Thursday, December 20, 2007

Perhaps watching television has its uses, after all

In the last five years (and the four years before that) I haven't had a television set. And perhaps, because of this, I've consumed most of my news about politics and ideas (and I consume a lot of that) via newspapers, magazines, and blogs. I do watch the moving image a lot -- but its mostly movies or music videos (yay, youtube!). But perhaps, because I like reading, I far prefer reading about them (or reading them) to actually watching or listening to them -- I find them far too theatrical.

I have been watching some television lately though. Why? I have been taking the cab to go home after work. And this means calling the cab company (they invariably take more than 20 minutes; but one can never be sure when they might be early), and then waiting in the lobby for the cab to come. This gives me my twenty minutes of daily television -- since there are two huge screens in the lobby, and its mostly the very annoying Chris Matthews doing his Hardball.

Yesterday though Matthews was interviewing John McCain. And its the first time I ever listened to McCain speak (I don't normally watch the debates -- I find them too theatrical). Now I've read lots of articles on McCain, from Jacob Weisberg's argument that he is a republican only in name, to Michael Kinsley's much more skeptical view of McCain's straight-from-the-hip style. But I'd never heard the man speak -- and when he did speak, I found myself warming to him -- and he is of course very different from George W. (perhaps this only means that Kinsley is right -- but I digress). And today, I read John Dickerson's piece on McCain in Slate (via Daniel Drezner):

In McCain's conversations with voters, I'm struck by the contrast between him and Barack Obama. I have covered Barack Obama more than John McCain this campaign. Obama tells audiences he's going to tell them uncomfortable truths, but he barely does it. McCain, on the other hand, seems to go out of his way to tell people things they don't like, on issues from immigration to global warming.

Midway through the questioning period in Weare, N.H., a man stood to ask why McCain and other public officials weren't standing up to defend the military against attacks from the media. "You talk about torture," the man said, before cataloging what he saw as unfair attacks on soldiers accused of atrocities in Iraq. He continued, arguing that soldiers worried about getting prosecuted or tried in the press would become hesitant, and that would get them killed.

The proper candidate response was to agree and praise the fighting men and women. That would win the man's vote and pick up an easy round of applause from the room. Instead, McCain argued that "the unique thing about America is we hold our [soldiers] accountable." McCain saw that the man wasn't swayed and asked him to speak again. He did so at length, suggesting that McCain wasn't putting the interest of the soldiers first.

McCain had a trump card: His son is a Marine on the ground in Iraq. So he could easily prove that he cares about the welfare of the grunts. But he didn't mention his son (he almost never does). Instead, he argued that the soldiers could handle the press coverage and the scrutiny of the justice system. As he finished, a young man stood up. "I am one of those serving, and I don't think I'm being hindered by anybody. We need to finish the job. That's why I'm still serving, and that's why I believe in this country, and that's why I'm supporting Sen. McCain." The room went bonkers. McCain was smart enough to end the town hall there. Better than playing a trump card yourself is when somebody else plays it for you.

All of which makes me think: Are we unfair to the telly after all? Does only reading about politics and politicians (rather, than listening to them, or watching them) in some way, diminish my capacity for political judgment? I'm uncomfortable with the idea of voting for a candidate because I like the way he talks but maybe that's also because I'm making too much of the reason/emotion distinction?

1 comment:

corbyz said...

In the end it's a bonus if they give us a memorable quote to stick into Bartlett's, but what really matters in a candidate is what we think their actions will be. It's much more important to be concerned with their beliefs, actions, etc. than their style. I could deal with a candidate who sounds as stupid as Bush, as long as he actually had the right values and made the right decisions. Charisma is a powerful tool to get people on your side, ignoring what you actually stand for.