It’s the ?, Stupid!

This is my Race 2000, or Campaign2K, or DECISION00 kick-off column. Pundits everywhere are starting to get this process under way (as are graphics departments). While nothing of remotely any consequence to the general public happens during this period of a presidential campaign – the spring and summer before the Labor Day before the primary season – it is a crucial period for the media.

Assignments are being made, budgets being set (in 1996, the three networks spent more than $100 million covering the presidential race – how will that change in the Mel Karmazin age?), story lines plotted. No doubt some harder questions are being asked, too, at many news organizations: Why bother with the campaign at all? Why squander expensive talent on low-ratings events? Why not let cable have it all? (Indeed, does cable want it?)

Fortunately for we reporters, it is not so easy to dismantle the great American presidential-campaign media machine.

But the pressure is on. It’s our job to develop the event in a media-ready way: emotion, conflict, universal themes. That’s why these summer months are so important.

It’s the time for working out the packaging. This involves a collaborative process between campaign organizations – which are primarily run by political consultants – and news organizations, which, often, are staffed by former political consultants. Nothing is more important for the candidate – and for the media – than to find this season’s hot button, to be able to articulate the political Zeitgeist. The vision thing.

But the bonding between reporters and candidates (Sidney Blumenthal and Bill Clinton famously bonded during the early phase of the 1992 Clinton campaign; it helps if we can fall in love) and the search for a flagship emotionally loaded theme is not going very well this year.

There’s the political-spouse theme, which is cast as a fifties-style comedy (certainly there’s something deeply retro about the Doles, not to mention the notion of Bill out there in the doghouse). Then there’s the Clinton-fatigue theme, which comes packaged as a moral position but is really just the lame-duck haplessness that besets every second-termer (no power, no appeal). Then Gore fatigue, a subset of Clinton fatigue. Then the privacy issue – which is, specifically, about whether or not the press should delve into George W. Bush’s heavy-partying, possibly cocaine-taking, possibly table-dancing past (by the time it’s revealed, it will be old hat, anyway). There’s guns; there’s blaming Hollywood; there’s hand-wringing about the nation’s schools; there’s faraway wars; and there’s the character issue – i.e., I am not Clinton. But there is clearly no theme that really defines a candidate, no moment-in-time, turn-of-the-century (a.k.a. TOC) theme. A Tim Russert look-you-in-the-eye theme.

That’s part of the reason Bill Clinton – a man born to big themes – called the New York Times in such frustration with Al Gore. The Clinton style of campaigning involves a manic tossing out of themes – all kinds of passionately propounded themes – then going with the ones that stick and abandoning the ones that tank. Clinton (like nobody else) understands that you can’t be cautious if you want the media’s attention. If you want your message, your essence, your heat, to break through the clutter, well, then, a certain order of reckless emoting and one-on-one touching and hugging and, yes, flirting is the order of the day.

The process of getting to this level of thematic emotional resonance is what Times columnist Bob Herbert has in mind when he says, in frustration, “The Vice President needs a couple of crackerjack speechwriters and he needs a ruthless editor.” (As though you can just order up a rootin’ tootin’ theme.) And it’s what Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter is talking about when he faults the Gore campaign for hiring Tony Coelho to run the operation instead of a “message” guy like James Carville.

Now it is not just the message, of course, that’s at issue. Not just the words – not just speechifying. It’s something broader we – the media – want the candidate to convey. In private, everyone reports, Gore is a warm and open and funny guy. But in public, we’re concerned and irritated that he’s stiff, formal, tight. What we’re really annoyed about is that he’s dividing his private and public self (keeping one whole self from us). What is he thinking? Hasn’t the man ever watched television? Politics is about personal warmth! Obviously Gore knows that, so it’s doubly annoying.

Our alternative, of course, is Bill Bradley – and there is increasing talk of a mass pundit defection to him. But it is not very helpful to the cause of great themes and dramatic campaigning that Bill Bradley has taken themelessness as his very theme. Big themes, emotional blah-blahing, are for superficial glamour boys like Clinton. Whereas Bradley is so boring – so much more boring than Gore – that, he wants us to conclude, he must be virtuous (i.e., not Bill Clinton). I have a friend who went to one of Bradley’s Hollywood fund-raisers and described how she literally began to feel pain – clinical depression-quality pain – midway through Bradley’s talk. That’s how boring he is – bored not just with politics but with life, possibly.

On the Republican side, there is W (with his clever branding advantage), who not only has no theme but is invisible. Here is the man who, according to all polls, will almost certainly be his party’s nominee to be the next president of the world’s most media-saturated nation at its most media-saturated moment, and most of us have only the vaguest idea of what he really looks like (a blurry version of his father). It’s quite possible that most Americans have never even seen W on the television; I cannot now imagine his voice – no, I don’t think I have ever heard him speak. He’s announced he’s headed for New Hampshire and is reported to have said he really likes to look people in the eye. Call me cynical, but I’ll bet he just hates to look people in the eye. The Bushes, of course, have always had a covert side: buried Wasp emotions combined with George Sr.’s stint running the CIA. Such reticence or control has been out of fashion for some time, but things come back around. Obviously it makes sense that if you have something to hide – and W has said as much – you hide. Duh.

From the media perspective, part of the problem is that we have been so terribly spoiled. Clinton certainly never hid from us. He was always out there. There was never a chin farther out. He blabbed; he wept; he suffered; he ate; he even lied openly. He publicly accepted humiliation; he publicly recovered from humiliation (long before anyone ever heard of Monica Lewinsky). But all this turned out to be a pretty classic devil’s bargain: The thing that elected him – that sheer manic need for attention, the need to be loved, to be exposed – trumped him, too. You can count on the press: What it knows, it uses.

To their credit or not, neither Gore nor Bush seems to want it that badly. So far, the me-me-me is missing. Or perhaps they do want it badly, and out of that desire comes a greater calculation. They both seem focused on a key strategic lesson to emerge from the Clinton experience. Modulate the expectations of the media. Play a little cat-and-mouse. Demur. Because if you whip it into a frenzy, it becomes a mob. Better to bore it. The maxim appears to be: Whoever stays most hidden from the media longest wins.

Which brings the campaign year to Hillary. The waning of Clinton’s term is depressing to media outlets everywhere. The whole frenzied press pursuit of Hillary to New York – indeed, the whole unlikely turn of events that has brought the Hillary campaign nearly into being – is an effort to continue the story of Bill Clinton. Certainly the relationship of Bill and Hillary is a key part of the story, and Hillary’s running for the Senate offers a fine opportunity to stay in our seats and see what happens: Does the marriage survive? On what terms? Under what roof? How does Bill deal with it – the reversal (she’s the candidate, not him), the reduction (he’s the spouse, not her)? Does Bill Clinton become Denis Thatcher? It’s delicious. As shallow as it seems, these are issues that are not unfamiliar and not uninstructive in each of our boomer lives (more engaging than school vouchers, for sure).

On the other hand, the story of Bill Clinton, and the story of Bill and Hillary, has never really been about Hillary herself. In story terms, she’s pure foil. In personal terms, she is as armored and remote as anyone running this year. The reason she hasn’t had her own political career is, quite evidently, not because of the primacy of Bill’s career – but because she isn’t a politician. Compared to Hillary, Al Gore is Mr. Saturday Night.

Personally, I don’t see how she sustains a campaign. I don’t see how she doesn’t invite a terrible backlash when the press finds out that this is really about her and not about being married to him.

Except that, weirdly, she too – she most of all – might have it in mind to become the opposite of Bill Clinton. Well-tempered implacability becomes her reason for being. In other words, the less she gives us, the less harm we do. She, like Gore and Bush, will wear nothing on her sleeve. There will be no big themes, no gripping emotional undertow, no feeling of the pain.

I don’t know of a reporter – at least of my generation – who hasn’t imagined him- or herself stomping around in the snows of New Hampshire. That was our big career challenge, because only the best of breed got that assignment.

The big challenge now is of a different order. It’s how to reconcile the fact that many of us still love this stuff – New Hampshire, caucuses, stump speeches, polling reports, the press plane, and in general the verve and sloppiness of a political campaign – with the overwhelming evidence that most Americans are not at all interested in any of these things.

The Clinton drama (and comedy) has surely helped keep the presidential media machine – the infrastructure of Washington bureaus and campaign correspondents and even evening news shows – afloat. But more than likely, that was a last hurrah.

Politicians and political pundits are almost certainly in for a downsizing. And this one, really, could be the last prime-time campaign.

It’s the ?, Stupid!