Last week in Seattle, I randomly came across a copy of The Best American Essays 1989 in a used bookstore. It’s mostly (great) memoirs and Me Decade ruminations on class, race and economics, but there’s an interesting piece by Joan Didion on the 1988 election, which most people remember solely for the image of Michael Dukakis popping, snapping turtle-like, out of a tank.
Among those who travelled regularly with the campaigns, it was taken for granted that these ‘events’ they were covering, and on which they were in fact filing, were not merely meaningless but deliberately so: occasions on which film could be shot and no mistakes made (‘They hope he won’t make any big mistakes,’ the NBC correspondent covering George Bush kept saying the evening of the September 25 debate at Wake Forest University, and, an hour and a half later, ‘He didn’t make any big mistakes’), events designed only to provide settings for those unpaid television spots which in this case were appearing, even as we spoke, on the local news in California’s three major media markets.
‘On the fishing trip, there was no way for television crews to get videotapes out,’ the LA Times noted a few weeks later in a piece about how ‘poorly designed and executed’ events had interfered with coverage of a Bush campaign ‘environmental’ swing through the Pacific Northwest. ‘At the lumber mill, Bush’s advance team arranged camera angles so poorly that in one setup only his legs could get on camera’. […]
Any campaign, then, was a set, moved at considerable expense from location to location.
This was written just before the internet came and capsized this business model, but blogs, crowd-sourcing and YouTube have, if anything, made this phenomenon worse.
Didion reports Dukakis’s main campaign themes at three California events in one day in June 1988:
‘I want to be a candidate who brings people together,’ the candidate was saying […]
‘That’s what it’s all about,’ Governor Dukakis had said, and ‘health care’ and ‘good teachers and good teaching’. […]
‘We’re going to take child support seriously in this country,’ Governor Dukakis had said, and ‘tough drug enforcement here and abroad.’
‘Tough choices,’ he had said, and ‘we’re going to make teaching a valued profession in this country.’ […]
Late that afternoon, on the bus to the San Jose airport, I had asked a reporter who had travelled through the spring with the various campaigns if the candidate’s appearances that day did not seem a little off the point. ‘Not really,’ the reporter said. ‘He covered three major markets’.
It’s hard not to be struck by the fact that Democratic presidential candidates have essentially been peddling the same messages for the last fifteen years. Dukakis, Clinton, Gore, Kerry and Obama have all repeatedly stressed unity, healthcare, environment, help for working people and programs for the middle class. The two that have made it into office, Clinton and Obama, turned immediately thereafter into die-hard centrists and conceded major campaign promises in an effort to work with Republicans, even when they had Democratic majorities in Congress.
It’s not that I’m surprised or dismayed by this. Politics is the art of the possible, right? You can’t expect to get every single thing you want from a candidate, and forging bipartisan consensus is what the US constitution was designed to cultivate.
I just don’t understand how anyone can live through more than three or four presidential elections and not emerge hopelessly cynical. Why should I believe any of the ‘unity’ and ‘hope’ nonsense Obama will be stumping in 2012? Why is it impossible for a presidential campaign to indicate to voters what a president will actually be like?
Obama was the first president I ever voted for who won, and I feel somewhat sheepish now admitting that I believed what he said in his campaign. I genuinely thought he could change, or at least improve, the system. Instead, he’s simply worked within it. I’m not going to stop voting, but I’m afraid I’m going to stop believing.