In Defense of the Freak Show

John Harris and Jim Vandehei do a fine job of demolishing one narrative about the Debate That Everyone Hated last week in Philadelphia - namely, the notion that there was something particularly unfair to Barack Obama about the line of questioning the moderators took. But the larger critique - embodied in posts like this one, from Andrew - isn't that the debate was unfair to Obama; it's that it was unfair to the viewing public. According to this line of argument, in an election as important as this one (though really in any Presidential election, presumably), it's a dereliction of duty for the press to focus on issues that don't relate directly to policy questions - to obsess over Obama's relationship to Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers, for instance, or his decision not to wear a flag pin, or his comments about working-class voters, when there are serious matters like war and peace, health care and the environment, the deficit and the economy that deserve to be debated.

One possible response to this critique was ventured by David Brooks, on the night of the debate. He argued that reporters have an obligation to ask about the "freak show" issues - as Harris and Mark Halperin famously dubbed them - because voters care about them.

I understand the complaints, but I thought the questions were excellent. The journalist’s job is to make politicians uncomfortable, to explore evasions, contradictions and vulnerabilities. Almost every question tonight did that. The candidates each looked foolish at times, but that’s their own fault.

We may not like it, but issues like Jeremiah Wright, flag lapels and the Tuzla airport will be important in the fall. Remember how George H.W. Bush toured flag factories to expose Michael Dukakis. It’s legitimate to see how the candidates will respond to these sorts of symbolic issues.

I take his point, but I think it's worth mounting a more vigorous defense of talking about issues like the Obama-Wright connection or Hillary’s fibs about Tuzla or even the essentially absurd flag-on-the-lapel controversy. I don't think these topics matter just because they’re "symbolic"; I think they matter because they’re personal, because they tell us something (or seem to tell us something) about the psychology of the person we're being asked to vote for. Now, obviously the mainstream press tends to overplay the personal issues, because they make for better theater and higher ratings and all the rest, and because television hosts, in particular, seem to live in terror of finding themselves too deep in the policy weeds. And just as obviously, these issues make easy fodder for partisan attacks, which is why they're so often whipped up by the noise machines of the right and (increasingly) the left. But that doesn't mean that they don't or shouldn't matter.

Why do they matter? Well, because picking a man (or woman) to hold the office of the Presidency is an awesome responsibility: By voting to elevate Barack Obama or John McCain or anyone to the White House, you’re voting to vest an immense amount of responsibility in a single individual; indeed, you're essentially voting to grant them the sort of powers that the monarchs of old could only dream about. Yes, of course, Presidents are restrained by Congress and the Courts and the Constitution (well, sometimes), but there’s still a very real sense in which we’re electing a temporary king. And what was true in the court of European rulers way back when is likewise true for modern American Presidents: The personal is political. By this I mean that when we elect a new chief executive, we aren’t just electing to live with their policy positions. We’re deciding to live with their personalities – their sexual appetites and Daddy issues, their spouses and their friends, their religious beliefs and their psychodramas – for four or eight long years. (Or more, in our dynastic age, since we’ve been in Bushworld since 1988, and Clintonland since ’92.)

Now of course if it’s sometimes hard to tell how a candidate will govern from his policy positions (does anyone want to hazard a guess about how Obama and Clinton will actually handle the mess in Iraq?), it’s even tougher to tell exactly how a candidate’s personality and choice of friends and all the rest will effect his governance. But this doesn't mean that we can just bracket anything that isn't self-evidently "substantive" and that partakes of "the boomer culture wars" as irrelevant to the campaign. We're coming off a Presidency, after all, which has inspired Entire books arguing, not-implausibly, that George W. Bush's tangled relationship with his father and family had more to do with how he ended up running American foreign policy than anything he said on the campaign trail against McCain and Al Gore. And that's just the most obvious recent example. Take much smaller "freak show" issues from the 2000 campaign, like Bush's controversial speech at Bob Jones University, or his famous inability to pass a pop quiz on the names of world leaders. At the time, both were dismissed by Republicans as trumped-up issues, just as today's Obamaphiles dismiss most of the controversies that came up in last week's debate. But if you were a voter or pundit trying to judge whether Bush would attempt to integrate conservative Christians into his administration, or keep them at arm's length as his father did (and Bob Dole presumably would have), the contrast between Dubya's BJU appearance and John McCain's "agents of intolerance" riff looks pretty telling in hindsight. And I'm sure you can think of your own examples of moments from the Bush Presidency that make that silly, meaningless stunt of a pop quiz look, well, at least mildly relevant to his governance.

Or cast your mind further back, to 1992, and consider something as seemingly insubstantial as the controversy over Bill Clinton's draft-dodging - or something less substantial still, like the mini-controversy over Hillary (Rodham) Clinton's now-she-uses-it, now-she-doesn't approach to keeping, or not keeping, her maiden name. I think you can make a pretty strong case that Clinton's peculiarly Boomerish relationship to the military brass - the mix of suspicion, condescension and ignorance on both sides - had a more decisive impact on American foreign policy in the 1990s than, say, what Clinton-the-candidate said about China policy in the run-up to the '92 vote. And while there's a sense, obviously, in which nothing could be further from the actual work of governing than the question of whether the First Lady of the United States has her husband's last name, in hindsight I think that the mix of echt-feminist principle and political opportunism that Hillary displayed in her changing choice of last and middle names probably told us as much about her approach to politics than most of the speeches she gave in the course of the campaign against George H.W. Bush.

I could go on, but you get the point. Of course it's entirely possible that all the furor over Wright or "bittergate" or Tuzla or what-have-you will look pointless from the vantage point of 2016 ot 2020. But it's also entirely possible that the arguments Clinton and Obama have been having other health care or NAFTA or Iraq policy will look pointless from the vantage of 2009, let alone a decade from now. And to reverse Andrew's dictum, I would say that precisely because the stakes are so high in Presidential elections, the media has a responsibility to talk about everything - personality as well as policy, gaffes as well as position papers, a candidate's friends and family as well as his advisers. We need to know what we're getting into.