High school confidential

Published 3:32 pm Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Although the U.S. Constitution mandates a presidential election two years hence, nothing compels citizens to obsess about it until that blessed day. As I write, exactly 761 days remain in the lamentable reign of George the Incompetent, according to my electronic Bush Countdown Calendar. Turning what CNN bills as the “Race to 2008” into a long-running reality-TV series, however, threatens to make them seem interminable.

In the aftermath of a bruising 2006 campaign, most Americans would welcome a break from the incessant buzz and clamor of electoral politics. The new Democratic Congress hasn’t yet been sworn in. How can the nation govern itself during a permanent campaign? We’re at least two Super Bowls, a couple of World Series, a bunch of new “Sopranos” episodes and several Britney Spears husbands away from the deciding moment. Can’t we please give it a rest?

Evidently not. Nor is it only cable-TV that’s to blame. “The Race Is On,” trumpets Newsweek’s cover story. The race between Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton, that is, two Democrats who haven’t declared their candidacies.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Newsweek’s story, written by Jonathan Alter, focuses largely on Clinton’s gender and Obama’s race, the kind of “hot-button” coverage editors hope will stimulate newsstand sales. As Alter observes cogently, “The record of white males in high places has not exactly been stellar of late, and voters might be in the mood to try something historic and possibly redemptive.”

But it’s less the fact of the premature coverage than its terms that are so objectionable. The selfsame media co-hort that’s made a farce of the last several presidential elections has begun to fictionalize the contest according to its own adolescent preoccupations: looks, personality quirks, fashion preferences, sex appeal and that perennial favorite “authenticity.”

Like the others, this last category’s so popular because it’s entirely subjective, lending enormous power to pundits who wield it as a weapon. Already, the Washington Post’s Lynne Duke tells us “the national fascination with the Clintons and their marriage will be central to the race.”

So which will it be? “Hillary the martyr. Hillary the steadfast, for sticking with her man. Hillary as Machiavelli, accepting marital humiliation as the price of power.”

Of course, it’s not the reporter herself who finds these dopey, unanswerable questions fascinating. Despite expending close to 2,500 words dredging up rumors and playing amateur psychoanalyst, Duke blames prurient public curiosity and “the media industrial complex.”

Then there’s New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, Washington’s oldest high school “Heather.” To her, the 2008 Democratic campaign will hinge not upon Iraq, terrorism, health care, the runaway federal budget or any of that tiresome business, but “how manly the woman, and how white the black.”

Clinton, see, is a big faker who “won her Senate seat only after becoming sympathetic as a victim.” Whereas Obama, who “glides between the black and white political worlds,” is her “worst nightmare, as comfortable in his skin as she is uncomfortable in hers.”

It may be worth recalling that Dowd, who appears never to have considered that her gift for witty putdowns has very little to do with mature judgment, also cited a bunch of trumped-up tales such as Al Gore’s supposed claim to have invented the Internet to deride the Democratic candidate as a phony back in 2000.

And look where that got us. How well do Dowd or any of the pundits assessing the candidates’ “authenticity” actually know them? Hardly at all, it’s safe to say. But mind-reading and pop psychology are ever so much more entertaining to her and the Kool Kids of DC High than icky, tedious political issues.

But the most farcical bit of commentary emanated from CNN’s ostensibly thoughtful Jeff Greenfield. What with GOP operatives leaking word that Obama’s middle name is “Hussein” — the equivalent of “John” in Kenya, where his father was born — the pundit pondered the senator’s clothing. Despite his perception that Obama was, yes, “comfortable in his own skin” and “knows who he is,” Greenfield couldn’t help but notice the senator’s deeply troubling wardrobe.

“Ask yourself,” Greenfield said, “is there any other major public figure who dresses the way he does? Why, yes. It is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who, unlike most of his predecessors, seems to have skipped through enough copies of ‘GQ’ to find the jacket-and-no-tie look agreeable.”

Lampooned on several influential Web sites, Greenfield alibied quickly that he’d meant to parody cable TV political commentary. “I figured there was no way on planet Earth that anyone could possibly take such a presentation at face value,” he wrote. “I was wrong.”

He certainly was. That’s partly because of the perception that “mainstream” pundits reserve this stuff mainly for Democratic candidates.

On the GOP side, the “straight-talking maverick” and “America’s mayor” have five marriages between them. Ever seen them psychoanalyzed?

Neither have I.

(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons is a national magazine award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at genelyons2@sbcglobal.net.)