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Rum, Romanism, and John F. Harris--A Little Perspective, Please!

Written By mista sense on Monday, May 26, 2008 | 10:35 AM

The Politico's John F. Harris posted an interesting, but ultimately wrong-headed, piece yesterday. Entitled "Media hype: How small stories become big news," Harris decried a "news culture in which... everything is exaggerated." His prime example was the flap over Hillary Rodham Clinton's "assassination" gaffe.

Harris uses the coverage of that incident to criticize the contemporary media, souped up, as it is, by the fastest cyber-speeds. Indeed, Harris is even willing, as is the fashion of such criticism, to pile some blame upon himself, and his publication. Such blame-taking, of course, in the view of a cynic, is a clever way to attract still more attention to oneself. Here's Harris:

The signature defect of modern political journalism is that it has shredded the ideal of proportionality.

Important stories, sometimes the product of months of serious reporting, that in an earlier era would have captured the attention of the entire political-media community and even redirected the course of a presidential campaign, these days can disappear with barely a whisper.

Trivial stories — the kind that are tailor-made for forwarding to your brother-in-law or college roommate with a wisecracking note at the top — can dominate the campaign narrative for days.

Who can guess what stories will cause the media machine to rev up its hype jets?

Well, that's all true, of course. But it's always been true. Why? Because human nature has always been thus. And Harris has been around for a while. As such, he should be more aware of political history--and of human nature.

It's fine to decry exaggeration, but there's nothing new about exaggeration. And there's also nothing new about a small thing speaking for a big thing; in fact, the ancient Greeks had a word for it: synecdoche.

You want to see proportionality shredded in a presidential election? How 'bout 1884? Not much modern media back then, but even so, the notorious comment by a Republican leader, the Rev. Samuel D. Burchard, (pictured above) rocketed--more accurately, I suppose, telegraphed-- around the country, is widely thought to have cost James G. Blaine and GOP the presidency. It's worth bearing in mind that Blaine didn't even utter that offending alliterative sentence--but nonetheless, he got the blame. And all without a single cable station or website to do the exaggerating.

Or, more recently, for more proportionality-shredding, let's recall the fate of George Romney, hounded out of the 1968 presidential race over a single remark. Admittedly, it wasn't smart for Romney to say that he had once been "brainwashed" about Vietnam by the Johnson Administration, but that single word, endlessly repeated in the 60s "old" media, finished off Romney's presidential prospects. Which was a shame, many might say, because Romney was one of the most respected men in American life back then--completely self-made, he was a successful business executive, and then the three-term governor of Michigan. But none of that mattered once the "brainwashing" meme infected the body politic.

To quote Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun. If human nature is involved, there will be disproportionality, unfairness, randomness, and so on. And while cable and the net have obviously accelerated things, the basics of human nature were set eons ago, and haven't much changed.

So, John Harris, no excessive hair-shirting, please.

Finally, another comment on the offending Hillary quote. In Harris' opinion, it's not that bad; here's the why he describes the tape:

Clinton does indeed mention the Kennedy assassination, speaking in a calm and analytical tone: “My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California.”

[Jonathan] Martin and I both thought we saw a slight twinge in Clinton’s facial expression, as though she recognized she had just said something dumb.

In other words, Harris minimizes what Hillary said. But so far as The Cable Gamer is concerned, the quote from Clinton is deeply revealing. It really was a window into her soul--of course she wants to see Barack Obama out of her way, by any means necessary.

Which is to say, the quote from Hillary in South Dakota, combined with other times when she has said the same thing, combined with her well-known ruthlessness, was enough to convince many in the political community--but not Harris--that it was time for her to go.

And that's the story behind a lot of these "exaggerated" stories across presidential history. In 1884, for example, the Republican Party had controlled the White House for 24 straight years, and it was simply the turn of the Democrats to win. The Burchard quote was a match, but the fuse was already smoldering, because it already been lit by a quarter-century's worth of Democratic grievance at being "out."

As for Romney, it's a little harder to see the logic of his political demise--which is why one can never exclude such factors as plain bad luck. Still, venturing for some sort of explanation, one might conclude that his waking up from "brainwashing"over the merits of the Vietnam War was simply a synecdoche for America's waking up from brainwashing from that quagmire. But of course, nobody likes to be reminded of his or her shortcomings, so Romney was the scapegoat for the rest of us.

And if "fuses" and "scapegoat" are old, even ancient, metaphors, well, that's the point: there's nothing new about any of this.

Sorry John! The Politico is a must-read and no doubt, it will soon go totally video, and thus join The Cable Game in a big way.

But in the meantime, the phenomenon that you espy and decry is nothing new.

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