Election coverage: Difficult to watch, impossible to look away

The Washington Post takes a look back at some of the more memorable moments from the 2010 campaigns.
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 3:13 AM

On election night, Sarah Palin served as Fox News Channel's personification of hope - its poetic muse and telegenic Wonder Woman (in no-costume Diana Prince mode), wearing a salmony red dress that looked, on camera, like an elegant, soft Slanket clipped at the collar with a microphone.

"It is a big darn deal," Palin said of the results quickly overtaking the U.S. map nearby. She had just noted the incoming results of the new GOP House majority as, across the set, Bill Hemmer was finding his true calling at last: electronic map touching. It turns out Hemmer does this better than CNN's John King and NBC's Magic-Marker-dependent Chuck Todd. He was the Apple Store to their Best Buy. Simple and clean.

Not much else was simple. Election night, that most curious form of media folk dancing, has this strange way of getting more precise and more incomprehensible with each two-year cycle, but it's also the rare event in which having all those cable channel choices makes a sort of chaotic sense, facilitating our desire to yell at the TV.

Back to She Who Should Never Be Dismissed. "To me, [the early results are] an earthquake. It's a huge message," Palin continued. "Rand Paul talking about American exceptionalism - that dream is snuffed out when [government gets too big]." She also had a message for Democrats: "Hey, the train is leaving the station. We invite 'cha to come onboard. If the Democrats refuse to work in a nonpartisan manner, then the train will leave them behind."

Minutes later, over on real television, her daughter Bristol was spared elimination on "Dancing With the Stars." This seemed to delight Palin's momentary deskmate and Fox contributor, Geraldine Ferraro. ("Together for the first time in history!" Fox hyped). "One of my goals is 'Dancing With the Stars,' " Ferarro said.

The temptation to allow one's brain to be inundated by election returns was just too strong. Why not watch every channel at once? On MSNBC, the talent was determined to salve the wounds of Democratic losses with the antibiotic of facts and figures. Usually one to salt-sprinkle, Joe Scarborough of MSNBC's "Morning Joe" show was having one of those all-too-familiar-now exchanges with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, the kind of argument you have with an obstinate uncle.

"Obama hasn't been a bargain for the American taxpayers, but it's hard to suggest that he's been much worse than Bush Republicans," Scarborough said, concisely and clearly citing budget deficits from one administration to the next.

"Well," Barbour drawled, "we can argue the numbers or let the fact-checkers lay 'em out ..."

"Those are the numbers," Scarborough tried to counter, but too late. Barbour was off on a pre-victory reverie. Only a million hours of programming left to fill before all the votes would be counted.

Spectators could just marvel at the sheer industry of it all. What unemployment crisis? Not in Yakkity-Yak Land. Just try to count the number of pundits, reporters, anchors, co-anchors, former politicos and offspring of any combination of the above - each desperately trying to remember every on-camera technique that every coach has ever recommended.

TV's election night, for all its technological whiz-bang, turned out to be the same as it ever was. It was confusing, too quick, too shallow and larded with commercials.

But it was all those things in the most perfected way. I watched for occasional enlightenment but also for the opportunities for frequent scoffing, and I hope you did, too. There is no crime in noticing how much makeup one has to wear to appear on Fox, to yet again admire the on-point, data-rich intelligence of Rachel Maddow, or to be moved, somehow, while listening to Marco Rubio's stirring victory speech about growing up among exiles.

Scanning hour upon hour of coverage, one was tossed from the cable networks' Muppet Babies band of young pontificators and new talent only to wind up with the Walking Dead. As each new (or newish) pundit and reporter face popped up on the screen, I searched Wikipedia bios to envy birthdates: 1979, 1981 and, in the case of Luke Russert, 1985. ("What's the take-away?" Russert, less puppyish but still in over his head, asked Republican Chairman Michael Steele during MSNBC's coverage, about Steele's party's increasing number of victories. "Pay attention," Steele commanded. "Or else this is one night and it all goes away.")

Flip, flip, flip. CNN's set has come to resemble a crowded and expensive steak house where they serve nothing but gristle at two communal tables, with seats divvied up among Bill Bennett, James Carville, Mary Matalin, Donna Brazile and Eliot Spitzer, talking much too much, earning glares from his tablemates. Flip to MSNBC, where Keith Olbermann and reporter Michael Isikoff endeavored to remind us what this election is Really All About: that nightmarish secret money that pays for campaigns now. Flip back to Karl Rove, who may as well have donned an Emperor Palpatine robe, as the map grew redder than Megyn Kelly's ensemble. Rove sat to the right of that freshly martyred saint of the First Amendment, the grinning Juan Williams.

There was always Sharron Angle's notion, her "Second Amendment remedies." Shoot your television - a fine idea. Or at least look away or shut it off or think of a Jon Stewart rally sign.

Except that we are Washington creatures, and therefore could only habitually, fitfully keep watching toward the inevitable dawn, as the soon-to-be speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-Ohio) repudiated away. Finally he wept, father-of-the-bride-style, about how he worked his whole life "chasing the American dream" running one of those endangered small businesses we've heard so very much about. (And did Boehner say "ready to lead" or "ready to leave"?)

Olbermann, ready to quip, buckling in for a couple years of well-paid disgruntlement: "I was led to believe it would be the Democrats who would be crying tonight."

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