Tuesday, July 27, 2004

PunditWatch: Day 2 of the democratic convention

In my piece on day 1 of the democratic convention yesterday, I commented how impressive it was that the network pundits covering the convention could say so much while saying so little. Last night I had a nightmare. I dreamed that one of the network pundits had said something important, and I had forgotten what it was. Then I woke up and remember that it was a journalist on another program (not directly covering the convention) and that what he said wasn't actually very important. Relieved that I hadn't done the pundits much of an injustice, I did remember why I didn't like them. And it goes back to their role covering the Republican primaries way back in 2000, when America was still loved and Florida and 911 had not yet happened and America had not yet been sold a bill of goods on Iraqi's non-existent WMDs. But let me talk first about day 2 of the Democratic National Convention.

The best speech was unquestionably the keynote given today by the brilliant, young African American U.S. Senate candidate from Illinois (currently running unopposed), Barak Obama, a former editor of the Harvard Law Review. Apparently, he took the DNC by surprise as well, for I could not find an official transcript on their website, although no doubt that will quickly change soon. (Unofficial Transcript). The pundits on PBS, left and right included, waxed euphorically about the now-state Senator's rhetorical skills. They lamented that the commercial networks had missed a chance by not broadcasting any of today's convention coverage live. Drunk with their own power, they suggested that tonight's wonderful speech marked the brilliant young African American for a future spot on a national (i.e., presidential ticket) in a few years. (His impressive bio suggests that he does indeed a very good shot, but we are in trouble as a nation if we were to select him as a presidential candidate on the basis of one excellent speech here today, and equally wrong to reject someone so talented had today's speech not gone as well. The pundits also marked Mario Quomo as a future president because of a keynote speech he gave a few years ago, but it didn't quite happen like that.... It is the job of convention pundits to comment on convention speeches, so they like to exaggerate the importance of these speeches so as to exaggerate the importance of their jobs.)

Most networks chose not to cover today's proceedings. If memory serves, the "liberal media" also gave more airtime to the Republican convention in 2000 than the Democratic convention. They gave some excuse for this at the time, but let us not forget that one of the broadcast networks is owned by a major defense contractor, another is reportedly concerned about Bush-family-controlled tax breaks it receives in Florida, and the board of taxpayer supported PBS is currently controlled by a narrow Republican majority because the President is Republican. And tonight they did indeed miss an entertaining and rousing speech that would have earned them great ratings.

Ronald Reagan, Jr., also gave a "non-political" speech in support of stem-cell research. In a speech praising the medical promise of stem-cells for curing a variety of diseases such as Parkinson's, he blasted the "some" that stand in the way of stem-cell research for purely political reasons. It was a speech very much in the style of his father, the former president. He urged voters to "vote for" stem-cell research in November. Although he speech was supposedly non-partisan, Bush opposes stem-cell research. "Don't back no losers" is one of the cardinal rules of politics, and no one doubts Nancy Reagan (who has indicated she hold similar views) is a shrewd political operator. Alzheimers (which can be partially treated with stem cells) killed her beloved late husband, but she and Ronnie Jr. no doubt think they are backing a winner or they would not have risked so much political capital.

But if Obama's speech was the most rousing (and Ronald Reagan, Jr.'s the most unlikely), given that this election is about John Kerry I do not think either was the most newsworthy speech. The most newsworthy speech tonight, I thought, was given by none other than the candidates' wife, Theresa Heinz Kerry, a lifelong Republican (until last year) and environmentalist. In her delivery she was not especially eloquent; perhaps one of the least gifted public speakers on the podium there tonight. But I felt what she was important and heart-felt.

She spoke of her background: the daughter of a Portuguese medical doctor, growing up under a dictatorship in Mozambique, she marched against Apartheid while a student at in South Africa (only to see her cause defeated, South African universities segregated, and Nelson Mandela placed in jail). A former translator for the UN who is fluent in five languages, she immigrated to America in the 60s. She explains how, growing up in a dictatorship, she cherishes her freedom in America to be "opinionated" and criticized in the media as such; she hopes in the future that someday women like her will not be regarded as "opinionated" but smart and well-educated, just like their husbands. She spoke of her belief in technological progress and space exploration. And that Kerry would work to reduce America's energy dependence so that our young men and women will not have to die in wars protecting foreign oil fields. She promised that a President Kerry would work to reverse global climate change, and reverse increasing pollution in our air and water, issues that have clearly been close to her heart for decades. Theresa Kerry, once approached by the Republicans as a possible Senate candidate in the wake of the death of her first husband, said her current "husband is a fighter" who earned his medals the old-fashioned way. He would ensure America again lived up to its responsibilities in the world.

The two PBS pundits (the only broadcast networks covering the convention) bemoaned this speech as "wonkish" and inappropriate for the wife of a presidential candidate. "It was a missed opportunity" said conservative David Brooks, who felt Mrs. Kerry should have limited herself to being a character witness in favor of her husband, rather than demonstrate that she had substantial command of the issues herself. Liberal Mark Shields said little to disagree.

In addition to being factually wrong (Theresa Kerry characterized her husband as a "fighter"; Brooks implied she said nothing at all about her husband's character), I could not disagree more strongly with the pundits here. Theresa Kerry, an opinionated internationalist with a firm grasp of major issues who understand foreign cultures and even speaks many of their languages, is just what America needs in the wake of the current Administration's widely acknowledged diplomatic disaster.

The pundits, of course, completely failed to grasp this point. Rather focusing on what the nation needs to solve our present day problems, they judged her by the traditional (and backwards) view of how a political wife should speak at a convention. Every other speaker there discussed substance much than Kerry's character. Rather than point out the obvious fact that Theresa Kerry would play out very well on the world stage were her husband elected, they criticized her for talking about substance rather than talking, as they would have liked, about how she would stay at home and bake cookies for Kerry, like a good 1950s political wife.

This brings me back to how I started this article. I don't much like the pundits, and I don't like them for a reason. Everyone (well, everyone in certain circles) knew that the emerging Republican nominee-apparent during the 2000 Republican primaries was in no way (neither intellectually nor in terms of experience or accomplishments) qualified to be President. (Everyone had great respect for his father, a highly intelligent and capable man, so they were not making a partisan opinion.) All of the network pundits knew as well. Yet they said nothing and helped create the current crisis by forming the backdrop that give this man the legitimacy he needed to win the White House.

I do not know what it was. Perhaps they were motivated by their greedy superiors, eager that the Republican's massive campaign coffers should flow into their corporate networks in the form of massive television advertising dollars. It was a callous, and dramatic, abandonment of civic responsibility, which they repeated in their fawning, utterly uncritical coverage of the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Of course, they are not alone in this responsibility. It was shared by the Republican Party, whose traditional insistence on rugged individualism should never have allowed someone to receive the nomination of their party for purely dynastic reasons. The White House is supposed to be a democratically elected position, not a dynastic position, nor an old-boys club.

Other blogs covering major media's complaints that Theresa Heinz Kerry's speech discussed substantive issues when she should have been all fluff, and other obviously sexist and bizarre coverage in major media:

News Hounds: Fox Men and Teresa   Teresa Kerry and Marlene Dietrich Future First Lady Threat