Politics' Fraility in Obama Blowback

Politics' Fraility in Obama Blowback

By Jon Ralston - August 8, 2008

I was unaware until this week that I possess a lisp and am a "satanic hack" and a "racist punk."

And then the real calumny began. I was labeled -- hold your breath, dear readers -- a "conservative political analyst" and a "conservative tool."

Such is the intelligence of the commentary flowing in the aftermath of a brief (five minutes) but far-reaching interview I conducted Tuesday on television with presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama (see YouTube to right). The reaction has stripped bare all that is wrong with politics in this country -- and to an extent, journalism, too -- as an exchange between an aggressive interviewer and a dexterous subject is treated as a spectacle with a Rashomon effect, viewed differently depending on your partisan-colored glasses.

You couldn't surf into the political blogosphere during the 24 hours following the satellite interview on KLAS-TV, Channel 8, without coming upon the equally misplaced vitriol from the left and hosannas from the right. From nonpartisan sites such as MSNBC's and Politico's to a vast array of partisan URLs to Rush Limbaugh and Hannity and Colmes, the sensation was both shocking and depressing.

The interview was nothing unusual for those who have seen "Face to Face." I asked pointed questions, often designed to provoke a revealing answer, sometimes dripping with sarcasm or leavened by humor. Obama handled it deftly, brushing aside my premises, needling me as a "John McCain proxy" and still managing to disgorge his energy policy talking points.

Some viewers saw it that way. But others -- too many others -- were driven to extremes, revealing the state of play in this contentious White House race and the undercurrent of ugliness coursing through the body politic.

Democrats are so desperate for a return to power and so disbelieving that Obama is not crushing McCain that anything other than deification is treated as blasphemy. Hence, the liberal bloggers assume I am a right-wing mouthpiece -- cue the laugh track, locals -- and continue to affix unmentionable monikers while Obamaites react as Maria Cardona did on "Hannity and Colmes," seemingly astonished that I would dare to interrupt Obama when I didn't think he was giving a straight answer. If Obama can't handle lil ol' me by now, my dear Democrats, I wonder how he would fare with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Meanwhile, the Republicans are so eager to find an outlet for the hatred they had hoped to vent on Hillary Clinton that they now sound like Clinton once did, sneering at Obama as "The Messiah" and insisting it is heretical for any journalist to ask him a tough question. Thanks to the reach of Limbaugh, I have been deluged with calls and e-mails making me sound like the second coming of Tim Russert -- come to think of it, perhaps they should be e-mailing and calling NBC News.

This kind of political myopia is utterly unproductive and polarizing. There is simply no ability or effort to see the other side.

Democrats are quick to call someone a McCain sympathizer if questions are raised about Obama's relative inexperience (a state senator less than four years ago running for president!). And Republicans are happy to tar someone as captivated by the Obama cult of personality if questions are asked about McCain's desperate attacks on Obama's popularity (a Britney and Paris ad!).

The blogosphere often exacerbates this phenomenon. Many bloggers -- although few posters -- provide excellent, thoughtful information, often in an entertaining way. But too often, too many are more interested in seething at The Enemy, which can be clever and colorful but is more often just nasty.

Mainstream journalists also are not always helpful with what would make Russert spin in his grave -- the tendency of interviewers not to prepare and to simply allow the subject to say what he or she wants to say, illuminating very little.

Thus the debate over most serious topics is marginalized by candidates trying to spin their positions and journalists who don't try to pierce them. Obama should have to explain why he switched his positions on drilling and tapping the petroleum reserve just as McCain should be held to account on why he makes drilling sound like a panacea as he takes millions from Big Oil.

But it's much easier for candidates, their followers and the Fourth Estate to take the easy way out, with name-calling and superficiality. Which reminds me -- I can't seem to remember where I am supposed to be Thursday -- at my KKK meeting or on the McCain campaign conference call.

This piece first appeared in the Las Vegas Sun.

Jon Ralston

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