Sunday Watch, 8-3-08: In Which David Gergen Collides with the Straight Talk Express and Walks Away from the Wreck

(Originally published on, the Web site of the Columbia Journalism Review.)

ABC’s This Week began with the same montage that every other broadcast has featured this week: the clips of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton coupled—or is it tripled?—with Barack Obama in McCain’s spot seen ‘round the world, along with a clip of Obama saying that he “doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.” I suppose it’s the job of the Sunday show to trot out the detritus of the presidential campaign for viewers who (1) are close students of said detritus, or (2) have been on Mars the previous week.

But still, George Stephanopoulos began with an effort to change the subject—to the story of why Nancy Pelosi had not permitted a House vote on offshore drilling. Why, he asked her? And again why? And why again? And again? Because, she finally said, offshore drilling would offer only trivial benefits in comparison with the undrilled lands to which the oil companies already have access; because the President and his party are blocking a vote requiring drilling on those lands as well as serious, comprehensive, long-term remedies. Unfortunately, Washington fights sound petty even when they are deeply consequential, and neither journalists nor politicians have discovered how to make them sound as dramatic and consequential as they deserve to sound.

But on to the round table, this week happily subtracting Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts, who substitute lazy sneers and knowingness for illumination, in favor of Donna Brazile, Jake Tapper, and David Gergen to contend with conservative gravitasmonger George Will. Will was right about one thing: McCain’s nasties were effective if in no other way than that round-tablers were sitting around discussing them. Does anyone else in the news business appreciate how this game works?

Gergen said soberly: “Something’s working against Barack Obama….You have to believe that the assault by the McCain people was one of the factors that is undermining him. But I think…it’s a short-term gain at the long-term expense of John McCain.” Whether that long-term expense pans out, of course, will depend in no small part on what the pundits do more of from here on out: admire his tactics or deplore his insinuations.

Gergen went on to say that “this [assaulter] is clearly not who he is”—the sort of insider my-buddy’s-such-a-nice-guy that drives us outside-the-Beltway types to wonder what, exactly, is so clear about it. I implore McCain’s apologists to read Matt Welch’s McCain: The Myth of the Maverick, to address the vivid statements by Republicans as well as Democrats that McCain’s temper is virulent and his purity opportunistic. McCain, Gergen said, “wanted to run a very high-minded civil campaign on the issues, but now he’s brought these Bush people in, what Ed Rollins calls the Rove junior varsity.” The devil made him do it, presumably.

But Gergen was not ready to let McCain off the hook. “The challenger’s got to put the Bush administration more on trial than it has,” he said awhile later. Stephanopoulos agreed, and asked a good question: Why we haven’t we seen a series of ads that show McCain and Bush side by side? Donna Brazile was sure the ads would come.

George Will, whose grasp of what Americans like when they’re not tossing balls on a diamond is tenuous, insisted: “Three times now Obama has injected race into the campaign.” (For good measure, Will called Obama—you’d think he could have come up with a fresher word—“presumptuous.”) Donna Brazile reminded us charmingly a bit later: “The fact is that he is black.” Will reached into a grab bag of insults directed against Obama’s hypothetical “elitism”—all imputed, of course, to impressionable voters. Obama, Will assured us, reminds them of Fred Astaire, of that elitist windsurfer John Kerry; he’s “too upper-crust.” Stephanopoulos noted that the word “being thrown around all week”—I missed it—was “fussy.”

Credit Gergen with the acumen to see the bigger picture and the honesty to call it what it is: “Everybody knows he’s black but there has been a very intentional effort to paint him as somebody outside the mainstream; other. He’s not one of us. It’s below the radar screen. I think the McCain campaign has been scrupulous about not directly saying it. But it’s the subtext of this campaign. Everybody knows it. There are certain kind of signals. As a native of the South, I can tell you, when you see this Charlton Heston ad, ‘The One,” that’s code for ‘he’s uppity.’ ‘He ought to stay in his place.’ Everybody gets that who’s from a southern background. When McCain comes out and starts talking about affirmative action, I’m against quotas, we get what that’s about. That gets across.” He might have thrown in the new McCain slogan: “Country First.” Or the earlier one: “An American President for America.” Or: “He’d rather lose a war than lose a campaign.”

The question for Obama now is who in the campaign, if not Obama himself—who can’t afford to look angry—will link this ugly crusade to George W. Bush, the leader of McCain’s party over the past eight years and the avatar of botched intelligence, ruinous war, torture, plutocracy, and recession. For that matter, who in the mainstream media will make note that the anti-elitist candidate’s $520 loafers (noted by Isabel Wilkinson on the Huffington Post) and extremely wealthy wife deserve some attention even if neither of them, to my knowledge, windsurfs?

If, as Stephanopoulos said, the low road “may be [McCain’s] only strategy,” what will journalists do about it? Hitch a ride with the Straight Talk Express? Tag along quietly?