I doubt that I will ever actually read Double Down, the new chronicle of the 2012 presidential race by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann.
The book, released last week, has accrued enormous press coverage in recent days, swiftly becoming the “official” account of the proverbial horse race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, thanks to a peanut gallery of firsthand accountants who dish on the personalities involved in a presidential election that, if not our country’s most exciting, was nonetheless (as the joke goes) certainly the most recent.
Political junkie that I am, I have naturally skimmed the excerpts from the tome published in the New York Times and TIME and the various analyses that have followed about the meaning of the 2012 race in the context of U.S. history and, of course, the eventual campaign of 2016.
But that is as far as I wish to go.
I do not require every last detail about what Obama and Romney were doing and thinking at every moment of their contest for the Oval Office.
I did not need to know—as I now do—that Romney’s vice presidential vetting committee codenamed their operation “Goldfish” and referred to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie as “Pufferfish” and Florida Senator Marco Rubio as “Pescado.”
Nor, frankly, do I much care about the minutiae of the Obama administration’s “poll testing” about whether to replace Vice President Joe Biden with Hillary Clinton. For Pete’s sake, any self-respecting incumbent is going to explore every available avenue for success, and Obama is no different. There is nothing especially groundbreaking about this so-called scoop, and none of these disclosures means much in the broad sweep of history.
Yet I marinate in this piffle all the same, and will probably continue so long as it keeps popping up on my news feed.
I don’t want to, but I do. I just can’t help myself. I’m a junkie, and this is my junk food.
Mind you, political junk food should not be confused with political guilty pleasures. There is a distinction between the two that, while narrow, is worth pointing out.
A guilty pleasure is something that is dismissed in polite society as vulgar and trivial, but might nonetheless contain some redeeming value. Take, for instance, my occasional pastime of eating an entire jar of peanut butter with a spoon at 2 o’clock in the morning: No, it’s not something I could get away with in public, but hey, think of all the protein!
Per contra, junk food is, well, junk. It’s pure sugar and fat, it does nothing for you in the long run, you consume it in a moment of weakness and feel disgusted with yourself a few minutes later. Rather than peanut butter, picture killing a whole jar of Nutella. (You know who you are.)
So how might we differentiate these two concepts in the worlds of government and politics?
I am extremely tempted to argue that the entire experience of following a political campaign constitutes a guilty pleasure, with most of its constituent parts nothing but pure junk—sparkly distractions yielding heat but no light. The boring legislative sausage-making that (sometimes) occurs between elections—that’s the part that matters.
Halperin and Heilemann have defended Double Down against the inevitable charges of gossip-mongering by asserting that all of its goodies were subject to rigorous cross-checking, and that any assertions that could not be verified, no matter how titillating, remained on the cutting room floor. In short, they have committed journalism, not tabloid hackery.
Here’s a thought: They have actually committed both simultaneously, and there’s your problem. In today’s environment, where personality not only trumps substance but is considered substantive itself, any stray piece of dirt about a political figure, no matter how inconsequential, is considered axiomatically newsworthy, provided that it is obtained in a journalistically valid manner.
My plea to the peddlers of this troubling tendency: Knock it off.
Don’t elevate the status of disposable schoolyard chatter into the realm of respectability. Don’t conflate valuable information with pure muck. Learn to discriminate between the two, for many of your readers cannot, but they jolly well should.
By no means do I advocate an end to all frivolity in political reporting, just as I wouldn’t dream of purging the supermarket shelves of all candy and chocolate. Such trifles will always have a place in our society—namely, to provide a mental release from the weight of the serious business of life.
All I ask is that we recognize our depraved desserts for what they are, and not pretend they are wholesome and nutritious.
We can allow ourselves the occasional indulgence, but let’s not make every day Halloween.