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Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Pedestrian President

So President Obama was on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart last night, touting the accomplishments of his administration and, more importantly for Democrats, working to reconnect with those eager-beaver first-time and youthful voters. For Stewart and company, it’s ratings gold. For Obama, it was an opportunity to make the case to younger, left-leaning progressives that have been disgruntled or simply dropped out of the process since 2008. Watching Obama tangle with Stewart about his “timidity” on the health care debate was classic.

It was clearly physically challenging to stay still and quiet for the wise-cracking Stewart as the Commander in Chief spoke. Stewart often looked like the ADD/ADHD kid in the back of the classroom who keeps shooting his hand up to answer the teacher’s question.
Courtesy: The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Without a doubt, it was an entertaining half hour – and a one-upsmanship on his “rival” and Comedy Central cohort Stephen Colbert, who hosted Vice President Joe Biden this fall.

Beyond the guffaws, what will be mulled is whether it’s “dignified” for the leader of the free world to get into a give-and-take with a comedian – albeit an influential and witty satirist.

There was a time when people gleaned the news of the day in more sober fashion, reading newspapers and newsmagazines, watching discussions on roundtable talk shows and then dissected politics with facts and vigor. Those days, sadly, are mostly behind us. Today, the leading source of news for many young Americans under 30 is The Daily Show. After all, according to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, fewer than 1 in 3 Americans gets news from a daily paper these days.You can shake your head in disgust and pine for "the good ol' days" or you can hunt for the masses where they live and make your pitch. 

The savvy politico goes where the people are. Even for all of her insanity, Sarah Palin has learned to insulate herself by manipulating media that offer maximum friendly exposure with minimum risk. Witness her daughter's shrewd placement on Dancing with the Stars, which guarantees facetime and, or, name mention on ABC news affiliates.Or the onetime governor, onetime GOP veep candidate's forthcoming reality show on TLC. No shame in her fluff pursuing game. 

Of course, you’ll have folks who continue the rant that Obama is demeaning the office of the presidency by appearing on unseemly shows, outlets that don’t dignify his position. Smarter money would point to the fact that it’s a totally strategic outreach plan to target specific demographics of the coalition that put him into office. His pop-in on the couch at The View last summer was to flash a big reminder sign in front of those daytime watching women who drift in and out of political conversations. Ditto his appearance with Stewart, who is not afraid to skewer the man he obviously touted for president.

Bill Clinton blasted these doors open with his appearance on the now-defunct Arsenio Hall Show, winning over a youthful population who looked at this guy as not only sufficiently wonky enough for the job, but cool to boot. And his 1993 MTV confessional on “boxers or briefs” took things to new heights – or lows, depending on your vantage. After that, it didn’t seem so unusual for major party candidates to work the late-night circuit, from Leno to Letterman.

Much like John F. Kennedy knew how to work the cameras in his debate with Richard Nixon back in 1960, this president has displayed comfort in doing the full-frontal assault on unconventional forms of media if it means connecting with voters and gaining an advantage. Old-school pundits may pshaw at the tactic.

Then again, that was the same thinking that prevailed when some guy named Howard Dean talked about raising money for political campaigns on the internet. And we see how sound conventional wisdom turned out to be on that one. 

Friday, October 1, 2010

March madness

I’ll admit it. My feet are tired.

I say this as organizers rally to herd earnest masses onto buses for yet another march to Washington, D.C. to draw the attention of legislators – and more accurately these days, the media – around progressive values. It’s poised to be chockfull of the pre-Election Day red meat needed to galvanize those 2008 new-to-the-process voters that were so passionate about bringing change to how business in this country is conducted, from Wall Street to Main Street to K Street.

That’s not to say the cause is not just. But the method seems painfully dated.

Coxey's 1894 brigade in D.C. Courtesy: Library of Congress
We’re fighting wars with remote controlled drones and cyber sabotage, but when it comes to raising a ruckus about equality and justice, the tactics seem squarely and stubbornly rooted in the last century. Just as we no longer protect the homeland with antiquated surface-to-air batteries of the Camelot era, we should be thinking a bit more deeply and creatively in how to sway people toward reason.

Yes, such marches have impacted the national psyche – in the past. But like any other one-trick pony, repetition weakens the wow factor.

Gathering up the troops in a mass display of shock-and-awe to decry ill-considered policies has been the American civil activist’s trump card since the 1890s. Jacob S. Coxey stirred passions as he led the unemployed to storm the Mall, to the strain of familiar concerns – from the aggrieved, who felt those in power recklessly and callously abandoned core principles for greed, to the powerbrokers and social observers, who feared an insurrection among “the radicals.”

History shows that such demonstrations have had merit; Coxey and his 500 or so collected cohorts prompted sympathy and long-term effects that later manifested in efforts such as the New Deal. Women descended on Washington to “welcome” President-elect Woodrow Wilson in 1913, presenting a visual reminder of voters he had yet to tap, seeing as though the laws refused to recognize them as full citizens. Hundreds of rabbis stood forth days before Yom Kippur 1943 to protest the decimation of their brethren and culture in war-savaged Europe. And for sheer magnitude, few can top the iconic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom – though the sea of collective calm that strikingly countered overhyped fears about the 1995 Million Man March is up there.

But you can’t help but to think that media personality Glenn Beck was trying his best to emulate those grievances and demonstrate that “real” Americans – read: graying, WASPs – are suffering at the hands of this government, especially now that it’s run by the “others.”

Contrived causes plus hijacked methodology equal diluted punch for ensuing protests. Increasingly, marches for social justice issues seem to be falling into a trap of devolution, a game of whose is bigger. And that sets up dangerous one-upsmanship, with the possibility of issues being trampled because they are not deemed as aligned enough with the American public, based on turnout. Since the National Park Service stopped offering its independent tallies after 1995’s debacle, neutral observers are more skeptical when attendance numbers are bandied about these days, anyway.

Even if it were about bodies, it’s not been made clear, mathematically or otherwise, why having 200,000 people on a dead D.C. day outweighs, say, 20 key legislative district offices facing 10,000 constituents each. Or even 40 facing 5,000 constituents.  As I understood it, demonstrations are supposed to capture the imagination, focus the attention with some breathtaking, novel display.
Then again, maybe that sexy bus trip with the smelly rear bathroom, the limp, plastic-wrapped sandwiches in cardboard boxes and the yawning rhetoric that spills from the mics and mouths of appointed leaders makes it all seem so much more noble, a sacrifice for a greater good. Not sure. 

When things get to the point of near parody, though, a la the “marches” being “organized” by satirists Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, it makes you start wondering whether the strategy is still the best one. Especially since Congress is out of session, and lawmakers are back in their districts, stumping for midterm votes right about now.

It’s a free country. And the Mall is known as America’s Backyard. If it’s time for a major-league public bitch session, fine. I’m more interested in probing for more innovative approaches to reaching and appealing to the hearts and minds of my fellow Americans -- not just legislators, but also the constituents that elect them.