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Pundit Power

August 28, 2008
N.J. Lukanovich

The Democratic National Convention has come and gone, delivering full throated support for Obama from Hillary and Bill Clinton, both welcomed to thunderous applause, their speeches full of praise for Hillary's former opponent. Joe Biden showed himself to be a solid choice for vice president, and Obama closed the deal to reunite the party with a surprise appearance and a short speech acknowleging the Clintons. It was almost like the brutally fought primary never happened.

Thursday night was the grand finale, when Obama spoke to a roaring crowd of 75,000. It was the 45th anniversary of The March on Washington, when Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous speech, "I Have a Dream." It was a historic evening, and Barak Obama was impassioned, eloquent, and tough on McCain.

All in all, it was a wildly successful convention, and the pundits should stop harping on the supposed bitterness of the Clintons and division in the party. But if one more disgruntled Democrat crops up in McCain's camp, I'm sure they won't. What most pundits will do is continue to dismiss race as an issue, with an annoyed shake of the head, declaring like a mantra, "No, lack of experience is a far greater problem."

Once it was clear that Hillary would not win the nomination, and full attention turned to Obama's chances, the chit-chat in the land of pundits began to sound eerily familiar. An aura of denial surrounded the gurus of political insight, but the focus of the denial had shifted. In Hillary's case, she lost because of gaffes and baggage, sexism played no part. In Obama's case, the excuses are already in place: as well as his inexperience, he is "unfamiliar" somehow. What does that mean, exactly?

Only a minority of the electorate is blatantly racist, but racism is a lurking thing that can be disguised as something else. To deny the existence of racism in America is a popular parlor game, but saying "there is no racism problem in America" a gazillion times till your face explodes, does not make it true.

Many pundits believe that if they say it, it is so. This wouldn't be so problematic if they weren't the primary source of political news for legions of voters, who are either too busy or too lazy to read the news themselves and make their own analysis. It's easier to buy your opinion in a bottle, and it takes a lot less time.

Now, here's an example of misinformation being disseminated: at the convention on Tuesday night, the eve of the 88th anniversary of suffrage, the Jim Lehrer gang discussed equal pay for women, during a pause between speakers. Mark Shields supplied an anecdote from the past, Jim Lehrer agreed in commiserating tones about what women have been through, but David Brooks shook his head, implying his colleagues were too fossilized to note the world has changed dramatically. He warbled rhapsodically about the numbers of women graduates, claiming that women no longer suffer such indignities, clearly unaware that women are still making only 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. In l970, the number was 61 cents to the dollar - we have further to go than we've progressed.

After Brooks imparted his wisdom to Shields and Lehrer, they were suitably convinced, and the conversation went on to include the phrases "women are dominating in education" and "there are women senators everywhere." There are 16 women senators out of 100, and large numbers of women graduates have not yet translated into equal numbers of women professors and deans, let alone figures that show domination. Somewhere this week, someone will be leaning over to a friend talking about how women dominate in education, and "look at all the women senators!" And these are the pundits that appear to be decent men, so what about the damage from those without conscience?

I imagine that many black Americans feel a similar frustration when they listen to pundits that are now chattering about how well black Americans are doing - hey, look at Obama! Pity that he's not that substantial, a bit too aloof, too liberal, a celebrity type that can't connect, what a crying shame, otherwise we could have had the first black president! And then a shrug of false disappointment. After keeping mum about his "inexperience" during the nomination, it seems rather strange that it's suddenly a factor now that he's not running against a woman, but a white man. A man of experience, a war hero who easily fits the cookie-cutter image of a patriotic patriarch. A man who can't remember he owns 7 houses.

Essentially, what's happening is what I feared most during the nomination campaign, when love and encouragement showered down upon Obama as though he was the returning messiah. Now that the honeymoon is over, the inimitable heads of political opinion have turned their attention to shredding him apart with as much subtlety as possible. This may include a continued dissection of the Clintons, for as long as every word spoken in the last 18 months is analyzed and repeated ad nauseum, the embers of division within the Democratic Party can be kept alive and even burst into flame. This is how pundits can build a myth that the party is still divided.

Pundits have a tremendous amount of power thanks to a lot broadcast time and column space in which to wield their craft. Just for a lark, let's have a satirical whirl with pundits of the worst kind:

Three men huddle closely over a table in a dark alley. The short stubby one with thick glasses turns to his right and puts a hairy paw on the shoulder of the tall skinny one.

"So what do you think? Which way should we fly?"

"I think we should wait a bit and see how the tide is turning... we want to make sure we're right," the skinny one looks a little worried. The stubby one laughs loud and long.

"Of course we'll be right, we run the show!" He taps his chest with a hairy paw, looking across the table at a clean shaven man with a chiseled jaw, "what do you think?" The Jaw appears to be deep in thought.

"Well, Stubby, Skinny might have a point. It's easier to run with the train. Work with what's already there." He fiddles with some papers.

"Everything is there! We can play it how we want. You want to say Hillary's speech was great? That's easy... it was fantastic, even I was moved to tears, it made me wish she was a man." Stubby's voice lowers a notch or two, "but we can say it could've been better," and every cell in his body vibrates with a charge of adrenaline.

"We have to decide how we go with the race issue." Skinny wipes his eyes, feeling drained and dreaming of a nice hot bath.

"What race issue? We go with inexperience if he loses to McCain. The other option is to blame the Clintons. You know... discontent within the party."

"Blame the Clintons? But look at their speeches, and Bill pointed out that he was accused of inexperience in his first campaign, and what about Reagan, and Bush?" The Jaw almost feels useful.

"Think, man, think! We talk about what the Clintons said before the convention! The swing voters won't be moved by Bill's mention of inexperience, and look at Bush! Not a great precedent to ignoring inexperience! We've already fertilized the soil for both lines of attack - if we keep it up we can decimate the Obama campaign like nobody's business. We have to decide now if we want McCain or Obama." Stubby's impatience is reaching a crescendo.

"I say we wait till after the Republican convention and have a look at the polls," Skinny checks his nails in the moonlight.

"Stop being such a pansy. We need to get a message out now. Obama or McCain?

"Let's flip a coin." They fiddle about in their pockets for change.

The coin flies up in the air, and does a magical spinning arc, hitting all three hard on the head on its way down. It lands, impossibly, on its side. There's a collective sigh. Stubby slaps a hand on the table.

"Here's what we do: aside from inexperience, we toss in the words Muslim and fear, keep spinning the myth that he never talks about policies, can't connect with the middle class, not ready to be president, and throw in a snide comment about Hillary just for good measure - her pantsuit was too orange, she didn't mean what she said...get my drift? Now, every so often remark on the country's desire for change, and the poor record of the Bush administration, just to look fair, but focus on Bush as the problem and McCain as the savior in waiting. I don't know about you, but I couldn't give a shit about health care or pensions."

"What about Iraq?" says the Jaw.

"Best thing that ever happened. It's a bloody gold mine. What's the news without war?"

"But what do you believe in?" asks Skinny.

"Nothing, I'm an impartial observer, a fair and judicious analyst. Okay boys, let's meet tomorrow, I've got to write my piece about Hillary's speech missing the mark... she should have retracted her statement about Obama's inexperience. Kill two birds with one stone," a garrulous chuckle.

"What about Biden? He said the same thing."

"Of course he did, they were opponents! Keep the focus on blaming the Clintons. And don't forget: there's a lot of meat in writing about Bill pouting."

"He's nothing close to pouting." Skinny looks depressed.

"If you say he's pouting enough, people will think he's pouting! Think, man, think!!"

Glancing up and down the street, they say their farewells and trudge off into the distance.