Sunday, June 22, 2008

Hooked on the Presidency

Looking over the field of men anxious to run for President at the beginning of 1976, James Reston wrote in his New York column: “Once hooked on the Presidency, it is an appetite more addictive than dope.” In “Who’s Hooked?” an op-ed piece that the Times did not print, I diagnosed the media as suffering from the very same addiction.

“Although it is true, as Reston says, that the appetite for the Presidency ‘consumes men as physical as George Wallace of Alabama and as intellectual and promising as Gene McCarthy of Minnesota,’” I wrote, “it also consumes news reporters and dominates their output.”

I marveled at the volumes written and spoken in speculation about election outcomes months before the ballots were printed. Laid end to end, those words “would reach far into outer space, and several times around Mars, where they would have about as much meaning as they have here,” I wrote.

I marveled, too, at the armies of reporters and photographers following Presidential aspirants everywhere. “Partial demobilization of this entourage need not put reporters on unemployment compensation rolls,” I wrote. “They could find productive employment writing about problems – gut problems – that concern people.”

Obviously, that 1976 critique of mine, which I found while cleaning out some old files, holds true for the media today. Why this obsession with the Presidency?

Well, it is, after all, the most powerful job in the United States and the world. Okay, but this is a democracy. The excessive focus on the President adds to that power, and it crowds out other voices.

Just listen to the claims that Presidential candidates make. “Just elect me, and I’ll solve ______[fill in the current problems].” Nonsense, of course. Thank God and the constitution, the President is not all-powerful. Yet through obsessive attention to the Presidency, the media pays little attention to the other power centers that share in national decision-making on matters small and large.

Take trade policy. It is one of the most important issues being debated by John McCain and Barrack Obama. Yet the media generally covers it only superficially, and sometimes sensationally.

Even the late Tim Russert, for all his knowledge of the political scene, was weak in bringing much enlightenment to a complex issue like trade. In fact, he was probably at his weakest in the March debate between Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama.

He introduced a series of questions on NAFTA not by quoting what Clinton or Barrack had said, but what Al Gore had said back in 1993: “If you don’t like NAFTA and what’s done, we can get out of it in six months.” He then asked: “Will the U.S. President say we are out of NAFTA in six months.”

Russert reformulated the question twice for Clinton (once because he was not satisfied with Clinton’s qualified No) and then once for Obama, to which Obama replied: “I will make sure that we renegotiate, in the same way that Senator Clinton talked about, [using] the hammer of a potential opt-out as leverage to ensure that we actually get labor and environmental standards that are enforced….”

(For details, check my March 6 posting “The ‘Opting Out” NAFTA Distraction,” based on the actual transcript.)

Although Russert got his point “buttoned” up to his satisfaction, the hurried exchange did more to confuse than to enlighten the public on NAFTA. That’s par for the course in the media when dealing with trade issues.

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