Hendrik Hertzberg got it all wrong. I'll explain how it works.
Oh, sure, ABC may have been glib or even fatuous -- but this is TV, not a Mensa debate. George Stephanopoulos -- anything associated with the Clintons -- can be irritating, sure.
But let me show you how it works.
Hertzberg speaks of the seriousness of the moment, about to be trivialized, in his view, by the journalists' questions:
"the death toll of American troops in Iraq had reached four thousand; the President had admitted that his “national-security team,” including the Vice-President, had met regularly in the White House to approve the torture of prisoners; house repossessions topped fifty thousand per month and unemployment topped five per cent; and the poll-measured proportion of Americans who believe that “things have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track” hit eighty-one per cent, a record."
Yet, in his view, Gibson and Stephanopoulos indulged in questions that seemed distractive and frivolous:
"Obama’s April 6th remark about “bitter” small-towners; whether each candidate thinks the other can win; ; Clinton’s tale of sniper fire in Bosnia; Obama’s failure to wear a flag lapel pin; and Obama’s acquaintance with a college professor in his Chicago neighborhood who, while Obama was in grade school, was a member of the Weather Underground. And the problem wasn’t just the questions’ subject matter, or the fact that all but the last had been thoroughly raked over already; it was their moral and intellectual vacuity. “Number one, do you think Reverend Wright loves America as much as you do?” That was Stephanopoulos. (His follow-up: “But you do believe he’s as patriotic as you are?”) The idea was to force Obama either to denigrate Wright’s patriotism or to equate it with his own. Obama’s exasperation showed, though he slipped the trap by pointing to Wright’s service in the Marines. One question—“I want to know if you believe in the American flag”—was apparently beneath the dignity of even Gibson and Stephanopoulos, so ABC hunted up a purportedly typical voter to ask it on videotape."
The pundits imagine that television is eroding, and that the incursion of Facebook or YouTube (ABC even invoked a Facebook and web page commentary section for this debate) signal that "social media" is more powerful and affective -- and judging from the enormous amount of indignant commentary about ABC in the blogosphere -- it is.
Yet, television is changing, too, and becoming more crowdsourcey and more emotional -- hence these kinds of seemingly superficial questions that really do in fact resonate with the masses (and that's why the Web 2.0 gurus and leftist deadtree commentators like Hertzberg get so furious). Because...the questions, when you unpack them, really aren't so fatuous or silly. They actually are merely short sound-byte memes that, if mined, contained a wealth of feeling and opinion about the issues that really need to be heeded. In fact, the very questions that Hertzberg finds to be the "serious" ones -- the war in Iraq, the sub-prime mortgage, the state of the country, are all perfectly well contained in the seemingly frivolous questions.
What are they really about:
1. The Bitters of Pennsylvania. Sorry, but Kristol, as much as he will be discredited for some by being a right-winger, got this right. The mask *did* slip. Obama, in his SF tete a tete, resonated with a sensibility he knew to be present, which was not only elitist, but determinist about people outside the magic circle of the affluent but extreme left. Everybody "out there" with their guns and their religion, so unlike the politicized Godbox style of faith, which conveniently Obama slips on and off. They are "other". Their "otherness" can only be explained by concepts like "alienation" from their product -- by Marxian economic invocations that purport to explain everything away by economics -- if only there was a robust economy to float their boats, why, they'd drop all this obsession with guns, right-wing Christian beliefs like creationism, and opposition to trade agreements. One wonders why, when the Clintons were in power and the country was flying, the gun-obsessives didn't die out...
Suddenly, in this debate, the whole American population is boiled down by Obama to a preposterous stereotype, a caricature, a meme, a "guy out of work" who "can't even find gas money" to go look for a job. A person really in that sort of position isn't likely even to be able to vote! Come on now, there's unemployment payments you can apply for, welfare, church food banks, friends, families -- and hey, taking the bus. A lot of us *just take the bus*, Senator. Hearing this sort of thing is just fantastical; if you read Deer-Hunting with Jesus, you realize that even the author, who is hip and liberal, ends up rooting for guns, even as a secular humanist -- and at the end of his book, you wind up finding him and his extremist beliefs more of a problem than the meager remnants of Protestant work ethic and self-reliance that still pertain in the southern locales the author visited.
The "bitter" SF speech resonated profoundly for me, as a voter for Obama in the primary, learning toward becoming a McCain Democrat from everything I've seen. Because it reveals that Trotskyite caricature of the world that keeps poking through Obama's speeches coming from the moveon.org gang and all the other extremists flocking around him as a vehicle to propel themselves into power. It's not only the labour theory of value and the "material dictates consciousness" of the classic Marxist texts, it's that nothing is said to resonate with ordinary, middle-of-the-road people. Only hapless victims, Pravda cartoons.
2. "whether each candidate thinks the other can win". This might seem a silly game of trivia -- a perfect sort of Facebook app about what traits your friends have and which friends' features beat other friends' features, but it is actually about something different: does this party have respect for the people registered in it? Are they going to allow the two top contenders to fight so dirty, and become so nasty, that they wouldn't even consider serving as each other's number two? That they have so little party sense, if you will, that they would actually try to utterly destroy the other? That's all. At its most simple, the interlocutor is looking for a simple gesture of politeness on this one -- not a stumble or an evasion.
3. "the Obama family’s ex-pastor, Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr." This one unpacks as several issues all at the top of the national agenda. It's not about one pastor, or his ill-advised homily, which one can wish away, or claim wasn't typical. It's about everything that he has stood for over the years, his affiliations, his political ties, and everything that epitomizes the 1960s Chicago radicals. So this is again about the extremist of ideological positions, but for many, about Farrakhan, which is a capsule meme that is about "Islam" and "Israel" and the attitudes one can have about them (pro and con in the case of Farrakhan -- Obama works overtime trying to disassociate himself from the latter).
Having this pastor was always credible radical chic for the Senator; it never occurred to him in his surroundings, with lack of feedback from more mainstream, normal people, that it could be a liability. And that's what jars. The endless parsing of Wright as an individual -- the long Bill Moyers interview which attempts to normalize (sanitize?) him (I have yet to watch it) -- this is not only what the problem is about. It's about a whole cluster of ideas, politics, ideologies, groups, and gestalt of the time, and their idea of America -- which they usually spelled like this: Amerika. It's about the constant cropping up of these ideologies, figures, politics, groups in this campaign -- and the constant distraction and denial about them, which only fuels more fury.
Obama's latest shtick is to invoke Wright being a Marine. Yet being a Marine doesn't free you from that sort of rad lib 1960s stuff -- if anything, it might reinforce your hatreds. That old hipster idea that you do it all in reverse -- wear the flag on your ass to patch your jeans, say "God Damn America" and fall for 9/11 conspiracy hoaxes. They're all of a piece. We absolutely get what we're dealing with: the mindless babble of those in entitlement mode, biting the hand that feeds them, rebels with a discredited cause.
4. "Clinton’s tale of sniper fire in Bosnia;" I truly marvel at the insanity with which the hate-Hillary witch-hunters made hay over this. Anyone who went to Bosnia in those years was under sniper fire. To forget that is to forget the meaning of Sarajevo for so many people. The take-away here is that Hillary was willing to go to a *war zone*. This wasn't after the war; this wasn't during a cease-fire, even if there was some particular lull in that particular sniper alley, as it happened. It was a war in which snipers were the lead players -- it was often an urban warscape. You didn't go outside. If Hillary didn't recount the accuracy of it, she relayed the truth of it.
And what this is all about is simple -- it's not about Bosnia. It's not even about "lying" (I don't believe she did lie). It's about presidents who are willing to go to war zones and eat the dog food, so to speak. To see their handiwork. To accept ownership. To do what they can to bring conflict to an end. To understand a war, up close, and not merely send young people into it.
I began to think more about this, and then found myself Googling "Obama war zone" because I realized he had probably never been to one -- and as saturated as the couch-potatoes are with seeing footage of warzones on TV, very few have actually experienced the terror of it -- and this is part of the experience quotient Hillary simply has head and shoulders over her opponent. If the message is a snarky, "You can't tell your war story right," then the retort is "At least I have a war story to tell."
5. Obama’s failure to wear a flag lapel pin. This, and the failure to put his hand on his heart during the national anthem only provokes second looks, and then worry. People in government and Congress and out taking part in elections routinely put the flag pin on -- not as a symbol of some kind of uber-patriotism and God Bless America guns and bitterness, but as...a symbol of doing work for the country. Taking part in something larger than yourself that is for the national good. I don't much care whether any of them do or don't wear flag pins, but I recognize that it is ubiquitous, and that in that context, not wearing it is to send a statement, a statement that says, if not "God Dam America" then more something like "I am part of a global movement that knows no country boundaries" -- see above points about the Marxian concepts, of which "internationalism" of this type, foregoing any kind of national pride or love of country, would be typical.
6. Obama’s acquaintance with a college professor in his Chicago neighborhood who, while Obama was in grade school, was a member of the Weather Underground. And here's where Hertzberg goes off the rails, the left goes off the rails, and Obama goes off the rails and starts losing the election for his party and dooming us to 4 more years of Republicans, corruption, lawlessness, and war. My hair stands on end, reading all about this, because I remember those days, the pictures in Life magazine, the radicals, their violence, their anger, their hatred.
Having a person like this in your rolladex is a kind of statement. It's not about what that person did "40 years ago when I was 8," as Obama keeps saying (under some lawyer advice?). It doesn't matter whether Obama was 8 or 80. He characterizes the acts as "despicable" -- but he lessens the judgement about them by characterizing them as mere acts that took place 40 years ago, *and not a despicable extremist ideology, which is what he should have declared as despicable*. Never, have we heard a condemnation of the *group* and *its ideology* -- we've only heard about the irrelevance of *discrete acts of one person years ago* -- lawyers again. Trial truths.
See, that's where Obama -- and his moveon.org and his SF advisors and all his favourite influences like Dave Winer just go clean off the rails -- they cannot face the music, and condemn violent movements and extremism, which is what we need the possible future of President of the United States *to do*. It's a simple and legitimate request. Not something to be eating your waffles about.
The Times adds insult to injury by minimizing the Weathermen, saying they were good little terrorists, who bombed things, but only blew up 3 of their own people, and were "careful" never to bomb targets that would leave people dead, and would just destroy buildings. Gosh, by contrast with the 9/11 gang, they are mere pranksters! This minimizing of the violent, extremist movement that split off an already-extremist leftist student movement (the SDS) is the entire problem of this wing of the Democratic Party (if you can even characterize them as working within the party anymore -- they aren't, really): giving violence, extremist, nutty, wacky ideologies a pass -- and letting them be excused by "the times" or "anger" or "poverty" in ways that those ugly "other people" with their guns and religion don't get to be excused.
81 percent of Americans can say in a poll that "things are on the wrong track" because of the criminal war in Iraq or negligence around Katrina; because of the sub-prime mortgage disaster; and even now hoarding and rationing of food as if we were in Soviet Russia.
But these American people just won't accept a tolerance of, let alone any embracing of, extreme ideologies, that give a pass to violence, that excuse hatred, that write off bombing as a youthful protest, that fail to understand the realities of a real war zone with snipers, that try to find every explanation of what's wrong in the "labour theory of value" with evil capitalists exploiting workers, dismissing them, or shipping their jobs overseas because they are greedy profiteers, instead of struggling companies that are part of society with jobs for you or me.
A presidential campaign seems to be an intense forge for a man -- or a woman. Let us hope there is still time for Obama to learn from the feedback he is getting from his unconscious tropism to the Chicago 60s radicals, a re-examination of the negative features of what they stood for -- the violence the incitement, the hatred, the extremism -- and a re-affirmation of mainstream liberal values of inclusiveness and tolerance and admitting the complexity of issues like race or religion, not reducing them to economics.