Sunday, April 27, 2008

Sunday Reading

Priorities: Elizabeth Edwards on why we know about Barack Obama’s bowling score but nothing about his health care plan.

Why? Here’s my guess: The vigorous press that was deemed an essential part of democracy at our country’s inception is now consigned to smaller venues, to the Internet and, in the mainstream media, to occasional articles. I am not suggesting that every journalist for a mainstream media outlet is neglecting his or her duties to the public. And I know that serious newspapers and magazines run analytical articles, and public television broadcasts longer, more probing segments.

But I am saying that every analysis that is shortened, every corner that is cut, moves us further away from the truth until what is left is the Cliffs Notes of the news, or what I call strobe-light journalism, in which the outlines are accurate enough but we cannot really see the whole picture.

It is not a new phenomenon. In 1954, the Army-McCarthy hearings — an important if painful part of our history — were televised, but by only one network, ABC. NBC and CBS covered a few minutes, snippets on the evening news, but continued to broadcast soap operas in order, I suspect, not to invite complaints from those whose days centered on the drama of “The Guiding Light.”

The problem today unfortunately is that voters who take their responsibility to be informed seriously enough to search out information about the candidates are finding it harder and harder to do so, particularly if they do not have access to the Internet.

Did you, for example, ever know a single fact about Joe Biden’s health care plan? Anything at all? But let me guess, you know Barack Obama’s bowling score. We are choosing a president, the next leader of the free world. We are not buying soap, and we are not choosing a court clerk with primarily administrative duties.

What’s more, the news media cut candidates like Joe Biden out of the process even before they got started. Just to be clear: I’m not talking about my husband. I’m referring to other worthy Democratic contenders. Few people even had the chance to find out about Joe Biden’s health care plan before he was literally forced from the race by the news blackout that depressed his poll numbers, which in turn depressed his fund-raising.

And it’s not as if people didn’t want this information. In focus groups that I attended or followed after debates, Joe Biden would regularly be the object of praise and interest: “I want to know more about Senator Biden,” participants would say.

But it was not to be. Indeed, the Biden campaign was covered more for its missteps than anything else. Chris Dodd, also a serious candidate with a distinguished record, received much the same treatment. I suspect that there was more coverage of the burglary at his campaign office in Hartford than of any other single event during his run other than his entering and leaving the campaign.

Who is responsible for the veil of silence over Senator Biden? Or Senator Dodd? Or Gov. Tom Vilsack? Or Senator Sam Brownback on the Republican side?

The decision was probably made by the same people who decided that Fred Thompson was a serious candidate. Articles purporting to be news spent thousands upon thousands of words contemplating whether he would enter the race, to the point that before he even entered, he was running second in the national polls for the Republican nomination. Second place! And he had not done or said anything that would allow anyone to conclude he was a serious candidate. A major weekly news magazine put Mr. Thompson on its cover, asking — honestly! — whether the absence of a serious campaign and commitment to raising money or getting his policies out was itself a strategy.

Sometimes the irony just writes itself.

Frank Rich: While the Democrats are making all the news, the Republicans are the ones in trouble.

When the Pennsylvania returns rained down Tuesday night, the narrative became clear fast. The Democrats’ exit polls spelled disaster: Some 25 percent of the primary voters said they would defect to Mr. McCain or not vote at all if Barack Obama were the nominee. How could the party possibly survive this bitter, perhaps race-based civil war?

But as the doomsday alarm grew shrill, few noticed that on this same day in Pennsylvania, 27 percent of Republican primary voters didn’t just tell pollsters they would defect from their party’s standard-bearer; they went to the polls, gas prices be damned, to vote against Mr. McCain. Though ignored by every channel I surfed, there actually was a G.O.P. primary on Tuesday, open only to registered Republicans. And while it was superfluous in determining that party’s nominee, 220,000 Pennsylvania Republicans (out of their total turnout of 807,000) were moved to cast ballots for Mike Huckabee or, more numerously, Ron Paul. That’s more voters than the margin (215,000) that separated Hillary Clinton and Mr. Obama.

Those antiwar Paul voters are all potential defectors to the Democrats in November. Mr. Huckabee’s religious conservatives, who rejected Mr. McCain throughout the primary season, might also bolt or stay home. Given that the Democratic ticket beat Bush-Cheney in Pennsylvania by 205,000 votes in 2000 and 144,000 votes in 2004, these are 220,000 voters the G.O.P. can ill-afford to lose. Especially since there are now a million more registered Democrats than Republicans in Pennsylvania. (These figures don’t even include independents, who couldn’t vote in either primary on Tuesday and have been migrating toward the Democrats since 2006.)

For such a bitterly divided party, the Democrats hardly show signs of clinical depression. The last debate, however dumb, had the most viewers of any so far. The rise in turnout and new voters is all on the Democratic side. Even before its deathbed transfusion of new donations, the Clinton campaign trounced the McCain campaign in fund-raising by 2.5 to 1. (The Obama-McCain ratio is 3 to 1.)

On Tuesday, a Democrat won the first round of a special Congressional election in Mississippi, even though the national G.O.P. outspent the Democrats by more than double and President Bush carried this previously safe Republican district by 25 percentage points in 2004. A Gallup poll last week found Mr. Bush’s national disapproval rating the worst (69 percent) for any president in Gallup’s entire 70-year history. For all his (and Mr. McCain’s) persistent sightings of “victory” in Iraq, the percentage of Americans calling the war a mistake (63) also set a new record.

“I’m thrilled to be anywhere with high ratings,” Mr. Bush joked on Monday night, when he popped up like Waldo on the NBC game show “Deal or No Deal” to root for an Army captain who was a contestant. But it turns out that not even cash giveaways to veterans can induce Americans to set eyes on this president. “Deal or No Deal” drew an audience 19 percent below its season average. The best deal for Mr. McCain would be for Mr. Bush to disappear into the witness protection program.

[…]

Mr. McCain is not only burdened with the most despised president in his own 71-year lifetime, but he’s getting none of the seasoning that he, no less than the Democrats, needs to compete in the fall. Age is as much an issue as race and gender in this campaign. Mr. McCain will have to prove not merely that he can keep to the physical rigors of his schedule and fend off investigations of his ties to lobbyists and developers. He also must show he can think and speak fluently about the domestic issues that are gripping the country. Picture him debating either Democrat about health care, the mortgage crisis, stagnant middle-class wages, rice rationing at Costco. It’s not pretty.

Last week found Mr. McCain visiting economically stricken and “forgotten” communities (forgotten by Republicans, that is) in what his campaign bills as the “It’s Time for Action Tour.” It kicked off in Selma, Ala., a predominantly black town where he confirmed his maverick image by drawing an almost exclusively white audience.

The “action” the candidate outlined in the text of his speeches may strike many voters as running the gamut from inaction to inertia. Mr. McCain vowed that he would not “roll out a long list of policy initiatives.” (He can’t, given his long list of tax cuts.) He said he would not bring back lost jobs, lost wages or lost houses. But, as The Birmingham News reported, this stand against government bailouts for struggling Americans didn’t prevent his campaign from helping itself to free labor underwritten by taxpayers: inmates from a local jail were recruited to set up tables and chairs for a private fund-raiser.

The Democrats’ unending brawl may be supplying prime time with a goodly share of melodrama right now, but there will be laughter aplenty once the Republican campaign that’s not ready for prime time emerges from the wings.

Not Exactly Ward and June: What’s gay marriage like if you’re young and rich.

Last November in Boston, Joshua Janson, a slender and boyish 25-year-old, invited me to an impromptu gathering at the apartment he shares with Benjamin McGuire, his considerably more staid husband of the same age. It was a cozy, festive affair, complete with some 20 guests and a large sushi spread where you might have expected the chips and salsa to be.

“I beg of you — please eat a tuna roll!” Joshua barked, circulating around the spacious apartment in a blue blazer, slim-fitting corduroys and a pair of royal blue house slippers with his initials. “The fish is not going to eat itself!”

Spotting me alone by a window seat decorated with Tibetan pillows, Joshua, who by that point had a few drinks in him, grabbed my arm and led me toward a handful of young men huddled around an antique Asian “lion’s head” chair. “Are you single? Have you met the gays?” Joshua asked, depositing me among them before embarking on a halfhearted search for the couple’s dog, Bernard, who, last I saw him, was eyeing an eel roll left carelessly at dog level. (At the other end of the living room, past a marble fireplace, the straights — in this case, young associates from the Boston law firm Benjamin had recently joined — were debating the best local restaurants.)

As the night went on, the gays and the straights — fueled, I suspect, by a shared appreciation for liquor — began to mingle, and before long the party coalesced into a boisterous celebration. Joshua looked delighted. And in a rare moment of repose, he sidled up to his taller, auburn-haired mate.

“Honey,” Joshua said, “we may be married, but we still know how to have a good time, don’t we?”

Benjamin, sharply outfitted in green corduroys and an argyle sweater over a striped dress shirt, smiled. “Josh is extremely social, and he keeps us busy all the time,” he told me. “I think we may be proof that opposites do attract.”

“If it were up to him,” Joshua said, “we’d barely leave the house! We’re actually a terrific team. He calms me down, and I get him out at night. I’ll say: ‘Honey, this is what we’re doing. Now put this on.’ ”

“I think a lot of straight married couples start hibernating at home once they get married,” Benjamin said.

Joshua kissed Benjamin on the cheek. “No, honey, that’s just your parents.”

“No, that’s a lot of people,” Benjamin insisted. “I think….”

“And I love your parents to death,” Joshua interrupted, “but it scared me senseless to think that if anything were to happen, if you ended up in the hospital, your mother would get to make the decisions.” Joshua looked at me with a devilish grin. “I dare her to try! I’d say, ‘Woman, get away from my man!’ I’m 24, I’ve been with Ben for a long time and we’ve been married for three years. I think I’ve earned the right — the responsibility — that comes with that.”

Benjamin chuckled. “You’re 25.”

“Oh, God,” Joshua said, looking as if he’d just been sucker-punched. “I keep forgetting that I’m 25. I think I’m probably having some issues around that number. Am I desperately trying to hold onto my youth?” He grabbed Ben’s arm. “Honey, am I a gay cliché?”

Benjamin shook his head. “You can’t be a gay cliché when you get married to a man at 22.”

The rest of the article is not as nauseatingly indulgent in the gay stereotypes, including the ones about fashion, decorating, and hiding from your parents. But it’s close.

Doonesbury: gas pressure.

Opus: the conversation about race.