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Sunday, August 17, 2008

If A Nose Grows In The Forest...

by dday

...and nobody in the media is there to hear it...

Last night, John McCain, he of the Pinocchio problem, retold the story for the Saddleback Church congregants about his time in the Hanoi Hilton (John McCain is very reluctant to talk about his POW experience), when a guard loosened his ropes and, later, on Christmas, drew a cross in the sand, in solidarity with McCain the prisoner, a simple expression of faith. The crowd loved it.

McCain has been telling this story since at least 1999, in his book "Faith of Our Fathers." In 2000 he told the story and it involved the guard drawing the cross with a sandal. I guess the stick was better for the visual of the ad that ran this year:

Now there's the revelation that the story of the cross is remarkably similar to a possibly apocryphal story attributed to the late Aleksander Solzhenitsyn. There are a number of Christian books that tell a similar tale about Solzhenitsyn's redemptive moment with a drawn cross. Here's one from 1997:

Along with other prisoners, he worked in the fields day after day, in rain and sun, during summer and winter. His life appeared to be nothing more than backbreaking labor and slow starvation. The intense suffering reduced him to a state of despair.

On one particular day, the hopelessness of his situation became too much for him. He saw no reason to continue his struggle, no reason to keep on living. His life made no difference in the world. So he gave up.

Leaving his shovel on the ground, he slowly walked to a crude bench and sat down. He knew that at any moment a guard would order him to stand up, and when he failed to respond, the guard would beat him to death, probably with his own shovel. He had seen it happen to other prisoners.

As he waited, head down, he felt a presence. Slowly he looked up and saw a skinny old prisoner squat down beside him. The man said nothing. Instead, he used a stick to trace in the dirt the sign of the Cross. The man then got back up and returned to his work.

As Solzhenitsyn stared at the Cross drawn in the dirt his entire perspective changed. He knew he was only one man against the all-powerful Soviet empire. Yet he knew there was something greater than the evil he saw in the prison camp, something greater than the Soviet Union. He knew that hope for all people was represented by that simple Cross. Through the power of the Cross, anything was possible.

Solzhenitsyn slowly rose to his feet, picked up his shovel, and went back to work. Outwardly, nothing had changed. Inside, he had received hope.

[From Luke Veronis, "The Sign of the Cross"; Communion, issue 8, Pascha 1997.]

Here's the same story in a 2002 book. And here's another from a book in 1994, which could be the original source. It seems to have spread like an email forward, and most authors source it to Solzhenitsyn's book The Gulag Archipelago, though it's unclear whether the story actually appears there. But it was mentioned a number of times following Solzhenitsyn's death this month. I can't find McCain referring to this story before 1999's Faith of Our Fathers, not even in this incredibly detailed account of his POW experience for US News and World Report published in May 1973.

It's entirely possible that this type of scene happened at a prison camp more than once, and there are differences between the two stories (in McCain's telling, the drawing is performed by a guard; in Solzhenitsyn's, it's a fellow prisoner). The similarities could be entirely coincidental. This is not something you can prove or disprove.

That didn't matter in 2000. Al Gore said he invented the Internet and that he found Love Canal and that he and Tipper were the inspiration for Love Story. That's what happened and there was no shaking anyone in the media off of that, and they were going to use those and other nuggets to build a story about Gore's serial exaggerations, and make that character issue far more important than any policy or point of difference between him and George W. Bush.

Here's my point. I don't actually care about stuff like this. I find it much more relevant and vital that McCain was quicker to begin the invasion of Iraq after 9-11 than even Bush and Cheney, or that he believes in his personal grandiosity so much that he imagines skirmishes on the Russo-Georgian border to be world-historical events that demand action, or that his health care plan would literally cover about 5% of those currently uninsured, or that he wants to continue Bush's policies of inequality by cutting taxes massively for the rich, or that he thinks anyone who makes less than $5 million a year isn't rich, and on and on. Stories about politicians embellishing parts of their personal biography for dramatic effect are fairly routine and show little more than that they're... ambitious politicians, looking to connect emotionally with voters to gain an advantage. Remember how Ronald Reagan convinced himself that he served in World War II? Hillary Clinton's "sniper fire" in Tuzla? Barack Obama's book actually admits that characters are invented and time compressed. So this is nothing new. And I wish ALL of it were ignored, because the thin strand connecting these gaffes and exaggerations to the actual character of the nominee is tenuous at best.

But the media goes ga-ga for this kind of stuff and offers little else, for the most part. I'm pleased that CBS is going to do 35 long segments on every aspect of the candidates' policies this fall, but let's face it, that isn't going to drive the debate of the chattering class. They are uniformly uninterested in the issues, and they would much rather obsess over minutiae and speculate about character, whether the candidates "look Presidential" or "have what it takes" to win. In the LA Times today, there are two articles that speak to this. One is a critical review of broadcast news by media critic Mary McNamara:

SO MUCH has been said about the media's handling of this campaign that it's almost embarrassing to address the topic. But after watching hours, days, weeks of it on television, the cry of anguish cannot be suppressed: For the love of all that is holy, how did one of the most important presidential races in history, between two men who embody such disparate political possibilities, wind up looking like a montage sequence in a Will Ferrell movie?

"Bias" has been the watchword, but watching the nightly news loops, it seems less like bias than just plain old fear. Fear of missing the moment, of boring the viewers, of relying on the old-model thinking -- who, what, when, why, where -- while everyone yawns and returns their collective attention to their new iPhones.

"No, no, wait," news outlets seem to shout like desperate screenwriters in a rapidly deteriorating pitch meeting. Nevermind those boring old proposed policies or the contradictory voting records or any of that stuff, look at this, you're going to love it, it's The Big Reveal.

Indeed, this is a major component of how the news media covers modern campaigns. The other way is through horse-race discussion, taking those gaffes and nuggets and bits of character effluvia and judging how they will "play" with core constituencies. The latest practitioner is Chuck Todd, and he comes out and admits that he's a sportscaster:

Less than an hour later, Todd sat in a third-floor studio for his only practice run anchoring on MSNBC before the conventions. It was his first time behind the desk, and he anxiously checked with the floor director throughout the hour to make sure he was getting his cues right. "This is big-boy TV now," he said.

The Miami native wasn't looking for a television career when he first arrived in this city as a student at George Washington University, already fascinated with politics. "I thought I wanted to manage a presidential campaign," he said. But after working on a few races, including Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin's 1992 presidential bid, he decided "it was more interesting to do it as a sport than trying to be a hired gun."

Here's the thing, though - in the case of the Village, it's more like a home-team sportscaster. The guy who is paid the Raiders to cover the game, and he hates every other team and has no problem shaping the story to benefit his guys. The refs are always against his team and the other guys are always cheating. Their draft pick is forever the savior of the franchise and the free agent they let go was a bum anyway. They give you the "inside story" without ever being critical of the guys who write the paychecks.

If there was an even spread from the media of damaging stories or unfavorable narratives on both sides of the political divide that'd be one thing. But the idea of John McCain as a serial exaggerator in the way that they painted Al Gore would be unthinkable, despite the fact that the evidence is the same, and actually even more so in the case of McCain. So we get media types arguing that infidelity like that of John Edwards disqualifies someone for higher political office without applying that to McCain or indeed several of the GOP field this year. We get them defending Republican military veterans from attacks they deem scurrilous and baseless yet not Democrats of the same rank. We get the same paint-by-numbers narratives of Democrats as weak and feminine and Republicans as strong and patriarchal year after year no matter who the candidate, no matter what the policy, no matter what.

I'm focusing on this gross double-standard in the comparison between Gore and McCain because I think it's the most salient example and it shows to what extent their thumbs are on the scale. And when there was a perception on the other side of the aisle that the media was too liberal, they mounted an effort to relentlessly criticize them to make sure their perspective was represented. I don't necessarily want a perspective represented; I'd like to see campaigns covered with a reliance on facts and not fiction, substance and not style. But if continuous, vigilant criticism is what's warranted, well... have laptop, will travel.


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