It was in San Diego, California in the late summer of 1996 that the working hacks finally tumbled to what they had done. A Republican National Convention had been arranged, as a sort of sound-stage or a mixed-media event, entirely for the convenience of the press and TV. The delegates were mere extras on the set, the coronation of the two nominees was a sure thing, the feral extremists and fundamentalists had been tidied out of sight, the corporate-sponsorship logos were beautifully placed, the camera angles and background briefings were the chief preoccupation of the Party managers and – there was exactly nothing to cover, nothing to transmit, and nothing to write about. A day or so passed, in this city of sinister charm (once described by Gore Vidal as ‘the Vatican of the John Birch Society’), in an agony of boredom and irrelevance. And then the ABC News Nightline team, the flagship of supposedly serious coverage, announced that it was vacating its skybox and leaving town. No story. Thus did the grand tradition of Convention reporting – a tradition that spans Mencken and Ed Murrow – come to its close in bathos and ennui. And ask anyone what they can remember about the utterly null Democratic Convention in Chicago a week or so later: the only possible comment was by way of pointed contrast to the same Convention in the same city in 1968, when politics was still for real. (The Mayor of Chicago is still called Richard Daley, but with the mediocre son all resemblance ends.)
The irony, such as it was, occurred at the expense of the journalistic profession, which is why I say that they awoke, or half-awoke, to what they had done. Ever since the preceding Republican Convention in 1992, when Patrick J. Buchanan had made his fulminant speech about race war and culture war, the line of the prestige columnists and commentators had been that such a farouche gathering had lost the election for the GOP. This was a stupid line: nothing (certainly not a choreographed Convention) could have saved the Bush-Quayle ticket that year. But the Democratic Convention at Madison Square Garden had been a model of consensus and management and manipulation, so that the contrast was an effective one. In sum, the media put the Republicans on notice: have an innocuous Convention next time or rue the day. So they duly put on an innocuous Convention and, in the words of the old saying, or the saying of the old words, nobody came.
Reporters and editors and columnists and executives like the excuse to take hotel suites at Conventions, and to book seats on campaign planes, and to write and talk portentously about ‘the stakes’ and ‘the trail’, so there is still a vested interest in pretending that these are not pseudo-events. But this time around, with the best part of a year to go, the sense of something fixed and prearranged and sewn up has been oppressive and embarrassing from the very start. Which is one reason why the man who has enjoyed most press attention so far – extending to flattering and deferential questions about whether he would or would not run as an independent – is the aforementioned Patrick J. Buchanan.
He, I think, has since flamed out, because it doesn’t do, in an election year, to publish a book saying that Adolf Hitler was no great foe of the United States. But this message in a bottle, from the grimier past of the American isolationist tradition, at least gave people something to talk about. While the other peripheral or marginal candidates have all received much more attention than they could normally expect, simply because of their supposedly ‘human’ qualities. Donald Trump – a ludicrous figure, but at least he’s lived it up a bit in the real world and at least he’s worked out how to cover 90 per cent of his skull with 30 per cent of his hair. Warren Beatty – a beaming former Adonis who has significantly narrowed the gender gap and who has a literal belief in the New Deal. Bill Bradley – boring and pompous and tenth-rate but used to play basketball and take showers with African Americans. John McCain – nobody’s idea of an intellectual but likes to talk dirty and got himself shot down while scattering high explosives over someone else’s country. (People keep describing him as a POW but I think that there must be some mistake – no war on Vietnam was ever declared.)
None of this emphasis on the human factor can obscure the reality, which is that several prominent political candidates either did not run, or were driven out of the race, or have been occluded, by the sheer influence of cash. Elizabeth Dole and Dan Quayle have already withdrawn for this reason, unable to match George W. Bush’s initial and crushing (and for a while, sole) announcement that he had $36 million already acquired from private donors to spend on the acquisition of the Presidency. His projected expenditure has now risen to $250 million. Again, the press ministers to the very process that kills elections, by referring in awestruck tones to the size of each aspirant’s ‘war-chest’. Buchanan is only taken seriously because the sorry remnant of Ross Perot’s Reform Party still has a great deal of money; McCain would be a whimsical candidate if he was not wealthy; Bradley has spent the decade since leaving the Senate as a Wall Street booster and has the funds to prove it. Thus, they can stay ‘in’. Trump and Beatty, too, are ‘mentionable’ only because they are men of means.
The surrender to the plutocratic principle is an old story in American politics, but heretofore there has usually been something to disguise or to mitigate it: some underdog candidate, perhaps, or some pious observance of the distinction between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ money. Now, anything is permitted. Ever since the Democratic National Committee – once the target of Nixon’s plumbers – became a laundry for donations from everywhere from Indonesia to Macao, the Clinton defence that ‘everybody does it’ has also been a description of stark reality.
The situation at the populist end of the racket is equally dismal. A candidate needs money first, and name recognition if possible, and opinion poll ‘findings’ second, third, fourth and fifth. How many times have I read that George W. Bush is already the front-runner, and that X per cent of voters want him to be the next Leader of the Free World? Who pays for these polls, and how are they conducted? Once again, the press is generally tongue-tied, because most of the money ‘raised’ by candidates is intended to be spent on grossly lucrative ‘media buys’. But the polls commissioned and released by expensive consultants are, in any ordinary sense of the term, fraudulent. They are designed not to measure public perceptions but to influence them. An honest poll should report how many people declined to answer the question, as well as which percentage of respondents said what. So great is the general weariness (and wariness) that we now learn that many polls draw a ‘response rate’ as low as 20 per cent. But that’s not what the reportage conveys, when it informs you that more than half of your neighbours and friends have already selected their ‘front-runner’. It’s easy to demonstrate the element of conditioning: if you take a poll that does not (as is customary) confront the voter with a list of names to choose from, almost two-thirds of all those questioned will say that they do not favour any candidate. And in last year’s mid-term elections, turnout was 36.06 per cent for candidates who had actually announced. Among 18 and 19-year-old first-time voters, the percentage was a heartening 11 per cent. (By way of comparison, 62.8 per cent of the eligible electorate cast a ballot in 1960.)
Thus, between one set of numbers (the dollar aggregates) and another (the number of those who feel able to give a damn), there paradoxically exists the possibility of a very volatile election. Not everything can be prearranged: as I write, it appears that for no reason at all McCain and Bradley may win the New Hampshire primaries of their respective parties. I tend to believe that voters are reporting this preference just to screw things up or make them a tad more interesting. No one can explain why the American Presidential system should be so much influenced by the scattered voters of this tiny and cranky state, but so much political money has been sunk into the local economy, and so many journo reputations have been made and broken up there, that it’s in nobody’s interest to raise the question in public. In any case, the money primary and the poll primary precede the New Hampshire one, and only two guys are in any real position to win the first two.
‘Bush and Gore – the two essentials of late-night cable TV!’ I can’t remember who first uncorked this aperçu, but it makes a good match with the national attention span. One of the candidates stands for ‘compassionate conservatism’ and the other ‘an America that works for working families’. Both got their ‘name recognition’ and their political start from their fathers. Both are distinctly average human beings; one of them a bit weird and the other a bit twisted. The weird one is Gore. When he isn’t robotically normal he is decidedly odd. Who would claim, as he did, to have been (with his wife) the model for Erich Segal’s treacly novel Love Story? Who would opt, as he did, for paid advice from a simpering Clintonoid feminist about how to become an ‘alpha male’? Who would make as little as he does of having had the ravaged and husky Tommy Lee Jones for a college room-mate? Who would get his wife to proffer an on-the-record interview, asserting that he was a secret Tamburlaine in the sack? He’s not a psychopath like his boss, and he inspires piercing pity for his writhing attempts to break free, but still.
I say ‘twisted’ about the dislikably boyish Governor of Texas, because he has signed more than a hundred death warrants during his entirely undistinguished tenure, and because he was only criticised (and that faintly) for two of these capricious crowd-pleasing atrocities. In one case, a Canadian citizen was condemned to death without any notification to the Canadian Embassy, as is reciprocally mandated by both US and Canadian law. In another, a woman was executed despite good evidence that she had undergone a transforming redemption while on Death Row. Bush met the Canadian objections by saying that the man ought not to have committed a crime while in Texas (which would mean that as President he would not care about consular representation for Americans arraigned overseas). He countered the Christian conservative petition on behalf of Karla Faye Tucker by mimicking her last-minute entreaties (‘Oh, please don’t kill me’) to a reporter for Rupert Murdoch’s Weekly Standard. That does it for me, and I don’t even believe – as Bush is supposed to – in Biblical repentance.
One of these hollow and stuffed figures has been preselected as the next occupant of the White House, and I can’t think of a major donor who hasn’t already bet on both of them. Just to keep it interesting, you may read of an ‘insurgent’ down the road, who will also be a fully paid-up member of the same Beltway or Senatorial or think-tank club. Even more than the last time, the fix is in. Even more than last time, the election is being ‘held’ (a good term when you come to think of it) in a parallel universe. Even more than last time, electors are withholding consent but being counted in anyway. Even more than last time, the ‘profession’ of journalism has utterly prostituted itself, and is acting as a megaphone for frauds and an echo-chamber for commercial feedback. My own proposal, for which the electrifying symptoms of ‘momentum’ are becoming very slowly discernible, is to have international monitors keep watch on the election, and certify that it is ‘free and fair’. Have candidates been bought? Have delegates been purchased? Is access to the media available to outsider candidates? Were there any legal or pecuniary restrictions on entry to the race? Were the primaries open? I think that a group of supervisors and poll-watchers, drawn from the Timorese and Kosovar and South African and Chechen intelligentsias, should already be booking passage. An American election is something that is too precious to be other than utterly transparent. Now is the time, not only for decision, but for leadership, and (let us never forget) for greatness, too.