Republicans have locked up the pundit vote
by Gene Lyons
Nobody knows who next year's presidential candidates will be.
This column has no particular favorite and will make no predictions. Even so, it's not necessary to be a prophet to know how Beltway pundits will handle the so-called character issue. The Republican nominee will be a virile, decisive straight-shooter who's 100 percent "authentic" and "comfortable in his own skin." The Democrat will be an indecisive phony, uncertain of his/her identity, but willing to strike any pose or pander to any constituency in a self-serving bid for power. That was the basic script for the media's astonishing "War on Gore" in 2000, the campaign of falsehood and vilification that helped elevate George W. Bush, an ex-preppie cheerleader and bicycling enthusiast dressed up in rugged "Texas Rancher" costumes, to the presidency over then-Vice President Al Gore.
If truth-telling matters, Bush must rank among the least "authentic" presidents in U. S. history. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell recently rebutted one of the president's pet fictions: that he's a "commander guy" who heeds professional soldiers in Iraq, unlike wishywashy Democrats who expect them to "take fighting directions from politicians 6,000 miles away in Washington, D. C."
In reality, Powell said on Meet the Press, "The president received advice from his military advisers last fall that said, 'Do not send more troops.' Gen. [John ] Abizaid went before the Congress, the commander of Central Command, and said he had consulted with all his division commanders in Iraq and... none of them wanted to send additional troops."
Instead, Bush ordered a surge called for by the same neo-conservative thinktank strategists and op-ed warriors who predicted an Iraqi cakewalk.
But I digress, and pointlessly. By now only cultists impervious to facts expect anything but clueless, arrogant bluster from this president.
In short, there's no evidence that the "Sabbath Gasbags," in Calvin Trillin's immortal phrase, have any more insight into the candidates' character than a trailerpark palm reader and somewhat less than my basset hound Fred, who could at least sniff their hands and figure out whose ears they'd been scratching.
Washington TV political chat appears increasingly disconnected from reality. Here's how the sages on Hardball, MSNBC's answer to junior high school, sum up the GOP hopefuls:
"What's appealing about Rudy Giuliani," thinks Newsweek's Howard Fineman, "is not the generous side. What's appealing about him is the tough cop side."
"Right," adds excitable host Chris Matthews. "You just wait until Daddy gets home."
Another time, Fineman opined that Rudy, a lifelong New Yorker, would have been a heck of a hunter - um, if he'd grown up in Alabama, I suppose.
Of course, Fineman's the same guy who once praised Bush's kinglike bearing: "He's a boomer product of the '60s," the pundit gushed, "but doesn't mind ermine robes."
Fineman actually wrote that under his Newsweek byline.
That's how it goes on Hardball night after night. Mention a prominent Republican and the courtier-pundits swoon like 12-year-old girls at a boy band show. Matthews goes into virtual meltdown over former Sen. Fred Thompson, another "daddy" figure. Frequent guest Mark Halperin, Time's version of Fineman, praises his "magnetism." On TV, he wrote, Thompson plays "a straight-talking, tough-minded, wise Southerner - basically a version of what his supporters say is his true political self."
Now here's a guy who's been a Washington lobbyist and Hollywood actor most of his adult life; campaigned across Tennessee in what turned out to be a rented red pickup driven by an aide; and sports a very un-first ladylike trophy wife younger than his kids. (There's a funny picture on-line of neo-con guru Paul Wolfowitz peering at lovely Jeri's low-cut cocktail dress.) So what's Thompson to the Hardball gang ? Fineman: "A tough guy" with "a strong record on cultural issues as a cultural conservative from the South."
Look, an American presidential election is essentially a long-running reality TV show. So there's definitely something in what they're saying. Hardball has very low ratings outside of D. C., but it and programs like it are where the Beltway group narrative gets worked out, the basic story line that pundits use to sell themselves as experts without studying tedious issues like health care or foreign policy. The brilliant blogger "Digby" asks a penetrating question: "Why do so many male Washington courtiers have giggling mancrushes on... Republican politicians?" Personally, I blame "heterosexual panic." Half the insulting e-mails and all the anonymous phone calls this column generates deal in sexual insult. Whether it's fear of terrorism, uneasiness at the prospect of a woman president or cultural change generally, the GOP base responds like trained seals to tough-guy poses. It follows that Democrats must play the foil: John Edwards a foppish girlyman, Hillary Clinton an unnatural woman, Barack Obama a racially confused Oreo - well, you get the picture. Yes, it's pathetic. And no, it has nothing to do with reality or the nation's problems, but it's nevertheless something Democrats can't afford to ignore.
Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and recipient of the National Magazine Award.