As a boring person, I'm often looking for exciting new hobbies or areas of interest, and am pleased to report that I've just recently discovered the magical and strangely hypnotic phenomenon of C-Span. It is painful for me to interrupt my viewing of it to cobble together this column. C-Span runs totally against the grain of the rest of American society. There are no journalists trying to wedge their way between the candidate and the camera. No pundit interrupts the candidate to call him a ding-dong. In a world of multi-media it's the one medium that refuses to mediate. C-Span is our counter-culture.
Candidates are given enormous chunks of time. The other night, it was John McCain at a town meeting at a high school in New Hampshire, and you got to see all his little jokes and riffs, not to mention his full, unannotated comments. It's better than being on the campaign trail itself, because you don't have to stand out in the cold and feel the nerves dying in your toes.
Last night I tuned in Alan Keyes. He's got some ideas. At one point he dealt with the issue of environmental protection by pointing out that there's no shortage of chickens. There's a lesson there, he said, for how to deal with the environment. Apparently we just need more chickens and more chicken-like creatures. I did think his references to the "Keyes administration" were somewhat jangling, suggesting that no one has mentioned to him the very obvious fact that there will be no Keyes administration. Perhaps he should say "in the very unlikely event of a Keyes administration." Or whatever that phrase is that they use on jetliners in anticipation of the physics-defying "water landing."
C-Span takes a presidential campaign and turns it into ambient noise. It's Campaign 2000 wallpaper. You can watch Steve Forbes for a bit, then wander off to engage in one of your other new hobbies, like organizing the sock drawer not only by color but by texture, and then 25 minutes you can come back and Steve Forbes will still be talking. And he still won't have blinked!
The existence of C-Span raises the obvious question of whether the news media is truly needed anymore. Why do we need reporters and pundits? The answer is: Because someone has to badger the candidates. To an amazing degree, ordinary people never ask hostile, annoying, shiv-under-the-fingernail questions. It takes a trained journalist to do that, or, in the case of this week's ambush of Hillary Clinton, a drive-time radio reptile.
That happened in Buffalo, where a radio jock pointedly asked her if she'd had any affairs, including one with Vince Foster. He also demanded to know if she'd used pot or cocaine. This follows an earlier incident in which she was asked if she planned to divorce her husband.
Clearly, if someone's going to ask Mrs. Clinton one of these questions, they should phrase it in a sensitive fashion, such as, "Have you ever had an affair, and, if not, why not?" Because she certainly ought to have some slack at this point. Every night should be Girl's Night Out for about a decade.
No ordinary person cares about this personal stuff. You just can't imagine a real citizen asking any candidate a boring question about marijuana. That's so over with. It's not USEFUL information. People should be asking candidates questions about issues that may have some direct impact on our lives. I'm thinking, for example, of the question, "Do you have any pot?"
The mainstream press avoided personal mudraking this time around, but it remains poised to go into a feeding frenzy. Everyone is eager to see the first smoke from what might turn into a Hindenburg-quality flame-out. The primary process isn't simply about finding nominees; it's about the creation of a forum for spectacular failure. The media's job is to lovingly and unflinchingly detail these encounters with defeat. So many losers, so little time.
So far there's been nothing remotely as hot as Gennifer Flowers holding a press conference to announce that Bill Clinton has incredibly low standards when it comes to women. The closest thing to a scandal this time may have been the story revealing that McCain wrote a letter trying to help out one of his supporters. It never totally caught fire. The story needed just one extra twist to it, like maybe some phone sex.
Today's hot story is that Bill Bradley's ticker LINK TO TODAY'S STORY has a tendency to dribble behind its back. Medical experts say it's easily treated and no big deal. But this is unacceptable, of course. Today's story quotes a political analyst saying Bradley's heart fibrillation "will inevitably be damaging" to Bradley's campaign, saying that "Bradley is going to be asked repeatedly about his health and his fitness to serve as president." Which of course means that the media will ask him about this, since real citizens won't even bring it up.
The press is at its best when it forces a candidate to take a stand on a difficult issue. McCain's squirming on the issue of South Carolina's flying of the Confederate flag shows him to be something less than the ultra-courageous frank-talking candidate he's alleged to be. It's a simple issue. Countless citizens of the state consider the flag a symbol of slavery and racism. So should they leave it up or take it down? All anyone wants is an opinion. No one will blame you, senator, if they start firing on Fort Sumter again.
The main problem with C-Span is that it doesn't tell you who's winning. This is a very delicate analytical situation that requires a seasoned political professional, because the person who is winning is usually not the person who gets the most votes. That would be too easy. That's so 19th Century. An expert can tell you that the person who is winning is the person who is doing marginally better than previously supposed.
For example, in the Iowa caucuses on Monday the big question is not whether Bush will win but by how much. Forbes is expected to come in second (McCain has skipped it). Here's pollster John Zogby's analysis:
"If Bush wins with less than 40 percent and Forbes is in the high 20s or 30s, you can make the argument that Bush may be damaged."
Someone will make the argument no matter what. We need a real contest here. We need drama, anguish and spectacular failure. We need once-proud men reduced to quivering jelly. If Bush gets anything less than 100 percent I think he's in real trouble. Gore? Already he's teetering on the edge of oblivion and needs a miracle to turn things around. That's my expert opinion. Never mind the fact that I still get Bill Bradley confused with Dave Debusschere.
Rough Draft will hit the campaign trail sometime next week in order to tell readers who is losing the worst and how the results confound expectations and shake-up the race beyond all recognition. Two words for everyone to keep in mind right now: President Bauer.