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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Editor's Note

Many comedians consider stand-up the purest form of comedy; Doug Stanhope considers it the freest. “Once you do stand-up, it spoils you for everything else,” he says. “You’re the director, performer, and producer.” Unlike most of his peers, however, Stanhope has designed his career around exploring that freedom, which means choosing a life on the road. Perhaps this is why, although he is extremely ambitious, prolific, and one of the best stand-ups performing, so many Americans haven’t heard of him. Many comedians approach the road as a means to an end: a way to develop their skills, start booking bigger venues, and, if they’re lucky, get themselves airlifted to Hollywood. But life isn’t happening on a sit-com set or a sketch show — at least not the life that has interested Stanhope. He isn’t waiting to be invited to the party; indeed, he’s been hosting his own party for years.

Because of the present comedy boom, civilians are starting to hear about Doug Stanhope from other comedians like Ricky Gervais, Sarah Silverman, and Louis CK. But Stanhope has been building a devoted fan base for the past two decades, largely by word of mouth. On tour, he prefers the unencumbered arrival and the quick exit: cheap motels where you can pull the van up to the door of the room and park. He’s especially pleased if there’s an on-site bar, which increases the odds of hearing a good story from the sort of person who tends to drink away the afternoon in the depressed cities where he performs. Stanhope’s America isn’t the one still yammering on about its potential or struggling with losing hope. For the most part, hope is gone. On Word of Mouth, his 2002 album, he says, “America may be the best country, but that’s like being the prettiest Denny’s waitress. Just because you’re the best doesn’t make you good.”

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