Cable Guise

Published December 6, 2009
New York Times Magazine

After Walter Cronkite died earlier this year, Frank Mankiewicz, the onetime Democratic operative, recalled in The Washington Post how he had proposed that George McGovern select the CBS anchorman as his running mate during the 1972 presidential campaign. Cronkite was, of course, one of the most admired men in America and a known skeptic of the war in Vietnam. And yet McGovern’s others advisers unanimously rejected the Cronkite gamble, not just because they feared he would say no but also because the boundary between journalism and elective office was so absolute that the thought of merging them struck aides as too desperate a ploy. Cronkite was “wholly outside of politics,” as Mankiewicz described it. Voters and party leaders, it was thought, could no more accept a newsman as a Democratic spokesman than they could imagine a politician broadcasting the evening news.

Now it seems that Cronkite’s brief moment as a vice-presidential contender may have been the first inevitable step down a treacherous path. Today we’re not at all surprised to hear names like Chris Matthews and Lou Dobbs tossed around as candidates for higher office. And while it used to be that only political aides of notable talent, people like Bill Moyers and Pat Buchanan and George Stephanopoulos (and, well, Chris Matthews), could make the tricky transition from politics to TV news, now it’s the politicians themselves — Joe Scarborough, Mike Huckabee — who find themselves ensconced as hosts on a cable-TV set. The door between politics and television news now isn’t merely revolving; it spins so fast and so continuously that a fair number of people no longer seem to belong neatly on one side or the other. Is Sarah Palin, at this point, a politician, or is she the star of some “frontier family” reality show? In fact, she seems to realize that the changed environment allows her to be both at the same time.

It’s not hard to understand why political figures are lured into the realms of punditry or even outright entertainment. For one thing, in an era when the business of campaigning never really stops, the incursion of politicians into the news media enables officeholders who are between jobs to stay in our faces. (Look at John Kasich, the former Ohio congressman who parked himself at Fox News for a while and is now running for governor.) This isn’t a strictly political phenomenon. It has now become routine, after all, for fired baseball managers and football coaches to sign on with ESPN or some other sports broadcasting division for a year or two, where they can make a bunch of money pontificating while also positioning themselves for the next big job opening. A fast-moving culture demands constant visibility; you can’t just leave the scene for a while and expect the phone to keep ringing. And if Rush Limbaugh makes $50 million a year, commands the loyalty of some 13 million listeners and routinely scares the striped ties off every Republican congressman in Washington, then why wouldn’t your average politician aspire to be in Rush’s chair rather than in, say, Mitch McConnell’s?

But it’s not just self-interest that drives the media migration. It’s the ability to control the larger conversation. The same temptation existed in the print age, of course. Alexander Hamilton started the newspaper that would become The New York Post, and for a long time in America being in politics meant at least dabbling, more often than not, in local publishing as well. These days, in a fragmented media world, a successful cable-news show might draw a few hundred thousand viewers on an average night. (To put this in some context, NBC’s “Today” show attracted 6.3 million viewers on a single morning this month.) But a sizable portion of that paltry cable viewership comprises nearly every congressional aide, White House official and assignment editor in Washington, where it is rare to find a political or news office that doesn’t have multiple televisions tuned to the punditry parade. And thus, even more so than Limbaugh’s radio broadcasts, the cable-news shows take on outsize importance, defining the hourly debate for all those political influentials who, in turn, define it for the rest of us. If cable personalities are debating their guests about death panels and the propriety of bowing to the Japanese emperor, then it is most often these things — as opposed to, say, financial-regulation reform — that will dominate the daily discussion of, and even in, the Capitol.

All of this has created an upside-down dynamic in Washington. For most of the country’s existence, prospective candidates have relied on their news-media ties to catapult them into office. As far back as the 19th century, the newspaperman Horace Greeley used his New York Tribune as a platform for his political career; more recently, Ronald Reagan made his radio commentaries the basis for a campaign agenda. Now, however, we may be confronting the opposite phenomenon: some politicians seem to seek office mostly for the purpose of landing on TV. How else to adequately explain the calculated outrageousness of obscure backbenchers like the Republican congresswoman Michele Bachmann (who said Obama was practicing “economic Marxism” and worried that the census could lead to another internment of American citizens) and her Democratic colleague Alan Grayson (who called one lobbyist a “whore” and other Republicans “knuckle-dragging Neanderthals”)? Once, new members of Congress might have tried to work their way up through the ranks of the House, hoping to prove themselves worthy of leadership posts or of statewide office — the way even a talented media provocateur like Newt Gingrich once did. But now, just by their willingness to be whisked off by Town Car to appear on some pundits’ panel at a moment’s notice, our legislators can bypass the hard work of governing and fashion themselves the televised leaders of populist mini-movements, celebrated heroes of the ideological fringe.

This blurring of the roles played by our elected officials and our cable-news personalities is beginning to redefine our notions of political leadership. On television, a leader is usually one who fairly erupts with passion, who stands up to the system, who can outsimplify and outshout sinister adversaries. We watch a Bachmann or a Grayson, a Sarah Palin or a Lou Dobbs, and we think, perhaps, Now there’s somebody with real convictions. The more mundane existence of those who actually govern the country, the colorless persistence of senators and congressmen who are barely recognized outside the Capitol dome, begins to feel more like smallness — or worse, a kind of capitulation to the status quo. The real harm in the merging of politics and cable news isn’t necessarily that we elevate the natural-born entertainers and the bullies among our politicians. It’s that we begin to undervalue everyone else, confusing the theater of politics with the indispensable real thing.

Matt Bai writes on national politics for the magazine.