It should be said, on background, that I spend my days listening to news and public affairs programs (C-Span, BBC, NPR). My free time is spent reading newspapers, “serious” periodicals, and non-fiction books, also of the news/current event/issue variety (with history sprinkled in). Needless to say: I have no clue what is popular with the kids these days; my pop-up ads on social media and the internet assume I’m basically a 60-year-old male. I like to think I’m still fun at parties but what I do not think is that I actually know anything. Actually, it’s the opposite: the more smart stuff I consume, the more I look for, and the more I’m convinced that it would take all 24 hours of every day to scratch the surface of knowing anything. I have no idea how many hours it would take to get a solid, comprehensive grip on understanding and synthesizing any of it.
The background here is in three parts then: the first is that I consume a lot of commentary, fact, and media, including making sure I get duplicate information from multiple sources so the commentary doesn’t get confused with the fact and so biases are multipolar. The second part is that it is entirely possible to live, breathe, and die by the news (even the good sources) and still know nothing: knowing takes the right sources and the right time and is more than a 40 hour per week job and, on any given day, I’m missing out on more of the information I want than I’m gaining. I blame my day job, but please don’t tell my boss. There’s a quote from Lily Tomlin along the lines of “No matter how cynical I get, it’s never enough to keep up.” For me, “information” would replace the word “cynical.” The third point: No matter how cynical I get, it’s never enough to keep up.
I think most people in “real America”, the one where the eponymous “ordinary Americans” live, I think they consume as much actual news as they have time to access. I think it takes real time, the kind that is more difficult to come by if you’re working a day job you have to pay attention to and raising kids and getting to the gym and taking care of the yard, the house, your marriage, your self-image, your health, and your retirement accounts; in fact, it requires extraordinary time to seek out the information that would really be useful. I think most people would love to know more but the most convenient sources aren’t helping them out much. The newspapers are trying to stay alive and worthwhile content is more expensive to produce, so there’s much less of it. Television news thrives on the visual (think pretty girls, weather, and disaster) and the dramatic; the substantive gets relegated to the categories of “too wonky”, “in the weeds”, and “snoozefest”. It’s possible to carve together quick, detailed, meaningful analysis online: but (a) this assumes digital literacy, affordable broadband, and sufficient gadgetry and (b) it also assumes the time and curatorial prowess to dive past the flashiest, instantaneous tweets and blurbs and most relevant results. The internet has everything; but you have to get past the ephemeral and the electric first. Scandal and schadenfreude are the dragons at the gate. Sometimes you don’t want to be a knight; you just want to get the news.
And I think the easiest thing for any of us, the media and the normal folks alike, is to get some information and then form strong opinions. The easiest thing is to go with your team or your party or your interest. But even easier still is to just hate them all: the media, the politicians (especially the politicians), the one who said the thing, the one who failed to say the other thing, the one who said the thing that wasn’t true, the one who slept with the girl, and the girl too for that matter.
It’s just so easy to assume they’re all bad, they’re not doing anything, they’re doing the wrong things, and they’re all dirty anyway. It’s time to take our country back and vote every one of them out.
And that is not without grounds: Anthony Weiner’s spectacular fall from legitimacy was due to multiple ridiculous instances of flashing his little anthony weiner on Twitter. Brian Williams’ fall from grace was due to repeated, inexplicable, self-aggrandizing inaccuracies in both houses of entertainment and news across a decade. In Indiana, Eric Turner (R-Cicero) is no longer a legislator because it turns out it’s a really bad idea to sit on a committee involving funding for nursing homes when you and your family own (wait for it) nursing homes (or companies which own companies which own…). And Tony Bennett, formerly Superintendent of Public Instruction, should not have been accepting campaign funds from a donor who financed/owned charter schools that Tony Bennett was in charge of evaluating and publicly funding and providing vouchers for. And Bill Clinton maybe should not have cigared an intern. (And, in fairness, the public and the impeachment squad shouldn’t have decided that mattered.) And that guy in Louisiana shouldn’t have stuck bundles of dollar bills in his freezer. And that Fox News anchor should certainly not have said that Santa was not black and “that’s a fact, kids” or that we, the U.S., is most certainly in an actual Holy War. And, any person reading this, discussing politics, going to the polls, or just sitting this one out again will most likely be able to extemporaneously name eighty other things that the elite players in our government or those who are supposed to be watching over it have done lately which genuinely deserve our collective derision: the least active Congress in the modern era, the actual government shutdown of 2013, the readiness to end funding for the Department of Homeland Security as of February 27 of this year because the president “overstepped his bounds” and a basic funding bill seems like an appropriate place to spank the president; Giuliani currying favor — with whom and for what purpose remains a mystery — by suggesting that a sitting president does not love his country and wasn’t raised the same way the rest “of us” were and 2016 frontrunner Governor Scott Walker (R- WI) not bothering to raise his hands on the dais at his fundraiser to suggest Giuliani may have erred because, of course, all public servants love their country. Sure, they have different ideas and they also love their egos and their reputations and their parties and their legacy, but at the end of the day, love of country is there too. And there are so many obviously bad moves being made by the governing and speaking and non-ordinary Americans, that sometimes the only response is just to disdain every one of them, focus on the mistake, and say “screw ’em all.”
No matter how cynical I get, it’s never enough to keep up. Politicians, what can you do?
There is some genuine entertainment to be had from politics: I mean, since Palin isn’t governing, it’s legitimately funny to watch the video of whatever that was she was trying to say in Iowa in January. Since Jeb Bush hasn’t governed since the early 2000s and is a Bush, there’s a kind of laugh out loud quality to his garbled worldview in a foreign policy speech he didn’t have to give this past week when he gave it; more to laugh at when he points to the global team, all of whom cut their teeth with 41 and 43 (and 40, for that matter) but says he is totally not, emphatically not, either 41 or 43 when it comes to global issues. The possibilities for mirth due to politicians speaking are endless: I’m not a witch, take a chicken to the doctor, it depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is.
But it’s not the kind of funny that lasts very long; scratch below the surface and you end up feeling like none of the elected emperors have any clothes. The typos and the vulgar banality of the papers and the talking heads and the Twitterverse cause similar guffawing until you realize you’re dancing to a soundtrack that isn’t there, laughing at a joke that’s hackneyed and painfully familiar but has real-world, kitchen table implications. There’s a sense, for the “ordinary American” that the joke not only isn’t funny, but it’s actually on you.
No matter how cynical I get, it’s never enough to keep up.
Which leaves us where, exactly? I’m human. I bet you are, too. So’s Mitt Romney and Barack Hussein Obama and Sarah Palin and Mike Pence. So are Bill O’Reilly, Rachel Maddow, Gwen Ifill, and Brian Williams. So’s Eric Turner and Glenda Ritz; Jim Shella and Diane Rehm. And even the Clintons, the Bushes, and the Pauls. We make mistakes. Some of them spectacular, some of them life-altering, some of them public. Some of them while we’re in office. Some of them while we’re on TV.
And I don’t know how to square the need for good people to be in office, good people to report on the people in office, good people to run for office, and good people to vote for the people and buy the papers and watch the content created by the good people with the gut instinct to vomit or laugh or be smug when the stupid happens and becomes a meme.
I don’t know how to continue to have a starry-eyed view that government, specifically American government, has the opportunity to accomplish meaningful if slow-moving good in this world when House of Cards, ethics reports, and 40-plus hours of news consumption tell me not to be so Sorkin-quixotic-besotted and certain about that.
I don’t know how to square all those LOL moments and the smug gabfests and the memes and the inattentiveness and the gerrymandering with the fact that, at this point, it genuinely seems like a good person can’t get elected while remaining a good person (the staffers and the lobbyists and the operatives remain constant and eternal; the candidate/governing body is nearly irrelevant). I don’t know how to reconcile the difference between the elite and the ordinary American; can’t possibly account for the fact that the smartest, most capable people I know couldn’t be elected or think of running for office because their lives are insufficiently sanitary and error-free.
And I definitely don’t know what to do with the part where the people who run, the people who win, and the people paid to comment on it all screw up and the mistakes begin, in our peculiar popular culture, to overtake anything else.
I don’t think Miley Cyrus can be defined by twerking. I don’t think Brian Williams’ 50-ish years of existence and kids and everything can be reduced to a glorified helicopter story. I think it is too simple to make a crack about Chris Christie’s weight and I think it is mean and shallow of any normal human being to make a glorified fat joke. I think it’s disgusting of Rand Paul to lie and say he has a Bachelor’s degree in Science when he has no B.A. or B.S. at all. And I think it’s similarly gross of anyone to discount the fact that Paul has a valid M.D. that he earned without the customary baccalaureate.
I think Lily Tomlin was right. I think the American people are right. I think even the least effective and least deserving representative is, on some level, right. I think we’re all human. I think we’re all capable of egregious error. I think we’re all capable of being mean-spirited and cynical and joyous at the public humiliation of others, particularly if the others are in power or in public.
Which is to say: we are all wrong, too. And, in our best moments, we are right, too: with ideals and forgiveness and consideration and hope and everything.
Every one of us.
We’re doing the best we can. We’re grandly screwing it up. On occasion, it photographs well. On occasion, we aim for okay and solidly hit “goodness” almost by accident. The best of “us” should not be cancelled out by our thoughtless sentence; the sum of our whole should not be callowly cancelled out due to a squeamish and ill-effected part.
Maybe it’s time for people who don’t look great on paper to run for office. Maybe it’s time for those in government to say the little screw-ups are not important and then talk over the allotted time to explain what is important and why. Maybe it’s time to reevaluate the whole mess of it: the papers, the TV, the internet, the politicians, the voters. The governed and the governing. Maybe it’s time to say laughing is easy and thinking is hard. Maybe it’s time for everyone to be a little more vulnerable, a little more idealistic, a little more forgiving.
And a little more willing to learn more, to run for things that can only result in failure, to be as open as possible, even if it’s not politically smart or media-savvy or mundanely popular.
Or maybe it really is just House of Cards and You Tube and backstabbing and crocodile tears.
No matter how cynical I am, it’s never enough to keep up.
No matter how idealistic I am, it’s never enough to keep up.
I am both West Wing and House of Cards, but it’s never enough to keep up.
I think the consensus is in and nine out of ten internets agree that Republican governor Mike Pence of Indiana had quite a week last week. For one thing, his mom told the Terre Haute Tribune Star that her son shouldn’t run for president until he completed two terms as governor. Another thing was that he tried to start a state-run news outlet, complete with a starter staff, managing editor, plans to have evergreen stories and provide exclusives to newspapers around the state, and the fancy title of Just IN. Then, after the Internet essentially exploded, the governor had to explain both that the whole state-run media thing was “an understandable misunderstanding” and that he didn’t even know about it until he read about it in the paper (it not being a Just IN exclusive, I guess). At which point, the governor tried to have a big celebration to announce that roughly 350,000 Hoosiers would finally have access to health insurance after his administration and the Obama administration had reached agreement on the HIP 2.0 version of the Medicaid expansion that had been under negotiation for months. Of course, that news was difficult to see because Just IN was the bad idea that just would not go away. Or at least not until late in the week when the Indiana General Assembly discussed eliminating funding that would go to the fledgling press/news/but not like North Korea news, really, news thing and Governor Pence reassigned the staff members to other areas of the administration and said there would be no such thing as Just IN because it was Just Out. As the kicker, over the weekend, Pence’s fellow Midwest Republican Governor Who Might, Scott Walker of Wisconsin quietly topped a Bloomberg/Des Moines Register poll for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. And Pence went from a name quietly being talked about as an executive prospect to being loudly excoriated nationally for having a politically catastrophic week, and doing so in such a spectacular way that no one will be whispering about a 2016 spoiler from Indiana anymore. Just ask Governor Pence’s mom.
Now, the expansion of the Healthy Indiana Plan (HIP 2.0) is a genuine triumph for the governor. Under the ACA, Indiana had the option to expand Medicaid to all those whose incomes were too low to qualify for the federal subsidies to purchase individual plans but too high to qualify for pre-ACA, traditional Medicaid. Governor Pence and his administration, however, wanted desperately to deny that expansion (and the ACA overall, which Pence is still saying he believes should be repealed), but accept the federal money that came with it, all while claiming credit for covering thousands of Hoosiers who didn’t have health insurance before. And after months of wrangling with the federal government over how to accept Medicaid without it actually being Medicaid, the federal government finally agreed to let Governor Pence have his cake and eat it, too. So the approximately 350,000 Indiana residents who could have had coverage beginning January 1, 2014 will at last be eligible to pay co-pays of as little as one dollar, sign up, and have coverage beginning more than a year after they could have had it, had the need to make political points not triumphed over good sense. This should have been a good week for the governor, then, and for Indiana’s uninsured residents (pay no attention to the year 2014 behind the curtain). The governor was able to claim a victory, give a speech at a hospital, and call out a real-live soon-to-be-HIP-insured person, who hugged him and said to him and the paper (but not Just IN) that he just didn’t know how much this meant to her and her family, this whole part where they could see a doctor now.
The state’s traditional media outlets published the news on HIP 2.0 as though it were a victory and even some Democrats were saying “this is a good thing” because of the expanded coverage and all that. Of course, they also pointed out that with the whole Just IN thing, the public didn’t really notice and no one could properly pay attention, what with all the fake memes of Pence’s head against the flag of the USSR, China, and North Korea, which were admittedly flashy, but hey, look, health care! Mysteriously, there was little attention paid to the entire year of coverage people did not have when they could have; no questions or trending topics about the cancers which went undiagnosed and advanced a stage in that year, no tweets and no vines about the chronic conditions which went untreated, the prescriptions not taken, the emergency room visits not paid for, the emergency room visits which could have been avoided if people had only been able to see a family doctor; the lost hours of productivity, health, and happiness or the worry that could have been avoided. Potentially 350,000 Hoosiers will have health coverage now, as soon as they can thread the bureaucratic needles, sign up, and qualify. But, in all the hullabaloo with the Great Understandable Misunderstanding, few people bothered to point out that this could easily have been something Hoosiers could already have had for an entire year. This Just IN: it was more important to make a political point regarding HSAs and co-pays and make people’s hard lives harder. It was more important to go for the win, and even if it was obscured by Mao, Stalin, and “Pravda on the Plains,” well, the governor got it.
But if the health care which people could have had last year but didn’t isn’t troubling, we can at least agree that several aspects of the Pence administration’s now-defunct Just IN program are. For one thing, if Mike Pence is to be taken at his word, then how did he not know about a program that already had paid employees and the words “state-run media” attached? If the governor did not know about a program like this until he “read about it in the paper,” what does that say about how his administration is running? What does that say about his administration’s understanding of, say, bullet points? How can that even happen? And when it does, the buck is with Governor Pence. Who is running the show in his office? How does the show get to the paid-staff phase or the media-leak phase without getting to the all-important Pence Awareness Phase? Where was the red flag and what happened that Pence was too disconnected from the standard bearers to see it?
More troublingly still is the fact that Just IN happened in January of 2015. Of all the possible issues and challenges confronting “the state that works,” it would appear that one of the governor’s (or his staff’s) first priorities for Indiana in 2015 was to create a news outlet, no, wait, make that public relations arm, either with or without the governor’s blessing or knowledge. One would think that Indiana had gleaming schools untroubled by rifts between the state Board of Education and the Superintendent of Public Instruction where all the pupils were brimful of college-preparedness and workplace-readiness. One would think Indiana had a system of water pipelines and an electrical grid that not only did not date to the Depression Era, but set the standard for 21st-century America. One would think the Hoosier State had a low rate of childhood poverty, farmland in reserve, superior and structurally sound roads and bridges, and the very highest of employment participation and the lowest levels of political corruption. Because if all those things were true, then the first priority for the governor in 2015 might be restructuring his publicity and press releases; might even be creating a news outlet to provide stories which tout how wonderful Indiana is under a Pence administration (even the working poor can have health insurance now!). But if even one of those things is not true*** then, as a priority, better publicity shouldn’t have made the cut. Not in January. Not in 2015.
This Just IN: Governor Pence had a bad week. But he co-paid for it. Let’s see what he does with the rest of his year.
***Just for starters, on infrastructure (roads, bridges, wastewater, drinking water), the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Indiana a grade of D+ for 2013. The report card is here. On childhood poverty, the percentage is roughly 23%.
Recently, 2012 Indiana Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Gregg sat down for an interview with Tim Swarens of the Indianapolis Star. In the interview, he conceded he was considering another run for the state's executive office. He also called a portion of the Democratic electorate “left-wing whack-a-doodles.” What did the whack-a-doodles do, you ask, to be so comically denigrated yet seriously dismissed by a candidate who had nearly benefited from their votes? They suggested in the past campaign that his Small Town ads weren't as great as other people, presumably Mr. Gregg for example, did.
As the Star article pointed out, initially in the 2012 race against Mike Pence, John Gregg had really poor name recognition among Hoosiers. So Gregg did two highly visible and highly effective things. One, he made his mustache his best friend: it was everywhere. It was simple and graphic and appealing. It was even vaguely hipsterish. Using a Star-Spangled-colored mustache as iconic shorthand for the candidate was genius: it separated Gregg from the clean-shaven Pence, it highlighted humor and approachability, and it became a race of the Mustache versus the GOP establishment. It could even be argued that Suzanne Crouch's winning 2014 campaign (the Red Glasses) borrowed the idea from Gregg (or that Gregg's staff had borrowed the idea from Mary Ann Sullivan's Red Hair motif). Nevertheless, the success of the 'stache still left the problem of Gregg's low name-recognition and the need to give the population some idea of who the Mustache actually was. Hence, a series of ads highlighting Gregg as a Small Town Hoosier from the Very Small and Very Hoosier Town of Sandborn, Indiana, 400-ish residents strong. The ads featured lots of colloquialisms, a distinct Southern Indiana kick to its gallop, a charming life-long friend and neighbor, and copious numbers of hanging potted ferns on homey front porches. The ads made John Gregg seem like your favorite neighbor from your hometown, someone you wanted to drink iced tea with, maybe beat at horseshoes. Watching the ads was to feel a nostalgic kind of pride in being a Hoosier, even if you lived in the big city, you could identify with the common sense integrity of a small town sensibility. It was like eating a homemade slice of pie. And then getting to vote for it.
The ads built name recognition and Gregg came closer to winning the post of governor than anyone anticipated. But some people did suggest at the time that the ads were maybe too nostalgic, too backward, too much Andy Griffith and not enough Silicon Valley. If Indiana under a new governor was to fully participate in the twenty-first century, perhaps it wasn't the best plan to pick a guy who had firmly stood by his hanging ferns in the summertime but hadn't yet made a strong case on any of his policy positions. In any case, there were those who thought the Small Town ads had multiplied like rabbits and had come in packs when two would have sufficed to demonstrate Gregg's affability and charm and then lead in to more serious discussions (i.e. a platform).
To John Gregg of late 2014, the people who held these views not only didn't get it, they are “left-wing whack-a-doodles.” Now, it seems to me that it is not an especially partisan critique to point out that an ad campaign comprised mainly of multiple variations of “Gee Whillikers, I'm a Hoosier” smacks of redundancy. Pointing out that the small town charm was insufficient as a policy portfolio wasn't and shouldn't have been seen as a frothing Progressive electorate dismissing the State Fair and James Whitcomb Riley and basketball and everything holy in Hoosierville. Instead, it remains a question expressed by voters capable of critical thinking: Who are you, John Gregg? What do you believe in? Why are you a capable leader? What is your vision for Indiana? If we elect you from that storybook front porch, what will you do for the people of this state?
Still, Gregg has decided to plant his flag firmly in the I'm a Moderate camp. Fair enough, it has worked for Bayh and Donnelly. It has worked for every other Democrat who has managed to get elected here in the most recent decades. You never lose in Indiana by tracking center-right. You never lose in Indiana, as a Democrat, by disavowing your Democratic leanings. You can be a Democrat, but only if you say you're really kind of not. So, it's a sound strategic decision to make and, should Gregg run for governor again, being front porch and center should help him out.
Lucky for John Gregg, though, that his “left-wing whack-a-doodle” comment appeared in print. Demographically speaking, younger people skew Democrat (or Libertarian, depending). With the right media outlet and the right spin at the right time, the perceived insult to Democrats and actual left-skewing voters could have been damaging. But, demographically speaking, young people aren't paying attention to the newspapers. The insult didn't trend on Twitter and it wasn't turned into a snarky click-bait piece by a politically minded Progressive.
Still, if I were assisting or staffing John Gregg, potential 2016 candidate, I would already be on damage control and I'd already be working on answers to the question of why, when there were only reasons of pandering and cheap politicking to do so, a candidate chose to diminish honest critique from a camp of easy votes. And I'd be working on polishing up the media savvy and presentation skills of a candidate who wasn't able to escape getting booby trapped by his own mouth in a soft interview situation where there was neither scrutiny or real pressure.
Or I'd be scouting for some more small town cafes and picturesque front porches, I guess. Add corn, puppies, or kids, and you just can't go wrong with those.