Nothing to See Here

The problem isn’t that Hillary’s burrito bowl doesn’t matter.  The problem is that it does.

Oh, it certainly shouldn’t be anybody’s concern that Hillary Clinton popped into a Chipotle somewhere along her magical mystery tour through the Midwest last week.  Contrary to popular belief, presidential candidates do occasionally eat lunch.  It’s not an inherently newsworthy event.

In fact, you’d need to be more or less clinically insane to be so invested in a potential president—19 months before the election—that you wonder where (and what) they ate this week.  Or ever.

Many words leap to mind.  One of them is “stalker.”

But, of course, that’s what our country’s venerable press corps spent its time doing in the opening days of the Hillary Clinton campaign.

From the moment the former secretary of state announced her candidacy in a YouTube video on April 12, a gaggle of reporters raced to her roving campaign headquarters—a Chevy Explorer named Scooby—and they’ve been holding her road trip under a microscope ever since.

When word came that Clinton had patronized a Chipotle without anyone noticing, the media couldn’t let it go.  Over the next several days, no stone of Burritogate was left unturned:  What Clinton ordered, whether she left anything in the tip jar, why she was there incognito and didn’t mingle with other customers.

This is probably the moment for us to wryly observe that if the media had been as maniacally vigilant about the Iraq War as they are about a former senator’s dining habits, the last dozen-odd years of Middle East calamities might have been avoided.  But that’s a cliché for another day.

The fact, in any case, is that the press is treating this early phase of the 2016 election pretty much as you’d expect:  By clinging onto every last microscopic detail of the two parties’ respective contenders and wringing as much meaning out of them as they can.

At bottom, this is the result of two simultaneous—and seemingly unavoidable—conditions.  First, the reporters in question apparently only exist in order to cover these sorts of things.  Because, you know, it’s not like there’s anything else happening in America that might provide a better use of their time.

And second, since the first primary ballots of the 2016 race won’t be cast for another nine months, they really have no choice but to cover literally anything the candidates do.  Thus far, Clinton is the only active campaigner on the Democratic side, so there you have it.

The logic of it, however depressing, seems airtight.

It’s not.  There is a choice involved here, both for journalists and for us:  The choice to look away.  To ignore everything to do with the 2016 election until—oh, I don’t know—the year 2016.  To wait patiently until something interesting happens, rather than trying to create interest out of nothing.

We could allow ourselves a scenario—if we so chose—in which presidential aspirants would go on their whistle stop tours of Iowa and New Hampshire for years on end, but without reporters and cameras breathing down their necks 24 hours a day.  Grant the good residents of these early primary states the attention of the candidates, but not of the entire country.  Really, what do the rest of us care?

There are those—particularly on the interwebs—who will insist to the last that early nuggets from the campaign trail can serve as insights into a candidate’s character and managerial style, and are therefore worth covering and commenting upon.

As much as I would love to dismiss this theory outright as a load of hooey—political pop psychology run amok—I am in the unfortunate position of agreeing with it.  At least some of the time.

For instance, it became clear in the early days of John McCain’s first run that his scrappy, welcoming attitude toward the press would make him an uncommonly congenial and entertaining nominee (a fact that, admittedly, didn’t quite hold the second time).  Conversely, I think Rand Paul’s already lengthy history of arrogance and condescension toward reporters asking him simple questions should rightly give pause to anyone who thinks it’s a good idea to make this guy America’s chief diplomat to the world.

I’m not convinced, however, that it requires two full years of coverage for the truth about these people to come out.  Indeed, I am as certain as I can be that a person who completely tunes out all “news” about the 2016 election from now until, say, next February will be no less informed of its essentials than someone watching The Rachel Maddow Show every night between now and then.

I should add that, so long as reporters continue hounding candidates day and night, I have no particular problem with viewers at home following it as pure, disposable entertainment.

Just don’t pretend that it’s anything else.

Personally, I think it’s kind of hilarious that Hillary Clinton has named her campaign van Scooby.  It’s goofy, whimsical and endearing—and possibly a latent grab for the stoner vote, considering whom it’s named after.

But I did not need to know that.  It’s not important, and it reveals nothing relevant about Clinton that I won’t learn through debates, speeches and actual primaries.

More to the point, I did not need a professional journalist to tell me the van’s name, knowing what that journalist might have learned and written about instead.

The key in covering a round-the-clock event that goes on forever is knowing how to distinguish the things that matter from the things that don’t.  When reporters treat everything equally—as if where a candidate eats lunch is just as important as what he or she thinks about climate change—they license voters to do the same thing, leading to a campaign that is dangerously trivial.

The trouble, you see, is that talking about a trip to Chipotle is a lot more fun than talking about, say, ISIS.  Given the choice, there isn’t one of us who wouldn’t secretly (if not openly) prefer the former, even though we know the latter is infinitely more consequential and pertinent to being president of the United States.

Which means that we can’t be given the choice.

We can’t have our laziest instincts accommodated by being told that following the most inane details of a presidential campaign makes us informed citizens.  It doesn’t.  It just makes us voyeurs and turns our candidates into exhibitionists.  To elevate irrelevant pablum to a level of respectability is to enable both us and them into being our worst possible selves.

As we well know, the cultural erosion this practice creates does not end with the campaign.  Think about how many precious TV hours and newspaper columns have been expended on the exploits of the first family, or on the president’s March Madness bracket.  Or the fact that the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is still a thing.

The human need for trivia is plainly innate and inescapable—hence the proliferation of reality TV, People and the National Football League.

However, government and politics are supposed to exist outside the world of superficiality, not least because the future of the republic depends upon them.

Is it too much to ask that we take this one aspect of American life seriously?

If our press corps didn’t spend days on Hillary Clinton’s burrito runs and the like, would we really be unable the handle the stuff that really matters?

Don’t answer that.

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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.