Many pundits are worried about the delay in finding out who will become the next occupant of the Oval Office. “That’s probably the most crippling blow I’ve ever seen to a new president,” David Gergen lamented on national television (CNN, 11/25/00); whoever the next chief executive turns out to be, he has “been denied or robbed of the romance that we have that we associate with the selection of a new president, the crowning of a new president.”
For decades, Gergen has spun through the revolving door between government and media elites, working as an image-crafter for presidents of both major parties and as a commentator for major news organizations. He understands the vital dynamics of propaganda. So it’s no surprise that Gergen sounded distraught when he declared: “There’s always been an anointment process as we lift that figure up and put him up on a pedestal. There’s no pedestal with this election.”
Appearing with Gergen on CNN, a reporter for Time was quick to add: “I think David’s absolutely right that, you know, at the magazine and other news outlets we’re so used to this being a honeymoon period, roll out the red carpet, get into the biography, let’s look at who’s this next great president.”
Indeed. It’s a hoary media ritual, so deeply ingrained that journalists don’t seem the least bit embarrassed when they use fawning terms like “romance,” “put him up on a pedestal” and “roll out the red carpet” to describe their usual approach. As a matter of time-honored routine, from early November to January 20, the president-elect basks in the mythic lights of intense media glory.
A dozen years ago, a dazzling blaze of deification accompanied George Bush the elder as he moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. On inauguration day, few eyebrows were raised when the New York Times (1/20/89) strained to set the proper tone on its front page. “George Bush embodies the patrician ideal of responsibility begotten by privilege,” reporter R.W. Apple Jr. wrote, an “American tradition reaching back through the many presidents more at home in mansions than log cabins, from Washington of Mount Vernon to Jefferson of Monticello to Roosevelt of Hyde Park.”
Days later, in the nation’s largest-circulation news magazine, Time’s Michael Kramer (1/30/89) was slinging the sanitized manure with the best as he narrated the inaugural moments for posterity: “Kind words. Gentle words. Nothing flashy or particularly memorable. Just good, plain talk from the heart.” And, as if to reassure Americans that no impostor had reached the throne, Kramer explained: “Perhaps it was only the trappings, but George Bush finally looked presidential.”
Ordinarily, the transition involves a media process by which Americans are encouraged to believe that the dubious fellow becoming president has swiftly ascended to historic heavens. The rocketing rhetoric often overheats.
When voters elected a new president in 1992, numerous media outlets seized on fabulous prophesy in footage of 16-year-old Bill Clinton shaking hands with President John Kennedy on a sun-drenched White House lawn. Newsweek (11/12/92) made ecstatic noises about “JFK reaching across the years to a boy he did not know—and to whom the torch of leadership now passes in an emphatic statement of America’s desire for change.”
After 10 weeks of obsequious blather in mainstream news outlets, the president-elect has usually been able to count on a profuse overflow of media adulation saturating his inauguration. But this time around, frustration grew among journalists who yearned to tell fanciful tales and put out political versions of Hallmark cards. Post-election events continued to preempt the standard unctuous reporting.
In the next couple of months, the amount of syrupy media swill about the incoming president’s greatness is apt to be significantly curtailed. Schlockmeisters are wringing their hands—but the rest of us ought to applaud.
“Our presidents at their inaugurals . . . make us the dupes of our hopes,” the incisive journalist I.F. Stone wrote in early 1969 (Polemics and Prophecies). Today, as in previous decades, countless reporters and commentators are eager to assist in the duping. But right now the task looks difficult.
Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist; his latest book is The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media. A version of this column appeared in the San Francisco Examiner (12/5/00) and other newspapers.