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Last Candidate Standing
It is 1,842 miles from Marysville or Arlington to Des Moines, the capitol of Iowa. Thats a far distance for events there to determine who we might be voting for, but thats the way our system works. With nearly a year until the polls open, it did seem a bit excessive for the media to be assigning so much weight to one states primary results.
Was it pure coincidence that the airwaves were clogged with Iowa primary trivia during a TV writers strike? The public was led to think it was all about Iowa, but it wasnt. Candidates go where the cameras are. Cameras go where the candidates are in a surreal dance in which presidential candidates and media teams are locked in a conjugal ritual, each feeding off the other. Iowa was their stage. We were the audience.
John Edwards went 36 hours straight, hurtling from venue to venue. Gyms, lodge halls, theaters, courthouse steps, school auditoriums; wherever his handlers found an empty space, he filled it. One wonders whether what he said counted less than how many times he said it.
This was Edwards schedule for January 2:
12:30 a.m. Midnight caucus in Cass County
2:15 a.m. Meet with core supporters in Creston, Iowa.
5:15 a.m. Hold forth at a pancake breakfast in Centerville, Iowa.
7:00 a.m. Campaign kickoff in Ottumwa.
8:30 am. Meeting at the home of Bob Petrezelka, Mt. Pleasant
11:30 a.m. Appearance at the Ivy Bake Shop, Fort Madison
1:00 p.m. Campaign office meeting, Mt. Pleasant
3:30 p.m. Meet supporters at Capanna Coffee Co., Iowa City
5:00 p.m. Count down to Caucus, Marriott Hotel, Cedar Rapids
7:30 p.m. Meet undecided voters at Saints Rest Coffee House, Grinnell
8:30 p.m. Rally with John Mellencamp, Val Air Ballroom, West Des Moines
Eleven appearances in ten towns. No sleep from midnight until midnight. Hundreds of miles covered by road. You get the feeling that only Kryptonite could have slowed him down. If we must know who can go the longest without making a mistake, line them up and see who can say TOY-BOAT the most times in five seconds without making an error. Itll be good for laughs, after which they could rest up for a few really meaningful appearances.
Cheers for the stout people of Iowa who endured it all first hand. If were to believe what we saw was representative, every candidates every appearance drew a sizeable crowd. But I have a sneaking suspicion that here and there along the way, John, Hilary, Obama, Mike, Rudy, the other John and Joe found themselves talking to empty chairs. Those non-events were mercifully absent from the news.
Were not hearing enough debate on how to cure the silliness. Some advocate spending caps as in the U.K. where a candidate cannot spend more than 100,000 pounds. Dennis Kucinich would have the courts simply enforce existing election laws. Sound thinkers lobby for drastically shortening the period between joining the race and election.
Good thoughts, all of them. But it takes a naive person to believe that stiff legal curbs could end blatant and unsupervised campaigning. The Conservatives alone list over 600 heavily funded think-tanks that exist only to propagandize the public about issues and candidates, all of them protected by the First Amendment.
With electoral reform a distant dream, our candidates soldier on, bravely smiling through the fatigue as the nation watches to see who will falter first. Sleepless and weary, they mount the stage to pose as energetic and good humored one more time. Their audiences note whether they can still handle questions deftly without stammering, faltering or just looking as dazed as they feel.
It might be a good system if we were electing a marathon runner but were not. Killer schedules might find a place in a version of the series, Survivor, but not in a sensible election process. Given the hazing process were witnessing, few past presidents would have made the cut.
Wilson was too frail to hold up. Roosevelt, crippled as he was, wasnt up to non-stop barnstorming. Nixon, testy under pressure, would have suffered a meltdown. Trumangood old give-em-hell Harrywould have slammed his audiences with the facts and been eaten for breakfast by the press. Clearly, the system were watching isnt for hot-heads, wimps or even candidates with only average physical resources or imperfect psychological balance. It tests more for strength than wisdom.
Afterward, TV panelists and pollsters had their day, dissecting performances as thoroughly as CSI examiners. Each misstep, each misspoken phrase, each inappropriate garment was weighted as significant. If you listened, you detected a similarity to ESPNs post game wrap-ups.
That similarity isnt an accident. The newish word, infotainment, says it all. Information dressed as entertainment. Or entertainment posing as information. Just as televised sports are entertainment, politics is becoming a spectator sport. Who wins or loses and how they play the game makes snappier copy than the issues at stake. When it comes to voting on issues, score-keeping on whether they pass or fail is more entertaining than what those decisions mean to the nation.
To straighten out our electoral process, the media needs to reevaluate its entire approach. Some interviewers are doing just that, posing questions that reach for substance. Hopefully, the entire industrys responsibility to the public will mature beyond Brent Musburger and Chris Schenkels play-by-play style.
Certainly, Iowa voters targeted something more meaningful and that was rejection of the status quo. It was a blend of candor and the outsiders perspective that won them over, leaving candidates with ties to big-money politics wondering what happened.
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