Junk Food

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.

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Sex, Lies and Politics

In the life of an observer of politics and government, nothing is quite so gratifying as having long-held suspicions about a particular figure—repeatedly denied by that figure—be confirmed as 100 percent true.  In a world of shady wheeling and dealing, in which one is compelled to question all things at all times, it is reassuring to discover that, at least this once, you are not crazy.

The Obama administration had already been suffering considerable whiplash from this phenomenon from the events of the past week—in particular, the disclosure that the NSA had tapped the German chancellor’s cell phone, and that President Obama’s longstanding promise, “If you like your health care plan, you can keep it,” was a flat-out lie.

But then on Friday came the icing on the revelatory cake:  Excerpts obtained by the New York Times from a forthcoming book, Double Down, which recounts the 2012 presidential race from behind the not-quite-iron curtain.

Written by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, the dynamic duo behind the 2008 campaign chronicle Game Change, the new book reportedly contains all manner of juicy tidbits to intrigue and/or outrage anyone with even a passing interest in presidential politics.

Chief among these news flashes—that is, the one receiving the most copy—is the Obama team’s flirtation with replacing Joe Biden with Hillary Clinton on the 2012 Democratic ticket, of which there were indeed whisperings by reporters (and denials by the administration) at the time.

Far more compelling to this blogger, however, is the all-but-passing reference much deeper into the Times story to Obama’s annoyance with Biden for spontaneously declaring his support for gay marriage on NBC in the spring of 2012, thereby “pre-empting the president’s own poll-tested plans to announce what the book indicates was a position he had held as early as 2004.”

Say what?

You mean to suggest the president who unequivocally asserted that, to him, marriage is only between a man and a woman during his Senate run in 2004 and first presidential run in 2008 was, in fact, a secret supporter of same-sex unions all along?

Knock me over with a feather.

The truth is, there is nothing at all surprising about this apparent acknowledgment that the president’s so-called “evolution” on the question of marriage rights during his first term was complete nonsense.  He was in favor of it the whole time.

How do I know this?  Because I can read.

Never mind 2004.  It was in February 1996 when Obama, then an Illinois State Senate candidate, wrote in a questionnaire, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.”

Doesn’t get much clearer than that, does it?

What this always meant, when combined with his later opposition to the same, is that either he was lying in 1996, he was lying in 2004 and thereafter, or he was the only person in America who became less accepting of gay marriage during that period.

Now that we know, thanks to Halperin’s and Heilemann’s reportage, that scenario No. 2 is the correct one, we can return to the well-trod set of questions on this subject with a newfound sense of urgency and, dare I say, anger.

To wit:  If he really did support the idea of gay marriage in 2004, why in holy heck did he drag his feet for a full eight years before finally saying so?

I know, I know:  Political pragmatism demanded it.  Advocating for gay marriage in 2004 was nowhere near as trendy as it is today—far less than half the country was in favor—and Obama, along with most other Democrats, was not prepared to gamble his entire career on this single issue.

Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where we didn’t need to keep telling ourselves this?  Where so-called “audacious” figures like Obama didn’t feel the need to suppress views that might be unpopular, and instead ran the risk of trying to make them popular through good old-fashioned politicking?

But of course we do have such principled gadflies in our system.  They have names like Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich and Ralph Nader.  They run for president all the time, and those who share their views are given every possible opportunity to elevate them to higher office.

What we really need, then, is a collection of folks with the intellectual courage of a Kucinich combined with the persuasive bravado of a Clinton.  People with the nerve to lead on a supposedly radioactive issue without worrying that others won’t follow.

Perhaps they will.  You never know until you try.