A weekly habit of mine is watching This Week with George Stephanapolos on ABC. My sons and I used to watch it when they were living at home, and we always snarkily referred to it as Snuffleupagus, all the funnier because Snuffleupagus was Big Bird’s kinda dim huge hairy elephant friend, and George Stephanapolous is short and smart and dapper. It airs while I’m in Church, but I figure that’s why the Good Lord invented the DVR, so I can watch This Week at my leisure. And also baseball.
It used to be This Week with David Brinkley; it was a marvelous show back then. A TV show reflects the personality and personality of its host, and Brinkley was a cynical, sardonic American treasure, endlessly amused with the vagaries of American politics, and always ready with some wry comment thereupon. It was his show until 1996, when he retired, at which point I stopped watching for awhile. Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts co-hosted, and the show lost its distinctive voice and perspective; became just another Sunday morning political talk show.
Stephanapolous became the host in 2002, and the show got good again, took on his personality. He was Bill Clinton’s communications director during his Presidential run in 1992, and subsequently in Clinton’s first term; the West Wing character, Toby Ziegler, was based on him; the communications director with an interest in policy. Stephanapolous then moved to ABC News. He’s a co-host on Good Morning America, and he’s their chief political correspondent.
Although he was a visible and important Clinton staffer, he’s clearly a political junky’s political junky; he loves the horse race, and he’s lost interest in policy, and he’s a great interviewer,sort of. What I mean by that is this: he’s there to be lied to. The guests on his show are there to spin. They’re on his show to put the best face on their candidate’s prospects and performance. And Snuffleupagus is there to let them. He asks tough questions, kind of; he’ll look at them skeptically and say things like “you really think this was a good week for Governor Romney?”, but then when the guest says, preposterously, “this was the best week of our campaign,” The Snufs will sort of shrug, like, “all right, then.” Jon Stewart’s a much better interviewer, of course, because he’s not a professional, he’s an amateur, a comedian who cares about about policy, and he wants to engage in a conversation about policy; he’ll even debate his guests, offer his own opinions. Snuffles would consider that unprofessional. His pose is relentlessly neutral, non-partisan, the ultimate objective observer.
Which means that This Week is really more a game show than anything. The guests are there to spin, the host is there to challenge them to spin more effectively, and then a round-table discussion follows, which is there to keep score. Here’s the difference: the Romney budget plan is clearly preposterous, with massive tax cuts, no specifics on how to pay for them, and absolutely nothing in the plan that will have any stimulative effect, or that will to any degree whatsoever promote job growth. Rachel Maddow’s show’s approach is to just rip it apart, but in an aggressively partisan way. Jon Stewart’s approach is to mock the budget humorously. This Week, however, wants to evaluate whether that budget proposal will or will not help Romney win the election. The central question becomes, ‘is Romney selling it?’
It’s Beltway wisdom distilled into a single, very entertaining hour, as completely divorced from reality as it’s possible for politics to get. But I’m the sort of political junky that digs this kind of nonsense.
For about a year, when The Snuff-meister got the GMA gig, it was This Week with Christiane Amanpour. She’s one of the great international reporters, way too good at her actual job to host This Week. She’d do a piece about, I don’t know, prospects for peace in the Middle East, and she’d want to talk about Palestine and Israel and a two state solution, and her guests would be all about ‘how will this affect the Presidential election?’ and she’d nod politely, but she clearly thought that the most trivial and unimportant angle the story could possibly have. Which, of course, it is. So after a year, ABC gave the show back to Snuffleupagus, who is, thankfully, exactly the right kind of shallow.
So this week on This Week, the interview subjects were Reince Priebus, chair of the Republican National Committee, and David Axelrod, who was Obama’s campaign manager in ’08. The big story of the week was this leaked video of a Mitt Romney talk at a fundraiser, in which he said that 47% of the electorate wouldn’t vote for him anyway, because they didn’t pay federal income tax, which meant they were moochers and deadbeats who could never be persuaded to take responsibility for their own lives and would therefore never accept the Republican message of self-reliance and rugged individuality–they’d all vote Obama, because they just want handouts from government. (I’m paraphrasing a bit). Horrible horrible week for Romney–his ‘Dukakis in a tank’ moment, possibly. So Reince Priebus (and has there ever been a better Bond villain name, like smushing together ‘rancid’ and ‘prince’ and ‘writhe’ and other horrible words) was spinning this as a really good week for Romney, a week of message-focusing, and then David Axelrod, who looks like the new manager for Crosby Stills and Nash, sort of humbly crowed about how Romney’s horrible terrible no good very bad week put the Senate back in play for Dems. It was all very entertaining. Then came the Roundtable.
The Roundtable is, like twenty five minutes in which five or six guests, usually evenly divided between Republicans, Democrats, and Independent Journalists, spar, spin the spinners. Usually George Will is on, and gets the first question. George Will is a Republican icon, quick with an obscure and irrelevant bit of historical erudition, followed by some vintage Republican harrumphing. (When Paul Krugman is on, which isn’t often, you can tell how much Will doesn’t like it, because Will likes to think he knows a lot about economics, while Krugman actually does. And there’s nothing Will hates more than looking foolish.) I do sort of like Will, though, because he’s a massive baseball fan. And he’s usually balanced by Donna Brazile, who I adore, for her compassion, good humor, and homespun charm.
This last week, though, neither Will nor Donna were on. Instead the guests were Robert Reich, former Clinton cabinet member turned editorialist, Republican strategist Nicole Wallace, former Obama staff member Melody Barnes, Jorge Ramos, a journalist from Univision, and vampire Ann Coulter, representing the undead.
Wallace and Barnes were both terrific guests, smart, articulate sensible women who I enjoyed listening to. Ramos was great too; he’d had a week where he’d interviewed both President Obama and Governor Romney, and had a lot of interesting things to say about Hispanic voters, and their concerns and issues. Reich always has this world-weary, saddened-by-the-perfidy-of-Republicans demeanor that plays well on camera–I like his column, and he’s another guy who actually does know something about economics. And then there was Ann Coulter.
It’s interesting, I’m a Democrat, but Nicole Wallace, on the show as a Republican strategist had a great perspective on events, and I enjoyed listening to her. I even found myself persuaded by her a couple of times when I didn’t think I would be. She seemed reasonable, thoughtful, smart. But Ann Coulter, every time she opened her mouth, I wanted to throw something heavy at my TV set. (I know, like it’s the TV’s fault). She was there to promote her latest ‘liberals torture kittens’ book, and she kept grinning madly at the camera.
She didn’t come across as angry. She does sometimes, but not this time. She seemed, as always, crazy–something about her eyes. But she just, I don’t know, epitomizes everything awful about American politics nowadays. So relentlessly partisan and mean-spirited and vile.
She’s sort of authoress of a meme; the Republican Fox News blonde hottie meme. With Gretchen Carlson and Jill Dobson and Ainsley Earheart and Courtney Friel and . . . All short skirts and low cut tops and furiously anti-Obama views. There’s a reason Fox News has high ratings among elderly white men. And I sort of think Ann Coulter started it all. She’s the Fox News version of Paris Hilton, I think.
Usually, I tune her out. Literally, hit the mute button when she speaks. But this week’s This Week, I listened as respectfully as its possible to listen to Ann Coulter. Wondering about her huge head-bobbing grin, and if she’d taken her meds before the show, or was going to wait ’til it was over.
Anyway, This Week is the best answer to the question: ‘What’s wrong with American politics.’ It’s the most entertaining weekly visit to the Sixth Ring of Hell that I know. Really smart people, talking pure politics, with only the most passing reference to, you know, governance and policy, and fixing our nation’s problems. Pure horse race, pure ‘who’s up in the polls and what does that ad buy mean for Ohio and Florida.’ It’s like these really smart people who may be aware that Americans hate Congress and are turned off by political ads, but find it sort of baffling. It’s a show about people who look at your average political TV ad like movie critics look at a movie–hmm, nice imagery, interesting graphics–not noticing that the content of the ad is awful, it’s moronic, it’s insulting. Judging political effectiveness, not noticing that most Americans hate all those ads, from either party, like we hate getting shingles.
Toby Ziegler would be appalled.