obama will bankrupt the country.
All this is beginning to take a toll. I want to take a break, get away. But stuff keeps happening. Important stuff.
The Little Green Footballs blog says the mainstream media is shamefully ignoring a report that an Obama campaign staffer in Houston had a Cuban flag and a poster of Che on her wall. The lefty press would be all over it, the blog says, if a McCain staffer had a Confederate flag.
Beck speculates that recent advances in the Mexican economy might be part of an ongoing, diabolical plot to create a European Union-type economy in North America by collapsing ours while boosting Mexico's, until they are in line and we can use the same currency. "Doesn't it suck to figure things out?" Beck asks. "The truth matters!"
Someone is saying somewhere that someone is cravenly misleading someone about something, and I get up from my chair, put on my coat, take the elevator to the lobby and walk out into the street.
It's a nice evening. Not too cold. People walking. No one seems to be arguing with anyone. Nice people, walking. Here's a person.
"Sir, do you think that McCain is going on the offensive against Obama in a subtle but devious attempt to ensure that Hillary is his opponent because her negatives continue to outweigh his negatives but Obama beats him by four to six points, according to the latest 24-hour polling data?"
"Uh, I, uh, never really thought about it," says Anthony Booker of Falls Church, backing away.
Here's another person.
"Ma'am, do you think the congressional minority was disrespecting the memory of Tom Lantos, or were they victimized by a deceitful trap sprung by the majority in a cynical gambit to gain political points, with implications for the national elections?"
I repeat the question. This is Grace Sims of Arlington.
"Well, Mr. Lantos was a wonderful man. But I don't know what you are talking about. I don't even have a computer at home."
"No. I can't afford one right now."
"Ma'am, you are blessed."
When I return to my dungeon, my step is a little lighter. The real world is okay. It will all be over soon. Only 12 hours to go.
ON CNN'S "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT," listeners taking the nightly poll are only in 85 percent agreement with Lou's position, apparently because the question is phrased imprecisely, with a double negative, and people have gotten confused about what they were supposed to say. (Lou almost always gets 95 to 97 percent agreement because his polls generally feature yes-no questions that read like this: "Do you think America should forfeit its future by opening the borders to illegal, chimichanga-chomping busboys?") On MSNBC, Tucker Carlson wonders if The Clintons can make another comeback.
On Fox, someone else is wondering the same thing.
Things are going normally, if numbingly. Then I turn on a radio talk show host named Michael Savage.
Savage is asserting that his sources have told him that Obama owes his candidacy to the support of gay men and that Clinton is bankrolled by "big lesbian money." But, mostly on this night, Savage wants to discuss a radio talk-show competitor of his named Bernie Ward. Savage admits he despises Ward because Ward is an ultra-liberal and also because, at some point in the distant past, Ward tried to hurt Savage professionally in some unspecified way. Savage says he is driven by vengeance and never forgets his enemies.
Tonight, he is gloating because Ward has lost his job and possibly his future freedom. He has been charged with distributing child pornography, has pleaded not guilty and awaits trial later in the year. Savage tells his listeners that he has obtained the police report in the federal case and that it contains details of perversities so repugnant, so obscene, so salacious that a recitation of the facts would nauseate any decent person who hears them.
Then he wonders aloud whether he should read them on the air.
He's not sure. It would pain him to do so, he says gravely, but maybe some social good could come of it or something. He's leaning against it, he says, but is going to leave it up to the listeners. So, he invites callers to vote on whether they want to hear the really filthy, lurid, lewd, licentious stuff.
I click on an online thesaurus to find a stronger word for "shameless." Nothing quite does the job.
Savage is evidently taken by surprise when a few of his early callers actually say they don't want to hear it. He even argues with one of them: Well, you could just turn it off, no?
At this point, for the first time all day, I have muted all the TVs and put my laptop aside. I'm fascinated, if not in a good way. I feel complicit, like a spectator at a hanging.
Inevitably, listeners force his reluctant hand, and Savage begins to dish the dirt. Much of what he reads is a transcript of a 2004 chat room conversation between Ward and a dominatrix who calls herself "Sexfairy." The facts are, indeed, disturbing. In skin-crawling detail, Ward explained to his online dominatrix that he is sexually aroused by young teenage children, including his own kids and their friends. He claimed he has masturbated in their presence. At one point, he allegedly sent the woman a photo showing two minors in a sexual situation with an adult. That's the point at which Sexfairy went to the cops.
What isn't clear is whether this is the truth or some sleazy fantasy world Ward has created for his online persona: Savage grudgingly allows for the second possibility, which is, in fact, Ward's defense. Ward doesn't contest the accuracy of the transcript; he says that he was role-playing. (Less plausible is his contention that this was all innocent research for a book on hypocrisy.) Even accepting that this conversation was fantasy, Savage says, the facts show the man is a pervert, is liable to do anything and needs to be separated from his kids, pronto.
In the next few minutes, Savage is going to elevate this disingenuous personal vendetta into the realm of political pornography. He'll be uttering hate speech, and, as such, I don't know if I should share it here. It's absolutely obscene.
Tell you what -- I'll have you vote on whether you want to hear it. Okay?
Okay, you have spoken. I'm only doing this because you demand it.
Savage segues from the pathetic case of Bernie Ward into an attack on liberalism in general. He says that Ward is no aberration, that liberals and progressives are closeted, self-loathing sexual deviants who take bleeding-heart positions on public policy to atone for the filthy urges that haunt their minds and poison their souls.
"Liberalism is a mental disorder, and it is also a cover," he says. "All this do-gooderness is a cover for very, very, very evil deeds."
He continues: "You say, 'Are you generalizing?' The answer is no. I have long tried to comprehend the madness of the American left. I have long tried to figure out what motivates them to hate the family, the church, the police, the military. In fact, why they hate the male, the patriarch. The answer is because they know they're no good, they're know they're dirty and are afraid of being found out. They're afraid Daddy will punish them for what they're doing."
Liberals and progressives, he says, are "degenerates" who are "on an express train to Hell."
How can Savage possibly cap this performance? Ah, here we go:
"I am warning you that many of your progressive friends--the permissive ones, the ones who laugh at conservatives, the ACLU types, the antiwar types? If they have children, I am warning you to watch your children when they go over to their houses."
When he finally cuts to a commercial, I turn him off. Now everything is muted. There is a brief, eerie silence, and I can actually think. I don't listen to talk radio much, so I'm not quite sure what to make of all this.
Who is Michael Savage, and can there possibly be more than a handful of feebs who tune him in?
I check. Michael Savage is the third-most popular syndicated radio host in the country. He has 10 million listeners, which is more people than read the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, combined.
NINE HOURS TO GO.
Laura Ingraham is back, this time on TV. So is O'Reilly, and so is Joe Madison, whom we last heard at 6 a.m. Do pundits never sleep?
On CNN, Slate editor Jacob Weisberg says Mike Huckabee is on an ego trip. Slate's pretty liberal, so I buy it.
Here's Ann Coulter. I'm not listening to what she says. Don't care.
I'm exhausted, but taking sides again. Savage put me there.
Switching stations. Here's Keith Olbermann doing an extended editorial on MSNBC. Olbermann's a reliable lefty, so I listen.
His subject is a rift between President Bush and the House Democrats over whether to extend a bill giving the government the right to wiretap suspected terrorists without a warrant. Bush wants the bill to exempt the telecom companies from lawsuits for having shared customer data with the government under dubious authority in the past. The Democrats don't want this exemption and didn't put it in the bill. Because of this impasse, Bush wouldn't sign it, and the bill expired. Each side says it's the other's fault. Bush claims this puts the nation at grave risk; the Dems say that's nonsense, and that this is just the usual scare talk. The issue is probably a little too important to be a tempest in a teapot, but it's also not that big a deal, because everyone knows it's mostly without substance -- grandstanding and brinksmanship on both sides. Call it a tempest in a crockpot.
Olbermann begins strongly, addressing himself directly to Bush that he's only protecting his cronies, the powerful telecoms. Yay!
Now he compares the bill Bush wanted to other bad laws, including the Alien and Sedition Acts, which I actually think might be just a little over the . . .
Uh, now he's comparing it to . . . slavery.
Now he's addressing Bush directly, and he's . . . oh, God.
"If you believe in the seamless mutuality of government and big business, come out and say it! There is a dictionary definition, one word that describes that toxic blend. You're a fascist! Get them to print you a T-shirt with FASCIST on it!"
Now he's, he's . . .
". . . and if there's one thing we know about Big Brother, Mr. Bush, it is that he is -- you are -- a liar!"
I've already checked the thesaurus, so I know there's no help there.
"You are a liar, Mr. Bush. And after showing some skill at it, you have ceased to even be a very good liar!"
"You said that the lives of countless Americans depend on you getting your way. This is crap! And you sling it with an audacity and a speed unrivaled by even the greatest political felons of our history!"
I mute it.
I send an e-mail to a friend who I know is online. This is what it says:
o s, s brtu dytpmh [rtdpm/
I realize I had my hands on the wrong position on the keyboard. I have to resend it. It says: "I am a very strong person," more of a plea than a statement of fact.
The room is still quiet. On Fox's "Hannity & Colmes," someone is yelling.
McCain is on "Larry King Live." He's saying something, and Larry seems to be agreeing wholeheartedly.
On my far right is the TV tuned to C-SPAN, which I have ignored all day for the simple reason that nothing important ever seems to be happening. Now some guy is talking. He's a Tennessee congressman. He's labeled "Zach Wamp." Ha-ha. Good enough! I switch this to the main TV.
Zach is saying something about earmarks. He's saying that before we debate earmarks, we need to define what they are. I'm looking at him, and there's something. About. His. Face.
He's got an oddly prominent ridge in the middle of his left ear. You can see it!
I image-Google the human pinna. Yes, Zach has got an extra line there, sort of. He has an EAR MARK.
Jon Stewart is pretty funny tonight, too.
TV DURING THE WEE HOURS is mostly a repetition of the identical news items from the day, the identical images, the identical sound bites. Here's Hillary again, talking cheaply about how talk is cheap; here's George again, walking down the White House path to the lectern; here's Anita Kay again, looking absolutely luscious. At 2 a.m., the male human mind is a cesspool.
My shoes are off. My tie is off. I'm taking some infantile comfort in a the feel of a stuffed panda someone has left around. I have just consumed my 12th or 14th cup of coffee.
It's only in these wee hours that I finally fully focus on C-SPAN, looking at the repeat of things I had no time to notice before, things that just seemed hopelessly beside the point. There's a report about a bill to display a national Braille tactile flag, a congresswoman congratulating the University of Memphis Tigers basketball team for a fine season, a clip of Rep. Grijalva welcoming Monsignor O'Keefe to give the day's blessing, and here's Zach Wamp again, and I laugh at his ear mark again.
And now here is more footage of the interminable memorial service of Tom Lantos, who escaped the Holocaust to build a life as an international advocate for human rights, only to be tragically foofahaha-ed in death. One of the congressman's granddaughters, a young woman named Chelsea Hedquist, is speaking, her voice in a slight tremolo:
"We would feel his love in the very way he hugged and kissed us, always holding on just a beat longer than we liked as small children . . .
(Laughter) "We would give anything for one of those infamous hugs and kisses right now."
It occurs to me that this is the first entirely convincing, unagendaed, completely genuine statement I have heard all day.
GEORGE KEEPS WALKING purposefully down that path. Hillary keeps decrying sound bites.
The BBC -- it's morning rush hour over there -- reports that Bush defends his record on Darfur. On C-SPAN, for the fourth time, an oil industry exec is busy explaining how he'd rather see ethanol made from biomass than from corn.
A blogger at Power Line News says Demo-crats are not serious about keeping America safe from attack.
Do you know how many volume bars it takes to turn a TV up to full shout? How many of those little bars show on the screen? I bet you don't 'cause you've never done it 'cause you've never been in Hour 21, have you? It's 63 bars! The TV is blasting through the quiet washingtonpost.com building, and that's when I notice something big. Something transformational.
When you have a TV at full blast, and there's a talking head, you hear his intake of breaths in between sentences really, really clearly. Ha-ha! And if you listen carefully for those, as though that was the important part of communication, you wind up not really hearing anything else! It is just a person gasping for breath! Ha-ha. The effect is especially great with Nancy Pelosi.
In this manner, I entertain myself satisfyingly for 10 minutes.
JUST MORE THAN THREE HOURS LEFT. I'm listening to the radio's "Nightside Project," with Ethan Millard and Alex Kirry. They're reprising the Lantos walkout and analyzing who was disrespectful to whom; they're back on the Hillary Clinton speech bite, how she's got solutions, not words; they're discussing HD DVD versus Blu-ray technology, a subject I understand not at all.
The DJs seem like nice guys. They are asking listeners for Valentine's Day stories, things that happened on Valentine's Day, things they want on Valentine's Day, stuff like that. This is a hip show, and they want text messages only. They'll read the ones they like on the air.
I take out my cellphone and begin to tap in a message. My fingers aren't working well, and it takes 15 minutes to get this down:
I have been alone in a room for almost 24 hours with 6 TVs, a laptop and two radios, listening to and watching and reading only political shows and pundits and blogs, sometimes monitoring four or five things at the same time. Just to see if it can be done.
I'll tell you it can be, but I cannot tell you how horrible it is. It rattles the very center of your being. If you care about the state of humankind, it fills you with despair. We are as a people bleak and hostile and suspicious, filled with senseless partisanship and willing to believe anything and everything about anyone. We are full of ourselves and we hate. And we do it 24-7.
Would you be willing, as a sign of compassion and empathy, to do the unthinkable and broadcast right now, as a Valentine to me, 20 seconds of blessed dead air?
Complete silence. Just read my text and then say . . . nothing. Twenty seconds.
Just to show it can be done."
I SEND IT IN.
It turns out, no, it can't be done.
Gene Weingarten is a staff writer for the Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at noon.