The Magazine

The Pomo Primary

From the March 15, 2004 issue: Postmodern candidates talk like handlers, and voters talk like pundits.

Mar 15, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 26 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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WE DIDN'T ARRIVE here overnight, all at once--here at the tail end of this hallucinatory primary season, when politics slipped down the rabbit hole of postmodernism and became an activity that is only about itself. Scanning back through the last few years and my own meager experience, I can find three landmarks that, had I been paying attention, might have offered a hint of what we, the people, were getting ourselves into.

The first landmark, everyone has heard of. On January 15, 1992, during a gruesome New Hampshire "town meeting" at the dawn of his reelection campaign, the first President Bush struggled heroically, and in the end famously, to get a point across to an indifferent audience in Exeter. His political consultants in Washington had prepared him for a bad reception: Focus groups were united in seeing their president, in those recessionary days, as out of touch and uncaring. The political purpose of his trip to New Hampshire was to dispel the notion.

President Bush opened the town meeting like so: "One of the things that I'm pleased to be able to do here is to at least let the people of this state know that even though I am president and do have two or three other responsibilities, that when people are hurting, we care."

A moment later: "Of course, we care."

A moment more: "And of course, we care."

It wasn't working. The questions became increasingly hostile.

And so: "I'll take my share of the blame. I don't take it for not caring."

And again: "I do care about it. I just wanted to say that."

"Two things. One, I know you're hurting; two, I care about it."

Still nothing, until, in his frustration with yet another unfriendly question, he let go finally, desperately, deathlessly. "But," he said, "the message: I care."

The veil slipped, the curtain was pulled back, the politician stood exposed. It was as though a magician had invited us backstage to watch as he stuffed the pigeons up his sleeve. Political commentators (not nearly so numerous in that innocent era) noted the oddity. A politician describing his own "message"--the jig was up! It was thought to be inept at best, cynical at worst, artless in any case. "He blurted out his handlers' notes verbatim," said Newsweek, astonished. By the end of the month the New York Times and the Washington Post had printed the phrase more than a dozen times, and since then, in the annals of silly remarks, President Bush's self-referential declamation of his "message" has achieved second place only to Sally Fields's peerless outburst, "You like me, you really like me!"

The second landmark was less conspicuous. It came four years later, in August 1996, when the Republicans gathered in San Diego to nominate Bob Dole as their presidential candidate.

One morning I stood in the lobby of the hotel where most of the delegates were lodged. David Broder (then as now, and forever, dean of the Washington press corps) was there, fresh from a morning TV appearance. I'd seen the show. The dean had announced that the selection of Jack Kemp as Dole's vice presidential nominee would "energize the base," using a word, "base," deployed in those days almost exclusively by political professionals.

Pen in hand, the dean was interviewing delegates as they milled about. A couple of them seemed inordinately excited, as often happens when Broder enters a room. They mentioned that they had just seen him on television less than two hours before. The dean nodded. He asked them what they thought of the Kemp nomination.

"Well, I'll tell you one thing," one of the delegates said, with firm authority. "It will energize the base of this party."

Broder nodded again, thoughtfully, and made a note in his pad.

Another few years passed, and my third landmark came as I watched a roundtable discussion on CNN's Sunday morning talk show, "Late Edition." The 2000 election campaign was approaching, but, as often happens, nothing newsworthy had occurred. The commentators on the panel were bereft: so many insights to share, so little news on which to lavish them. But their moderator saved the day. He mentioned an on-air discussion the panel had undertaken a few weeks before. The pundits smiled fondly at the memory. And then, unexpectedly, the moderator said, "Roll tape," and the pundits watched their comments from the earlier show. The tape stopped. The pundits looked at one another. Something to talk about! So they commented on their comments.