A good number of my readers note that I am not terribly into the presidential election process. That is so. It’s not that I don’t think this process is important. To the contrary, this decision is vitally important to America and to the world. On the other hand, I am not happy with the saturation coverage that the election campaign receives in our media and in the blogosphere. It quickly assumes the dignity and perspective of a carnival show, and the most absurd side shows quickly get blown up into matters of utmost hyperbole. I’ll just note three points of hyperventilation from the last two weeks:
John McCain has been endorsed by megachurch pastor John Hagee, a man with known anti-Catholic sentiments. McCain apparently committed an outrage by accepting Hagee’s endorsement, and failing to distance himself sufficiently from Hagee’s socio-theological perspectives.
Geraldine Ferraro, a former Democratic vice presidential candidate, suggested that the candidacy of Barack Obama was in its essence an affirmative-action campaign, and that Obama got great benefit from being an African-American in the election process. Hillary Clinton evidently failed sufficiently to distance herself from Ferraro and allowed her to continue with some vaguely defined relationship with the Clinton campaign for too many days after she made her offensive remarks.
Barack Obama attends a church in Chicago whose pastor has made a number of speeches which express tolerance for Black Muslim groups and which express resentment against white society. Obama apparently continues to be a member of his church, and while he has criticized this pastor, he apparently has not done so with sufficient vigor.
To me, it is amazing that such matters occupy hours of air time and fill pages of print media. In fact, the coverage of these issues seems obsessive-compulsive, and the level of on-air venting related to them leaps off the faux-rage meter. Let’s get serious. The nation faces extremely grim issues right now. I’d put these two right at the top:
what to do about a looming recession, with financial institutions teetering in a way we have not seen since World War II, as our currency collapses and the world gives our economy a resounding vote of no-confidence;
how to deal with a conflict in Iraq which is draining enormous resources (helping to provoke the nation’s economic woes in fact) and for which there are no neat or obvious solutions.
I suppose that it’s fair to talk about the candidates’ religious convictions and the social and political implications of those convictions. In fact, the media are even free to talk about the social and political convictions of people who are ministers to the presidential candidates. But we should really pause and ask—what, exactly, is the purpose of this dialogue? It goes to one of the great fortes of the American media: its ability to sensationalize things that truly don’t matter and to ignore things that do.
So I am driven to make an observation that is likely to be very unpopular with my readers. I believe that going through the entire cohort of candidates with which this race began, there were three who were obviously suited to be presidential candidates. These three have different gifts and different shortcomings. None of them has won my complete confidence or support, but each of them has won my respect. They are the three candidates to which the people, in their wisdom, have reduced the field: John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. This field of candidates does a better job of representing America and the aspirations of its people than any final group of candidates in my lifetime. Any of them will be a dramatic improvement over the current occupant of the White House. And each of them deserves our respect and admiration for going through the electoral meatgrinder that the American genius has devised for straining candidates.
I’ll go one further step. I actually like each of these candidates.
As the crazy season progresses, we will be told that each of these candidates is the devil incarnate, or some other embodiment of pure evil. Each will have his or her integrity, motives and prior conduct tested, and inevitably most of the tests will be tendentious and unfair. Appeals will be made to us, to the voters, to act on the basis of fear, hatred and rank prejudice. The right reaction from the electorate is to resist these efforts to dirty our electoral process, to respect the basic human dignity and dedication to service of the candidates, and to keep our eyes fixed on the major issues before the country and the suitability of the candidates to cope with those issues.
The silly season is upon us. But we, the audience, need to resist being drawn into it. We can have an election process that is worthy of us as a people and of our institutions. The broadcast and print media have little interest in that, of course, but public opinion can and should serve as a discipline, and the media needs to be on the other side of the rod.