Washington Babylon — October 2, 2008, 10:32 am

Ifill and Blather

“It is a blatant conflict of interest,” Bay Buchanan said on CNN last night. “There’s no question about that.”

“She’s tough as nails right down the middle,” Paul Begala said in reply. “She is a very fair, tough-minded journalist.

They were talking about Gwen Ifill, moderator of tonight’s Joe Biden–Sarah Palin debate and author of the forthcoming book titled The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama. If Ifill is an ardent Democrat she’s done a good job of hiding her zeal all these years, and it’s hard to imagine that she’ll be secretly taking sides during the debate. But while G.O.P. operatives and surrogates are hyping the Ifill story wildly out of proportion–“A debate ‘moderator’ in the tank for Obama,” writes a breathless Michelle Malkin–I can see why rank-and-file Republicans don’t like it.

Certainly if tonight’s debate moderator had written a book that prominently featured McCain, Obama’s surrogates would be emitting howls of outrage. And Republicans, of course, would be dismissing the matter as a tempest in a teapot; Begala and Buchanan would have swapped talking points, verbatim.

This is what makes it so hard to watch or read anything about the campaign. There are some real differences between the candidates (check out their tax plans), in how they’re running their campaigns, and in what a victory by one or the other means for the country. But the commentary and punditry has little to do with substantive matters. Instead, liberals who once upon a time tolerated or even admired McCain now ascribe evil to his every act, while the right hysterically portrays Obama as a combination of Karl Marx and Huey Newton. It’s rarely necessary to read past the headlines–or the headlines for that matter.

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I first heard the name Barack Obama in the spring of 2004, while visiting my mother in Chicago. As we sat around the kitchen table early one spring morning, I noticed a handsome studio portrait among the pictures, lists, cards, and other totems of family life fastened to the refrigerator door. “Who’s the guy with the ears?” I asked, assuming he was some distant relative or family friend I didn’t know or else had forgotten. “Barack Obama,” she answered with a broad smile. “He’s running for Senate, but he’s going to be the first black president.”

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