Whenever I’m overseas for more than a week or so, I begin reacting to the news a little differently, like a global citizen rather than a parochial American; Zimbabwe seems more awful, Denmark less boring. After I passed 40, the obituary page took on new resonance. Wall Street traders I know first register every major news story according to what it might mean for their investments.
And every four years, as a presidential election looms, a more widespread warp of media perceptions occurs. It’s as if we each put on our own special pair of red plastic decoder glasses that enable us—force us, really—to read the news not as mere factual accounts of important events, but as potentially charged new electoral variables. For these next eleven months, in other words, I will become crypto-quasi-Jewish—that is, involuntarily asking as I scan each day’s headlines not Is it good for the Jews? but rather Is it bad for the Republicans?
I’m not talking about idle Schadenfreude, the fleeting, naughty satisfaction one takes, for instance, in Dick Cheney’s shotgun accident or his wife’s extravagant flirtations with a friend of mine over the years or even (forgive me, God) his atrial fibrillation last week. Rather, it’s a more instrumental, epistemologically problematic impulse to construe bona fide good news as bad and bad news as good. “The test of a first-rate intelligence,” F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Probably so, but it makes the brain hurt.
As presidential campaigns grow longer, and the national political discourse more partisan, I think this double-vision tic is becoming more chronic for more and more news consumers—particularly those out-of-power non-Republicans who’ve been cast most deeply into this Bizarro World. Consider the big stories of the past few weeks. Just before Thanksgiving, a front-page Times article about Iraq made it official: Under the headline “Baghdad’s Weary Start to Exhale as Security Improves,” two correspondents reported that “days now pass without a car bomb,” down from 44 car bombings during the 28 days of February. Throughout the country, there were 59 suicide bombings in March, versus sixteen in October, and insurgent attacks and civilian deaths overall have dropped by 60 percent. What’s more, only a few days later the paper reported that the withdrawal of U.S. troops has now actually begun.
All excellent news! And also worrisome news for those of us who don’t want another Republican elected president in 2008. The sudden pacification of Iraq is an October Surprise a year early. Last week, the Times followed the surge-is-working story with an A-1 article suggesting that while “the Democratic candidates are continuing to assail the war … they run the risk that Republicans will use those critiques to attack the party’s nominee in the general election as defeatist and lacking faith in the American military.”
How strange it is, then, that among the many dozens of posts on Daily Kos during the past two weeks there was only one citing this major and, for antiwar activists, inconvenient turn of events. No mention of or link to the Times piece, but simply an opportunity to rant once again about Joe Lieberman. Shouldn’t the online headquarters of the Democratic left be chewing over the issue like crazy, if not admitting they may have been mistaken about the surge then at least trying to figure out how to deal with the possible domestic political impact of the new facts on the ground? It seems like willful obliviousness, childish and slightly cowardly—not unlike hard-core Republicans’ four-year-long circle-the-wagons refusal to face the facts about the rest of the misbegotten war.
Then there was the other big piece of profoundly good news on the Times’ front page: “Scientists Bypass Need for Embryo to Get Stem Cells.” Two different scientific teams have managed a feat of real-life alchemy, reprogramming ordinary adult-human cells to become faux-embryonic stem cells, thus—potentially, eventually—eliminating the need to harvest cells from embryos for experiments and therapies. If the technique proves safe and reliable, the Christian right’s opposition to embryonic-stem-cell research will be moot.
Except, of course, it will also eliminate one powerful reason for independents and progressive Republicans to vote Democratic. That annoying buzz kill is suggested in the very same story that gave us the thrilling buzz. A White House spokesperson described the president as “very pleased” about the breakthrough.
One tends to be suspicious of almost anything that pleases George Bush. Last week, in an interview about the peace conference in Annapolis, he professed himself “pleased with the fact that Israel and Palestine have agreed to negotiate” and “pleased with the progress that was made.”
Yet … aren’t we pleased, too, that the Israelis and Palestinians are restarting negotiations, that the U.S. seems seriously engaged, that the Arab League and Syria came to grant their imprimatur? And in the unlikely event that the jump-started peace process actually does produce a treaty a year from now, with credit going to this administration for making it happen, won’t we and even the Kos mob welcome it as a miraculous world-historical achievement? It’s arguable that such an outcome, if it were to affect the 2008 election, would help Democrats—by reducing the general geopolitical fear factor and reminding Americans that diplomacy can actually work. But even then … some celebrations of the news would be grudging. There are still those on the left, after all, whose pleasure over the end of the Cold War is tainted by the fact that Ronald Reagan helped make it happen.
The other big story right now is the economy. Last week, former Treasury secretary Larry Summers rocked his world with a Financial Times piece in which he wrote that “the odds now favor a U.S. recession,” and the New York Times’ front-page lead on Thursday warned of “intensifying worries that the economy may be headed for recession.” Total bummer, right?
Yes … um … unless you’d prefer that a Democrat be elected president next year. Since the Civil War, whenever the economy was in recession at election time, the opposition party has won the White House. An intriguing new academic formula for forecasting presidential election results is political economist Douglas Hibbs’s Bread and Peace model, which measures the combined electoral effects of personal income growth and U.S. war casualties. By my calculation, according to the formula, the Republican nominee is already on course to receive less than 50 percent of the vote next year, and the economy hasn’t even tanked yet.
And so for Democrats, every news story pointing to imminent economic ugliness is a gift. Such is our duplicitous American version of Leninism lite: The worse, the better—but don’t ever say so. Our cynical Bizarro selves must remain closeted.
Big good-news stories are alarming, big bad-news stories are heartening—and applying the template of one’s own agendas also makes small, lurid, inconsequential news stories fascinating. I’m talking about the book publisher Judith Regan’s lawsuit against News Corp., which fired her a year ago after Rupert Murdoch decided that the tsuris was no longer worth the profits she generated. For me the legal fight is Godzilla vs. Mothra—even though I think Regan was very badly treated, I’m not really rooting for either side to win. But I am desperate for the depositions and discovery and trial testimony.
You see, Regan had an affair with Bernie Kerik when he was Rudy Giuliani’s police commissioner; their trysting place was a Battery Park City apartment previously set aside for ground zero emergency workers. Her suit claims that “a senior executive in the News Corp. organization”—I’m betting it’s Roger Ailes, the founder of Fox News—“told Regan [in 2004] that he believed she had information about Kerik that, if disclosed, would harm Giuliani’s presidential campaign. This executive advised Regan to lie to, and to withhold information from, investigators concerning Kerik.” I want to see Giuliani’s presidential campaign harmed; don’t you? (And I’ll relish even more any exposure of Ailes, who—full disclosure—once threatened to send a camera crew to stalk my 3- and 5-year-old children in preemptive retaliation for a magazine story I was writing about his man Rush Limbaugh.)
Considered as a kind of intellectual disease, it’s chronic low-grade duplicity, suppressing our full human sympathies—for victims of misfortune, for beneficiaries of progress—for politics’ sake. There’s probably no cure. Considered as sin it’s venial, only rising to the level of serious moral affliction, I think, if we fail to cop to it. And although the biggest boon to the modern Democratic Party was the biggest domestic bad-news story of the twentieth century—the Great Depression—compulsive nega-vision isn’t just a problem for the left, of course. Republicans in the nineties were ambivalent about the Clinton administration’s successful military interventions in the Balkans, for instance. And plenty of Republicans are permanently invested in the failure of public schools, in order that popular support for voucher systems might grow. If Al Qaeda strikes in the U.S. during the next eleven months, that alone could tip the election to the Republicans—for the GOP, the silver lining to terrorism, as we’ve seen since 9/11.
But if the present consensus is right, and a Democrat is elected president next November, it will be, for people like me, a win-win—not just our political wishes realized but at least four years’ relief from much of the burden of this cognitive dissonance, of reflexively, furtively cringing at happy news and applauding trouble. It will be the Republicans’ turn to be exiled in Bizarro World.