People with the slightest interest in politics, especially journalists, spent 2006 and 2007 smacking their lips and rubbing their hands in anticipation of 2008, relishing the prospect of gorging on the story of a lifetime: no incumbents running, a free-for-all of mad-interesting candidates, world-historical issues at stake. Mmmm!
Be careful what you wish for. This election cycle now reminds me of the one Looney Tune that terrified me as a child, where a selfish and gluttonous Porky Pig is subjected by a mad scientist to a nightmare of unending force-feeding. Enough already. Please. Enough.
And yet, being a glutton, I find I can’t kick my present addiction to political data and chatter, even though gobbling it no longer makes me feel good. That jones is partly a function of this year’s gripping Terminator battle between the Democrats—earnest young would-be savior-leader pursued by staggeringly destructive and nearly indestructible shape-shifting automaton. But it’s also because in this election, as never before, I’m not a disinterested observer, not even pretending to be, but rather an unapologetic believer—I’ve been an Obamaphile from the get-go. My whole life, I’ve never cared about sports, never experienced that intense, emotional, extra-rational rooting interest in any team’s struggle to win the championship. I figure this must be what it feels like to be a hopeful, fretful, stressed-out fan during the Super Bowl or World Series.
Clinton’s supporters are clearly just as desperately devoted to their own on-the-ropes candidate, and must be obsessing in the same riveted, dreadful, nauseated way over the judges’ scoring of the next (the thirteenth? Fourteenth?) round of the fight. And they’re as grumpily, soccer-hooliganishly antagonistic toward us as we are toward them. These last five years, both sides have grown so accustomed to feeling a visceral, sputtering disgust with George Bush that it has been a seamless, easy devolution this winter and spring from anti-Republican anger to factional, internecine anger. At the very moment we’d become fatigued by our too-familiar, practically rancid loathing of Bush, this new dislike of Hillary (or Obama) that welled up is a fresh, exciting flavor of red-meat contempt.
But of course, I don’t know many of those fierce Clinton supporters, because most of my friends and acquaintances are writers and editors and cultural impresarios of one kind or another—members of “the media”—and there are precious few Clintonites among them. Because almost as much as geography is dispositive in spectator sports—if you live in New England, you’re bound to love the Red Sox and hate the Yankees—demography is dispositive in this year’s Democratic race. And the great majority of media people are members of the same (white) demographic cohort that has rejected Hillary and voted for Barack—educated, more-affluent-than-average residents of cities and suburbs.
Contrary to the vast-left-wing-conspiracy visions of the right, much of the press never really loved the Clintons—they just feared and loathed their enemies more. The first people I ever heard viciously ragging on Bill Clinton, early in 1992, were a liberal reporter covering him and a writer then working as a Democratic staffer on the Hill. Part of it was visceral suspicion of the Clintonian political M.O. and character. And part of it, I think, was a kind of half-conscious intragenerational resentment.
When Bill Clinton was first elected, baby-boomers had just become an absolute majority of working journalists, and among some of them simmered an envy-cum-distrust of the first baby-boomer commander-in-chief. Somebody our age is president? Then, over the course of Bill Clinton’s (bungled, distasteful) presidency and Hillary Clinton’s (bungled, distasteful) campaign for the presidency, the couple have separately and together become incarnations of the most unattractive attributes of their generation’s elite—blind ambition cloaked in do-good self-righteousness, a sense of entitlement, high-handed snobbiness (“I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies”), hedonism (Monica et al.), narcissism. As a poster couple for people of a certain age and demographic, they have become a bit of an embarrassment.
So it’s ironic that the media and their fellow upscale Americans are now disposed to like Obama precisely because he resembles them in so many ways. The difference is he’s relatively unsullied, an exquisite, idealized version of themselves: educated, thoughtful, twigged to nuance, a lovely writer, well-traveled, witty, cool, dignified, candid, a little quixotic, a clued-in grown-up but not yet ruined by the ugly facts of Washington life.
And, mirabile dictu, a perfectly postmodern embodiment of compromise between the hard binaries of race and age. He’s both white and black. Born on the very cusp of the baby boom and Generation X, he’s both oldish and youngish. And as a skinny, athletic, gentle-seeming, virtually metrosexual man, he nearly splits the difference on gender as well.
For voters younger than he, Obama is the closest they’ve ever had to a political leader of their own generation. (So far this hasn’t generated the WTF jealousy Bill Clinton’s fellow boomers felt in 1992.) And for the next-older cohort, at least the self-conscious ones who tend to dominate the cultural definition of any generation, Obama flatters their driving desire to imagine themselves forever young. He’s technically a baby-boomer, but still comes across as a boy wonder, which allows people in their fifties to feel reassured that they’re not yet decrepit. Plus if all the kids love him and we also love him, that means we’re still kinda sorta youthful ourselves, right? It’s related to the generation-gaplessness that modern parents enjoy feeling when they and their children watch Stephen Colbert together, and listen to the same music (Feist!) on their identical iPods.
Yet the flip side of all this is why Clinton’s demographically determined constituencies haven’t felt the Obama magic, why for them he’s an acquired taste, like espresso. It’s not only that the people who create and run the media—and who love Obama—occupy the social and cultural upper rungs. The world depicted in “the media,” broadly construed—not just straight journalism but everything we watch and read and hear—is overwhelmingly a bright, shiny, upscale, youngish world. Uneducated white people, residents of the so-called C and D counties, and the elderly—in other words, Hillary Clinton voters—are seldom allowed into the mass-media foreground, and when they appear it’s usually as bathetic figures, victims or losers. (And working-class black pop culture is considered part of the sexy mainstream in a way that working-class white pop culture is not.) The shocking eclipse of Hillary (an eight-figure net worth, maybe, but at least she’s got a normal American name and a Wal-Mart shopper’s bad hair and big bum) by this fashionable (black!) media darling is one more slap in the face for the people chronically excluded from the pretty mediascape version of America, one more damn new new thing that they don’t really get. It makes them … bitter, and the bitterness makes them cling to the Clintons.
The media didn’t see this coming. Back in February, when the new prince was gliding thrillingly up and up toward nomination, a part of the thrill for the media was their happy astonishment that they were no longer cosmopolitan outliers but finally (unlike in 1984 with Gary Hart) in sync with America: Regular folks, white people in Iowa and Virginia and Wisconsin, were actually voting for Obama!
That was then. With the ten-point loss in Pennsylvania, the latest Reverend Wright eruption, and the shrinkage of Obama’s leads in the polls, the media are feeling lousy, and not just because their guy is taking a beating. If Obama is deemed to be an effete, out-of-touch yuppie, then the effete-yuppie media Establishment that’s embraced him must be equally oblivious and/or indifferent to the sentiments of the common folk.
Uh-oh. As the cratering of newspaper circulations accelerates (thousands a week are now abandoning the Times) and network-news audiences continue to shrink, for big-time mainstream journalists to seem even more out of touch makes some of them panic. And … so … it’s all … his fault, that highfalutin Obama! Certain journalistic stars these last few weeks (hello, George Stephanopoulos!), instead of copping to the “elitist” sensibilities they obviously share with him (and the Clintons and McCain)—we travel abroad and read books, we have healthy bank accounts and drink wine; so shoot us—reacted by parroting the Clinton campaign’s faux-populist talking points about Obama’s condescension toward the yokel class. But pandering to the yokels, pretending to share their tastes and POV? That goes pretty much unchallenged. If the wellborn New England Wasp George W. Bush (Andover ’64, Yale ’68, Harvard ’75) could be successfully refashioned as a down-home rustic, why shouldn’t Hillary Clinton (Wellesley ’69, Yale ’73) be talkin’ guns and drinkin’ Crown Royal shots and droppin’ all the g’s from her gerunds whenever she speaks extemporaneously these days? Naked disingenuousness apparently isn’t as off-putting as, say, failing to pin a tiny metal American flag to one’s lapel.
For all I know, the Clinton voters find Obama’s spazzy bowling and Jay-Z referencing just as irritating. Like I said, the Democratic race has become for many of us an intense playoff simulacrum, and fans love their team and curse the opponents blindly and faithfully. I can’t quite believe that I have been driven to baseball-geek analogies … but here I find myself nevertheless, feverishly hoping that the story ends not in the fashion of last year’s awful, amazing Mets, but like the Yankees in 2000, when they nearly blew their big lead in the season’s final weeks before straightening up and winning the World Series.