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BLIND TO SCRIPT! Our White House campaigns are decided by scripts—and we liberals still can’t seem to see them: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, MAY 17, 2006

BLIND TO SCRIPT: Tonight, we’re going to see An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s new film about global warming. As we’ve said, we’d love to see a world in which Gore could get some justice—could sensibly run for president, with people actually coming to see that he’d been right in the big ways all along. But we tend to doubt that Gore will run, and here’s another reason for it—another Gore-admiring liberal (HuffPo’s Rodes Fishburne) who doesn’t seem to see the power of prevailing press corps scripts.

“[H]ere's one wild prediction,” Fishburne writes, in a piece with which we sympathize. “Al Gore will be the Democratic nominee for the 2008 Presidential election.” Why will Gore be the nominee? According to Fishburne, Gore “has something going for him that Senator Hillary Clinton can't touch: nothing is more satisfying to the American soul than a bona-fide comeback.” He offers a fuller explanation:

FISHBURNE (5/16/06): [H]ere's something you may not know, I suspect even Al Gore doesn't know. During this "Wilderness Period," (as Time magazine will no doubt put it,) as Gore rebuilt his wounded political ego and spent more time with his family, he has been quietly enfolded into a complex historical narrative. He may think he's finished with it, but it may not be finished with him. This is no small turn of events. Long-term historical narratives are immune to the pressures of politics, shrug when big money attempts to impose happy endings, and even two campaign buses full of Bob Shrum's and James Carville's can't distort it.
“Long-term historical narratives are immune to the pressures of politics,” Fishburne writes. But are they immune to the power of prevailing press scripts? Late in his piece, Fishburne cites a conversation he had a month ago with a well-connected Gore insider. Would Gore run? “Not a chance,” the insider laughed. “You have to understand, he doesn't want to run.” But Fishburne isn’t buying. “[E]very once in awhile, through no particular artifice or plan, the narrative outstrips your best intentions,” he writes. We’re advised to keep our eye on Gore, who’s in the grip of historical forces.

To Fishburne, Gore stands at the center of a powerful narrative. But readers, would Fishburne’s preferred “comeback” narrative prevail? In large part, that depends on the national press corps—the group which shapes our political narratives. And uh-oh! Although Fishburne shows no sign of knowing it, the press corps already has a “narrative” about Gore—a script, with which they’re extremely well-pleased. They’ve pushed their tales about Gore for years, and they have these tales nicely memorized. Fishburne may love the comeback narrative (we do too)—but the people who produce our mainstream news don’t. We’d guess that Gore may not want to run because of the power of prevailing press scripts. But this doesn’t seem to occur to Fishburne. Like so many other liberals, he simply never discusses this problem—the problem which has changed all our lives.

We sympathize with Fishburne’s desires—but we’re stunned, once again, by what he doesn’t discuss. Let’s coin a term for it: Blind to script. Our nominees keep getting pounded by press corps scripts, and the press corps’ pleasing script on McCain is likely to decide Campaign 08. But we liberals seem script-blind. For a few more examples, keep reading.

TAPPING ALONG, BLIND TO SCRIPT: Truly, Elisabeth Bumiller is in a class by herself—and Sam Rosenfeld nicely captured her latest fawning in this post at yesterday’s Tapped. But how blind do we liberals tend to be when it comes to reading the corps’ basic scripts? In this post, Ezra Klein described Richard Cohen’s recent piece on McCain as “an excellent column”—and Matt Yglesias was quick to second the notion. Beyond that, Matt seems to call Cohen’s column “good, solid liberal stuff.”

Let’s return to that term here—script-blindness. Yes, Cohen challenged McCain to explain his stand on the war in Iraq (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/16/06). But Cohen did something else in his piece—he recited the press corps’ fundamental script about Saint McCain, the fawning script which will send McCain to the White House if it isn’t effectively challenged (starting now). What did Cohen do in this piece? He praised McCain’s “stunning” character traits (along with his humor, his modesty, his honesty and his decency). He said McCain’s campaign bus, the“Straight Talk Express,” had been “aptly-named.” And he seemed to say that McCain has “always talk[ed] plainly and candidly to the American people.” While we think McCain is a perfectly decent sort, these are the childish, hyperbolic claims the solon is planning to ride to the White House. The press has recited these childish claims for years—and we liberals still can’t spot this script as the source of our coming problem. Indeed, we praise a column which extends this script, without saying one word about it.

In 1999 and 2000, the press corps invented a Demon Liar named Gore (inventing his “lies,” since he wouldn’t tell any). Now, they’ve invented a Saint named McCain—and Matt and Ezra still don’t see the pattern. In early 2004, we were surprised when liberal writers failed to react to the gathering pieces of spin which eventually took down the Kerry campaign (by paving the way for the Swift Boat attacks). But in the case of the sainted McCain, how obvious (and foolish) must a script be before liberals are willing to stand and confront it? As far as we know, McCain is a perfectly decent guy—but he isn’t the Sun God returned to the earth, and a long string of major Dem figures are perfectly decent people too, every bit as decent as McCain. (More—much more—to come on this topic.) But so what? A childish press corps keeps calling him saint—and script-blind liberals across the spectrum seem unable to spot this.

MORE THIS WEEK—AS THE SCRIPTS BURN: Could we liberals get any dumber about the way we lose elections? Last night, Keith Olbermann tapped all the anti-Gore scripts in a noxious paean to the VP. (Jonathan Alter was there to help out, although the fault mainly lay with Olbermann.) We’ll examine this Countdown segment tomorrow. But who knows? Maybe Keith’s producers just “made him” present Gore in this foolish and press-friendly manner.

Gore is still treated like a fool—even by those who are “on his side.” Meanwhile, how does Saint McCain get presented? On Friday, we’ll take another look at that, reviewing more of Joe Klein’s treatment of McCain in Politics Lost. Next week, we plan to offer a full week on the historical fashioning of the McCain-as-Sun-God script. Trust us—this is fascinating stuff. Unless we just don’t care about winning elections, this is all deeply important. Liberals have to understand this—and they have to make it stop.

In 1999, the press corps invented a demon—and they invented a saint at the very same time. We keep losing elections because of such scripts—and now, that saint is back with a claim on the White House. But truly, we’re the dumbest people on earth. We refuse to discuss the way we get beat. More often, we join in the process.

TRUST US: We’re sorry we have to waste time on Keith. Starting Friday, the McCain stuff is really quite something. And no, we don’t think that McCain’s a bad man. We think John McCain is—gasp!—average. Much, much more to come on John McCain’s average qualities.

GORE’S LEGACY: Why might Gore be reluctant to run? Not being the dumbest person in history, we can easily imagine, although we don’t know what he’s thinking.

At present, Gore’s legacy is honorable—and tragic. (Indeed, you saw it played out on Saturday Night Live.) He’s the guy who actually won the election, but was kept from office by an historical fluke. And oh yes—as time goes by, Gore will increasingly be seen the guy who was right all along on the major issues. Bush will be seen as history’s worst president—and Gore will be seen as the guy who was right. And to the extent that Gore is accepted as a visionary on global warming, this legacy will be advanced even further. By the way, even the press corps will largely grant him that role—so long as he doesn’t seek office.

But what if Gore runs again in 08? Simple. The corps will drag out its brain-dead old scripts—the ones we liberals still won’t discuss (more on that tomorrow). Gore will be trashed in the three thousand ways he has been trashed since March 99—and we liberals will be sweetly silent, too blindingly stupid to describe what is happening. (Many of our career liberal writers will be in the bag for this mainstream press process, just as they have been in the bag for this process since March 1999.) Who knows? Gore could get clobbered in the Dem primary (certainly, he could lose to Hillary Clinton, if each chose to run). And even if Gore got the Dem nomination, he would then face Saint John McCain. The two great scripts would come face to face. Which script do you think would prevail?

Why isn’t the following true? Gore will be cast as the Stiff One, Unhinged, the Dissembler, Fake-and-Phony. McCain will be cast as the Great Earthly Saint. Would you subject yourself to that—knowing how little support you would get? Knowing that, right to this day, liberals refuse to discuss the manner in which you got slimed during Campaign 2000 (and after)? Would you choose to go into battle again, saddled with perfect born losers like we are? “Fastened to a dying animal,” as Yeats so memorably said?

For ourselves, we’d love to see Gore decide he could run. But to help that along, isn’t it time we began to discuss the real shape of our American politics? Isn’t it time we began to discuss the childish ways the press portrays McCain? Isn’t it time we began to discuss the ways our White House elections get lost? Isn’t it time we began to discuss the scripts which make Democrats losers—the script which will send McCain to the White House in January 2009?

TOMORROW—KEITH BOWS TO HIS COHORT: Too perfect! If Gore were the nominee in 08, “two groups would have the opportunity to get a do-over,” Keith said—and amazingly, one of them wasn’t the press corps! But who knows? Maybe his producers made him tell it that way! After all, Keith is paid a fine pretty penny, and he luvs to joke about his compliance. Tomorrow, we’ll review what Keith (and Jonathan) said. But yes, it came straight from established press scripts. And no—it wasn’t helpful to Gore.