Dick Cheney and Our Strange Obsession with Legacy

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Reception of the former vice president's memoir serves as another reminder of the press's tendency to ignore substance in favor of strategery

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When criticized for obsessing over the horse race aspect of American politics, thoughtful journalists concede that qualifications, platform, and governing style are more important. But good journalists defend horse race coverage too. Isn't a campaign itself newsworthy? Doesn't adeptness at politicking tell us something about how successful a candidate is likely to be if elected?

Overdone as it is, some horse race coverage is perfectly justified. But the item captured in the image above is yet another example of coverage that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Dick Cheney isn't ever going to run for office again. Nor is he an influential advocate in Election 2012. Perhaps releasing a memoir is going to improve his image. Alternatively, his new visibility could hurt it. But who cares? Rather than asking, "Will memoir improve Dick Cheney's image," -- or put another way, will he gain or lose ground in the apparently never ending contest for political popularity -- shouldn't we instead ask, "Should Dick Cheney's memoir improve his image?"

The latter question implies that the goal is an accurate grasp of Cheney's tenure -- that judging him fairly, for better or worse, helps us going forward. In contrast, the question Politico poses is agnostic about the image the former vice-president deserves. It invites responses like this one from political strategist Sabrina L. Schaeffer:

In politics, it's widely accepted that elite communication drives mass public opinion. Public opinion moves in response to the consistency and intensity of elite messages. And when elites are divided on an issue - or over a person, as the case here may be - the public tends to follow suit based on varying levels of public awareness and values. That's why if former Vice President Dick Cheney is interested in refashioning his public image, his memoir is necessary but not sufficient.
Instead of grappling with the deeds of a tremendously influential public official, we're grappling with the strategy he'll have to employ if he wants us to think of him differently. And to what end?

As Jay Rosen put it:

When journalists define politics as a game played by the insiders, their job description becomes: find out what the insiders are doing to "win" the game. Reveal those tactics to the public because then the public can... well, this is where it gets dodgy. As my friend Todd Gitlin once wrote, news coverage that treats politics as an insiders' game invites the public to become "cognoscenti of their own bamboozlement."
Covering the perception of a politician rather than the reality of his or her behavior can at least be defended, during a campaign, by noting that voter perceptions ultimately decide the outcome. But this story is confirmation that some in political press prefer to cover perception more than substance even when it has little or no bearing on anything but the "game" of politics itself.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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