How to survive the tyranny of cliches
A CNN political explainer at the Democratic National Convention, Jeff Greenfield, told anchor Aaron Brown that he watched the speeches on TV so he could see what the millions of us out here see, and Brown said it sure was different being on the floor of a convention as compared with being in front of a TV out here. Which is definitely true because out here the convention speeches are constantly preempted by political analysts watching themselves on TV. It becomes a sort of feedback loop. They comment on their own comments.
Me, I watch pundit-free, commercial-free C-span to help imagine what it’s like on the convention floor. Having covered several of these things in my former career as a journalist, I have developed a fondness for the subtleties of performance. I enjoy good political speeches, like Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s. I love surprises like Teresa Heinz Kerry. You could see these mainliners on CNN or public television, but you see all the warmup acts on C-span.
I especially appreciate the work that went into the big screen interludes – video productions and short remote feeds from gatherings of Democrats in key states. The networks prefer to cut away to panels of experts analyzing the political effectiveness of what they have just allowed us to see. But I say watch C-span and give slick shameless propagandistic packaging a chance. It’s only fair, considering the hours and hours devoted to turning the Ronald Reagan funeral into a state party holiday.
The “non-political” appearance of Ron Reagan, his son, at the Democratic convention did not begin to compensate. Stem-cell research is an unlikely presidential issue in itself. But as the pundits on CNN failed to recognize, it is of the same political family as abortion, and right-to-life is the current Republican base. The core Bush voters are being energized in church.
It’s all about Christian superstition versus scientific thinking. And it is crucial, so to speak. A field of medical research with the potential for curing some of the world’s most tragic diseases has been suppressed by the government. To me it is as disgraceful in its way as the Soviet mishandling of Chernobyl, the political override of physical science. Well, then, said one CNN Republican, why didn’t Ron Reagan just go make his case to conventions of Christian fundamentalists rather than a convention of Democrats?
The point was left there, but the rebuttal was already built into Ron Reagan’s speech. The decision to suppress stem-cell research was made by politicians, not theologians. And, he argued, it was made for the most cynical of reasons: political fear.
It was obvious that the same fear, not journalistic objectivity, motivated Wolf Blitzer’s immediate comment on the speech: “It’s important to note that President Bush does not oppose stem-cell research.” That false statement went unchallenged by his panel.
Blitzer is bearded and authoritative, but he’s not what you would call bright. Earlier that night in an appearance with Bill Richardson, the convention chairman, Blitzer segued to a correspondent in Nevada, saying that Nevada is “dear to the heart of Gov. Richardson.” Realizing his error a few minutes later, Blitzer segued to a correspondent in New Mexico, saying, “New Mexico is not far from Nevada.”
Celebrity broadcasters if nothing else excel in maintaining their authority – and in looking good and staying popular. These are high school kinds of things. But that is the level of politics. A kid who is popular and good looking in high school can have a fine political career if he or she doesn’t really grow up.
The network celebrities and their colleagues in the other media are the enforcers of this high school thing — the tyranny of the majority — which they represent in vacuous cliches. The media celebrities have a very narrow toleration for new or complex ideas (such as stem-cell research) until courageous politicians – and there are some – begin winning over the perceived American public.
Consider the media indictment of Teresa Heinz Kerry prior to her convention speech. New York Times reporter Jim Rutenberg in Boston described her in print as a “billionaire philanthropist who has shown a flair for saying whatever she thinks, whenever she thinks it, in a way that is wholly foreign to the political operatives overrunning this city this week.” That was representative.
His evidence? Well, she told an aggressive reporter for a conservative paper to shove it. (She said he was persisting with the question what she meant by “un-American activities” when she actually had said “un-American traits.”) And, on NPR she said that the pumpkin spice cookie recipe attributed to her by Family Circle magazine actually was something cooked up by a Kerry campaign staffer. In other words, Teresa Heinz Kerry was indicted for expressing her feelings and telling the truth – in the place of the usual clichés.
One of her few constant media defenders was Ariana Huffington (also rich and foreign) who wrote, before the speech: “Unlike most politicians, she has a natural gift for intimacy and interacts with campaign crowds of 5,000 as if she were sitting around chatting with a small group of friends.” That description aptly fit Teresa Heinz Kerry’s convention performance, which with painful honesty transcended the usual cliché’s — verbally and non-verbally. I have never seen a convention speaker draw so close to her audience.
(Somebody after the speech said she was “like a European movie star.” Hey, maybe if the Republicans get their constitutional amendment through, she could run for president against Arnold Schwarzenneger.)
Barack Obama too was intimate and orginal in his speech, which was a runaway hit. But he did not have to overcome the tyranny of media clichés. His biography – and he is all biography at this point – is vaccinated against them. Who could be cynical about the success of “a skinny kid with a funny name?” CNN cut a few times during Obama’s speech to Jesse Jackson, a masterful speaker who through over exposure and time has become a cliché personified. Jackson looked grave. He was, I suppose, recognizing the future (as we all must), and it apparently works well without veneration of the civil rights movement of 40 years ago.
Bill Clinton is probably the biggest walking cliché in the Democratic Party. His 900-page book discloses him as, in David Brinkley’s accidental words, “a bore.” But his convention speech, in structure, was a masterpiece. His reprises such as “a more perfect union” and “Kerry said, Send me!” were almost musical. (“During the Vietnam War, many young men, including the current president, the vice president and me, could have gone to Vietnam and didn’t. John Kerry came from a privileged background. He could have avoided going too, but instead, he said: ‘Send me.”’)
Clinton also masterfully described himself as a beneficiary, now that he is earning like a millionaire, of Republican tax policy. “I almost sent them a thank you note for my tax cuts until I realized that the rest of you were paying the bill for it,” Clinton told the delegates. His identity in these two respects with Bush and Cheney would have been a brilliant move if Clinton were a candidate. How could they respond to this Satan of the liberal conspiracy? It was like the Devil showing up in one of our Christian-Republican churches in a red (as opposed to blue) choir robe.
Anyway, it was a virtuoso performance. Which is what I look for while watching pundit-free, commercial-free C-span. It’s art appreciation.