Suppose you were interested in American politics and America's policy toward Iraq, but for quite some time you had not seen the major U.S. figures explaining themselves and reacting in real time.
(Why hadn't you seen them? Details below.*)
Suppose that, like most people in China, you had seen none of the countless Rep-Dem U.S. candidate debates of recent months (not on TV here); nor any of the live Petraeus-Crocker hearings (same problem); nor many on-the-stump clips of the major candidates' current presentations. Yes, you've read accounts of what everyone has said, and followed all the post-game analysis. But it's different to see the people.
Just now CNN International did run Bush's latest speech; plus the Larry King followup with candidates Obama, Giuliani, Edwards, and McCain; plus an Anderson Cooper followup from Iraq. So what do you notice if you haven't seen these people in action in a long time?
- Bush: no surprises. At this point you buy the argument or you don't. Simply as performance, this struck me as being in the higher end of Bush's range. No stumblings over words, none of the familiar, maddening habit of emphasizing "hard" words as if proud he had forced them out. Fewer of the insultingly oversimplified versions of his claims -- "we must fight them there so we don't fight them here." Instead, his arguments were phrased as if the Administration had some idea of what the main counter-argument would be. Bush was sobered but looked less rattled than he has in many of his previous "we are at a crucial moment" speeches about Iraq.
- Democrats: How long has John Edwards been sounding like this? Wow!
Of the three Democratic responses to the president in this hour on CNN -- Jack Reed, Barack Obama, plus Edwards -- Edwards was by a mile the most impressive. To apply the Man from Mars perspective: if you'd heard of none of these politicians before, based on this sequence you'd immediately assume that Edwards was the dominant one from either party (including the actual president).
Reed was fine, and it's always good to have a West Point grad and former Army officer in this role. But he was long on "we Democrats will offer a plan" as opposed to very crisp arguments about what was wrong with the Bush plan.
Those crisp arguments were all, and only, what Edwards presented. I don't have a transcript, but the gist was: we're patrolling a civil war, nothing matters without political progress, and that's not happening; it's shameful to keep making the link to 9/11 that does not exist, etc. Compared with the last time I'd seen Edwards handling foreign policy questions on live TV, he has come a very long way in knowledgeability and confidence..
From Obama, the opposite surprise: when did he start sounding like a Senator? So many vagued-up sentences and so little pith? Is this why people have been saying that he's not been doing so well in the debates?
And of course, I have no idea how Hillary Clinton would have sounded in this lineup.
- Republicans: Wow, in a different way.
John McCain: Sigh. He looks like an old man, and a man who has lost and knows it. Making no inside-politics assessment here: just reporting on snap reaction to the TV shots after not seeing him speak for nearly a year.
Rudy Giuliani: He looks like a man who is crazy. Making no clinical diagnosis here, just talking about his affect as it comes across on TV. I am sure this is partly just my unfamiliarity with his tic of stressing a point by opening his eyes so wide you can see the whites all the way around. He does that a lot, and at first glance it's odd. But beyond that is the eerie sense of how strongly he resembles the earlier, cockier G.W. Bush of two or three years ago.
That Bush - the one who hadn't yet lost the Congress, who hadn't yet seen Rove, Gonzales, Rumsfeld, et al driven from his inner council, who hadn't glimpsed the tragic possibilities for his dreams in Iraq -- combined certainty of bearing with sketchiness of factual information. That's just how Giuliani comes across if you haven't seen him for a long time. Great certainty about "staying on the offense" against terrorism; zero displayed knowledge of what that means or indeed what he was talking about at all. Giuliani added to this sloganeering impression with his repeated invocations of "General Petraeus" as the answer to all problems, notwithstanding Petraeus's deliberate narrowing of his claimed expertise to the progress of his own mission, not the largest strategic questions about Iraq.
- CNN: They can't help themselves. In closing the program, Larry King teases tomorrow's show on Ramification #64,387 of the O.J. Simpson case (or, as Larry himself thinks of it, The Gift That Keeps On Giving). Then says that Anderson Cooper, in addition to this tedious life-from-Baghdad stuff, will be reporting on a Mormon polygamy case. Ah cable.
On the other hand: CNN's Michael Ware joins John Edwards as the star of the night. As noted recently here and here, on a show earlier this week Ware had (surprisingly) followed what is apparently the new CNN diktat, in using the plain term "al Qaeda" to refer to "al Qaeda in Iraq" and Iraqi insurgents more generally. But this evening, Ware did not use that term (that I noticed) -- and responded to President Bush's claims in a withering, rapid-fire, highly-detailed, and devastating way.
Remember when Anderson Cooper made his break to the big time, thanks largely to his genuinely-outrage-seeming, borderline-impolite questioning of federal officials about Hurricane Katrina? "Brownie" and others would say: we're doing our best. Anderson Cooper (and others) would say: what the hell are you talking about?? There are bodies floating down the street!
That was Michael Ware's approach to the claims in Bush's speech. Is Iraq returning to normal life? Oh, sure, if normal means living in the dark most of the time, huddling for fear of being shot, etc etc etc. There are moments in journalism that can't be faked, when reporters on the ground are so disgusted by what they hear from remote official spokesmen that they just can't contain themselves. That was Ware's reaction this evening, and in a way it was the most important response to the speech.
* Yeah, yeah, the world is flat and everything -- but in fact TV coverage is still sharply different country by country. It separates the world into distinct national-cultural realms, based on the ongoing stories that are always in the news, the "big" events that are carried live or not, the shared references to characters in dramas, the people considered "famous" who wouldn't draw a second glance in other countries etc. The CNN and BBC signals that can be found in hotel rooms even in remote locations are highly misleading indicators of how globalized TV coverage actually is. The locals don't spend that much time with them -- in a Chinese office, home, or restaurant I've never once seen the TV turned to a foreign station -- and even when they do, what's on CNN International is very different from CNN's main US feed.