For the first time in over a decade, the American people will actually be electing our own president. As you may recall, our 2000 president (and I use the term loosely) was appointed by the Supreme Court, and in 2004 that same fellow (no names, please) was once again given the office — in spite of the actual popular vote — thanks to Rove-fueled balloting chicanery in Ohio and the South.
But somewhere along the line, the Powers That Have Been tipped their vast right-wing hand, and the country seems ready for some White House-cleaning. So, now that there seems to be an actual opportunity for the will of the people to be carried out, how will the people be determining their will? What media outlets will we be relying on for president-picking information? It’s no secret that TV has been the big kid on this playground for 40-plus years. And that hasn’t always been a bad thing.
The first time a televised presidential debate impacted the election was in 1960, between Nixon and Kennedy. It was an extremely close race up to the debate, and those who listened to it on radio determined that Nixon had won. However, those who watched it on television — with Tricky Dick’s perspiring upper lip competing with JFK’s matinee idol charisma — gave it to Kennedy. And Camelot (temporarily) won out over Watergate.
However, Republicans became more TV-savvy (whatever you want to say about the party, it does have a learning curve), and ultimately went to an apparently laughable extreme to manipulate the medium: they ran an actor (once again, no names — but it rhymes with Shmonald Shmeagan). Apparently, it wasn’t such a laughable idea, and nobody was laughing anymore when that fellow violated the Constitution with Iran-Contra and systematically sold the country out to corporate America by the end of his telegenic eight years.
Since then, the media manipulation has gotten more intense, if not more refined. U-boat poseurs are allowed to run untruthful attack ads, and momentary soundbytes can sink entire campaigns (remember the Howard Dean growl?). In an age when many Americans seem prone to elect the likeliest drinking buddy instead of the best and the brightest mind, the talk shows — late night and daytime — have become prime exposure.
And now the Internet is coming into its own as an organized (albeit unruly) venue for disseminating data. Hillary Clinton’s incongruous laughter (this season’s Howard Dean growl) doesn’t need to be shown on TV incessantly for impact; it’s up on YouTube 24-7. Bloggers can hold as much sway as news anchors, and it looks like neither party can control things.
Though they’re trying, each with their own media “hook”: Hillary has Bill, whose recent swing of the talk shows was ostensibly to plug his new book, but which also “happened” to remind many of us of all the good things that came out of a Clinton administration; Obama has Oprah, the closest thing to a royal or divine decree to be found in the media; and John Edwards has a wife with cancer. (Let me be clear: I’m not cynically implying that he is using his wife’s illness to gather votes. But, for whatever reason, it has been an extremely public event.) And that’s the Dems.
The Republicans have a pseudo-Osmond, with a name that sounds as American as baseball: Mitt. They also have a familiar-faced Vietnam Vet guy and a former media darling with a rare form of Tourette’s — “9/11!” — that he seems to spew out — “9/11!” — whenever the media ask him why his — “9/11!” — kids hate him. And the Repubs also have an ace-in-the-hole, a throwback to that grand idea of 1980: they have an actor! One who played a D.A. on a show called Law & Order. So he must be as tough, fair, dry-witted, strong and noble as the TV writers made his character. But does he have a chance against Oprah?
The bigger question is: How will we make our decision among this prematurely electorating field? Will more voters listen to Jon Stewart than Pat Robertson? Will that transvestite blond guy on YouTube stop defending Britney and start campaigning for a candidate? Will Mitt have a better hair day than Hillary? Before we actually decide who to vote for, perhaps we should elect a source (or sources) of campaign information. Instead of allowing ourselves to be inundated as usual by the loudest and most omnipresent media mouths, maybe each of us should determine our own spin-free zone. I can’t tell you where that is, since I don’t have a clue either. Maybe there’s a blog on MySpace.