For a Pot of Message

“Why do you think everyone is obsessing on the presidential race so early?” The question came from a friend who works in magazines. I told her I’d been thinking about the exact same thing. We’re barely less than two years out and yet paying attention to presidential politics as if it were October 2008.

Part of the reason is structural: A technological revolution spawned a media revolution; new media is determined to win the day, old media is desperate to keep up. Large investments are at stake. Competition forces its own dynamism; everyone’s filing, live, on cable, on the Internet, from Manchester, N.H., or Ames, Iowa. The chatter is everywhere.

In 1959 Teddy White stood in the snow by himself in New Hampshire and got to . . . reflect. Now ten thousand Teddys flood the zone. Of course they’re reduced to counting Barack Obama’s nose hairs. Actually they’re reduced to scrambling over each other for the sound bite from the man on the street when they know, actually, that there is no man on the street anymore in terms of . . . innocence, ingenuousness, “my first time seeing a speech by a guy who could be president!” Every voter’s a vet.

The most dismaying thing I’ve noticed the past 10 years on television is that ordinary people who are guests on morning news shows—the man who witnessed the murder, the housewife who ran from the flames—speak, now, in perfect sound bites. They also cry on cue. They used to ramble, like unsophisticated folk, and try to keep their emotions to themselves. Anchors had to take them in hand. “But what happened then?” Now the witness knows what’s needed, and how to do it. “And when she didn’t come home, Matt, I knew: this is not like her. And I immediately called the authorities.”

Why does this dismay? Because it’s another stepping away from the real. Artifice detaches us even from ourselves.

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Earlier this week I heard a minister quote a spiritual genius: “All the problems in the world are caused by man’s inability to sit quietly in a room by himself.” We’re restless and need action, which in a modern media world means information. We need the busy buzz—the Internet, TV, instant messages, magazines and newspapers, the beeps and boops and bops. Rudy’s up in Iowa. Hillary’s stuck. We want to be among the first to have this information and the first to share it. And we want it not because it’s crucial but because it distracts us from the crucial. It takes our minds away from what is most important. Who you are, for instance, or what we are about. It’s a great relief not to think about the important. It’s a relief to focus on factoids.

And there’s this: By obsessing on the presidential race—and I mean here not only journalists and editors and professional schmoozers but normal humans—by turning our attention to the contests for the nomination and focusing on it and pondering how our neighbors experience Edwards or McCain, we help convince ourselves that the next guy can solve it all. The next president will save us. That’s why it’s so important, because the next president will turn it all around. We like thinking this. And I don’t blame us. I like thinking it too. Even though I know it isn’t true. Because our next president will not have magical powers.

But that’s not a manageable thought. What’s manageable is knowing how Rudy’s doing in Ames.

That’s our problem, the observer’s problem. What about the observed? What is the greatest problem with and for the candidates who are running so far?

There are many. Having journalists set up boot camp among your nose hairs is one. It is hard to be observed and real. But here’s a bigger problem: You remember the story, from Genesis, of the famished brother who gave up his birthright for food. “He sold his soul for a mess of pottage.” The problem in national politics this year is the number of candidates of whom it could plausibly said, “He sold his soul for a pot of message.” He became something else, adopted new views, took stands the opposite of what he’d taken in the past, because he thought that if he didn’t he could not win a base in the base. (“He” here includes “she.”) Candidates take new views to create a new message. You “sell your soul” to put on the policy skin media professionals fashion for you. In this way you make yourself into someone else. (And it’s not as if the strategists will like you for your flexibility. Once I asked a political professional if he’d come to like and care about the candidates he’d worked with, and he barked the old Cynical Strategist’s line, “Rule one: Never fall in love with the meat!”)

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The discomfort felt by candidates who do this must be great. And echoes into the body politic. Does he mean what he’s saying here? When he said the opposite three years ago, did he mean that? Maybe he was lying three years ago and is telling the truth now. Does that make me like him more or less? If he repositions himself now will he reposition himself later?

Big MikeThese questions leave us scratching our heads.

The problem is not that people don’t change their minds. They do. And it’s not that they don’t have a right to change their minds. They do. But it’s understood as a sincere act only when it is explained—when a change in stance is accompanied by an explanation about a change in thinking, in approach, in weighing new data or old truths.

Otherwise it’s confusing, and mildly disheartening. A pragmatist might say it shouldn’t be. After all, if a candidate is pro-choice in 2004 and pro-life in 2007, at least you know one thing: He won’t be changing his mind again! Everyone gets to change his mind once, but on the big issues you only get one bite of the apple.

But it must be uncomfortable to walk around in a skin that isn’t really your own. It must be really damaging to your soul, if you have a soul, and not just appetites, or a rugged, rocky little sense of what you deserve.

Maybe the candidates would do themselves good by leaving the trail a few days and trying to sit quietly in a room, by themselves, with no distractions, and think about big things, such as who they are.