Losing the Plot
Suffering the consequences of the Narrative bacillus.
Oct 13, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 05 • By SAM SCHULMAN
I have always wanted to go to Crete. And in two weeks, I shall carry my wife there--much as Zeus did the fair princess Europa. But as the day approaches, I find that I am longing not so much for the island ringed with the wine-dark sea, but simply to be outta here. I don't think about the wild ravines and the mountains tumbling into the still-warm water. I dream about how glorious it will be to avoid the last two weeks of the presidential campaign. Neither the journey nor the arrival matters to me--it's the departure from this election cycle.
It is not that there is anything unusually nasty or tedious about this election. If you force yourself to think about it, quite the opposite is true. This year no gray figures drone at us: no Bob Dole, no Mike Dukakis, no Phil Gramm, no Paul Tsongas, no George H.W. Bush. Instead we've had an abundance of attractive, bizarre, and original candidates--someone for everyone.
And the plot! Only a celestial collaboration between Balanchine, Feydeau, and Henry Fielding could have devised one so intricate and surprising, filled with changes of fortune, unexpected peril, family secrets, glorious oratory (and even more glorious gaffes), unhappy endings, and last-minute rescues. We should be leaving this show humming its tunes. Remember Judi Giuliani's cell phone call to Rudy? John Edwards's death-defying love affair? Mike Huckabee's unexpected charm and Mitt's unexpected charmlessness? The divine Sarah? Identity politics for every identity. And all the while, going on beneath, the nail-biting duels-to-the-end between Hillary and Obama; Joe and Sarah.
Elections are bitter things to the losers. Someone has betrayed your cause or made you realize that you are not even liked, much less well liked. Two weeks ago, late on a Monday night, I watched Hillary Clinton, wearing a pants suit in a pastel shade which would have startled even Degas, stride unrecognized through an almost empty LaGuardia terminal dragging the burden of a heavy roller bag as if it were her shroud toward the D.C. shuttle gate. Accompanied though she was by four homely bodyguards, I've never seen anyone--offstage--more alone.
If you've ever been part of a losing campaign you know how she felt. As a candidate for delegate for Frank Church in 1976, for Reuben Askew in 1984, and for the then-slender Al Gore in 1988, I know Hillary's pain. But not many of us are Askew bitter-enders or Hillary loyalists, heroes transformed by fickle voters into forgotten minor characters. So it is extraordinary that so many agree with me that, despite its objective delights, the 2008 campaign has been an overlong and joyless ordeal.
We must look to the media to understand why. A newspaper and television establishment that was on the ball would be having a ball. And it's not. Our boredom with the campaign this year is a reflection of the press's unhappiness, not of the campaign itself. The man to blame for the media's misery--and by extension, everyone's--is Evan Cornog, the associate dean of the Columbia Journalism School, a friend and a fine historian. In 2004, he published a book called The Power and the Story. It was a guileless act with dreadful consequences. Cornog's subtitle reveals all: "How the Crafted Presidential Narrative Has Determined Political Success from George Washington to George W. Bush." With a little help from James Carville--who used Cornog's concept, uncredited, to explain in myriad interviews how John Kerry lost an unloseable election--Cornog unwittingly infected the bloodstream of journalism with the Narrative bacillus. Now we all suffer the consequences.
Cornog, innocently, thought candidates and campaign strategists crafted the presidential narrative. Journalists misunderstood. They believe their job is to construct the presidential narrative themselves. So instead of journalism--even biased, self-blinded, incompetent, selective reporting and ill-informed, self-interested commentary--the media, from top to bottom, craft narratives. Nearly anonymous wire service cubs do narratives. Syndicated columnists, glamorous and grizzled alike, do narratives. Gwen Ifill narrates first and moderates actual debates later.
With narrative in hand, for the six long months after Iowa, the press tried to persuade Hillary to quit in the face of an Obama campaign it perceived as an invincible juggernaut. As a result, it failed to share with us the fun of an Obama campaign that only barely eked out the victories necessary to win. A different narrative in hand, just three months earlier, the media had declared Hillary the predestined Democratic nominee and prematurely interred its former darling, John McCain. Apostles who went home on Good Friday, the media didn't bother to stay for Easter.
Even now, in search of a narrative, the press constantly seeks to reveal the ending and name the hero before the story has reached its climax. Naturally, it finds itself dismayed, not excited, by new events in the actual world and changes in opinion among the real-life voters. In the campaign that takes place in real life, not narrative, new facts emerge constantly. New facts the press once upon a time called "news," which sold newspapers and grew audiences. Now, so invested are journalists in narratives that new facts and new personalities make them anxious and unhappy, instead of eager and interesting. And that anxiety they communicate to us--fewer and fewer of us--daily.
The news industry, which has thrived for centuries as a chorus reporting what it sees, now has seized the author's job and invents the plot. No wonder the audience for newspapers and television news has been dwindling so quickly. Reporters have developed an interest in producing outcomes that conform to a necessarily predictable plot. The modern audience, despite radical technological change, remains no different from any audience ever: It craves novelty, reversals of fortune, drama--it craves news.
As for me, it is not to flee the candidates that I'm striking for the Cretan isle, but to avoid even one more narrative. The excitement will be when I return. I wonder then if I will agree with Saint Paul? "Sirs, ye should have hearkened unto me, and not have loosed from Crete, and to have gained this harm and loss."
Sam Schulman, a writer in Virginia, is publishing director of the American.