Throw the Truthiness Bums Out
By FRANK RICH
EACH voter will have a favorite moment from the fabulous midterms of 2006. Forced to pick my own, I’d go for Lynne Cheney’s pre-Halloween slapdown of Wolf Blitzer on CNN. It’s not in every political campaign that you get to watch the wife of the vice president of the United States slug it out about lesbian sex while promoting a children’s book titled “Our 50 States: A Family Adventure Across America.”
The pretext for this improbable dust-up was a last-ditch strategy by the flailing incumbent Republican senator of Virginia, George Allen. Desperate to resuscitate his campaign, Senator Allen attacked his opponent, Jim Webb, for writing sexually explicit passages in his acclaimed novels about the Vietnam War. Mr. Webb fought back by pointing out, among other Republican hypocrisies, Mrs. Cheney’s authorship of an out-of-print 1981 novel, “Sisters,” with steamy sexual interludes suitable for “The L Word.”
When Mr. Blitzer brought up “Sisters” on live television, Mrs. Cheney went ballistic, calling Mr. Webb a liar. The exchange would have been a TiVo keeper had only the CNN anchor called Mrs. Cheney out by reading aloud just one of the many “Sisters” passages floating around the Internet: “The women who embraced in the wagon were Adam and Eve crossing a dark cathedral stage — no, Eve and Eve, loving one another as they would not be able to once they ate of the fruit and knew themselves as they truly were.” But you can’t have everything.
Even without Eve and Eve, this silly episode will stay with me as a representative sample of this election year. It wasn’t just that the entire Cheney-Blitzer-Webb-Allen fracas had nothing to do with the issues that confront the country. It was completely detached from reality. Mr. Allen, who has been caught on video in real life spewing a racial epithet, didn’t attack Mr. Webb for any actual bad behavior, but merely for the imaginary behavior of invented characters in a book. As if it weren’t enough for Mrs. Cheney to regurgitate Mr. Allen’s ludicrous argument, she fudged the contents of her own novel, further fictionalizing what was fiction to start with. Then she turned around and attacked CNN for broadcasting nonfiction — a k a news — like her husband’s endorsement of waterboarding in a widely disseminated radio interview.
The incessant shell game played with fiction and reality turned this episode of Mr. Blitzer’s program, “The Situation Room,” into a sober inversion of Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report,” in which Stephen Colbert’s satirical Fox-style TV blowhard interviews real-life politicians. Here the interviewer, Mr. Blitzer, was real, but the politician, Mrs. Cheney, was bogus, shamelessly making everything up and hoping her playacting would make her outrageous fictions credible. Maybe in some precincts it did.
The 2002 midterms were ridiculed as the “Seinfeld” election — about nothing — and 2006 often does seem like the “Colbert” election, so suffused is it with unreality, or what Mr. Colbert calls “truthiness.” Or perhaps the “Borat” election, after the character created by Mr. Colbert’s equally popular British counterpart, Sacha Baron Cohen, whose mockumentary about the American travels of a crude fictional TV reporter from Kazakhstan opened to great acclaim this weekend. Like both these comedians, our politicians and their media surrogates have been going to extremes this year to blur the difference between truth and truthiness, all the better to confuse the audience.
But there’s one important difference. When Mr. Colbert’s fake talking head provokes a real congressman into making a fool of himself or Mr. Baron Cohen’s fake reporter tries to storm the real White House’s gates, it’s a merry prank for our entertainment. By contrast, the clowns on the ballot busily falsifying reality are vying to be in charge of our real world at one of the most perilous times in our history.
While lying politicians and hyperbolic negative TV campaign ads are American staples, the artificial realities created this year are on a scale worthy of Disney, if not Stalin. In the campaign’s final stretch, Congress and President Bush passed with great fanfare a new law to erect a 700-mile border fence to keep out rampaging Mexican immigrants, but guaranteed no money to actually build it. Rush Limbaugh tried to persuade his devoted audience that Michael J. Fox had exaggerated his Parkinson’s symptoms in an ad for candidates who support stem-cell research purely as an act.
In a class by itself is the president’s down-to-the-wire effort to brand his party as the defender of “traditional” marriage even as the same-sex scandals of conservative leaders on and off Capitol Hill make “La Cage aux Folles” look like “The Sound of Music.” Just in recent days, the Rev. Ted Haggard, a favored Bush spiritual adviser and visitor to the Oval Office (if not the Lincoln Bedroom), resigned as leader of the National Association of Evangelicals after accusations that he patronized a male prostitute, and the Talking Points Memo blog broke the story of the Republican Party taking money from a gay-porn distributor whose stars include active-duty soldiers. (A film version of Mrs. Cheney’s “Sisters,” alas, still awaits.)
And always, always there’s the false reality imposed on Iraq: “Absolutely, we’re winning!” in the president’s recent formulation. After all this time, you’d think the Iraq fictions wouldn’t work anymore. The overwhelming majority of Americans now know that we were conned into this mess in the first place by two fake story lines manufactured by the White House, a connection between 9/11 and Saddam and an imminent threat of nuclear Armageddon. Both were trotted out in our last midterm campaign to rush a feckless Congress into voting for a war authorization before Election Day. As the administration pulls the same ploy four years later, this time to keep the fiasco going, you have to wonder if it can get away with lying once more.
Given the polls, I would have said no, but last week’s John Kerry farce gives me pause. Whatever lame joke or snide remark the senator was trying to impart, it was no more relevant to the reality unfolding in Iraq than the sex scenes in Jim Webb’s novels. But as the White House ingeniously inflated a molehill by a noncandidate into a mountain of fake news, real news from Iraq was often downplayed or ignored entirely. It was a chilling example of how even now a skit ginned up by the administration screenwriters can dwarf and obliterate reality in our media culture.
On the same day Mr. Kerry blundered, the United States suffered a palpable and major defeat in Iraq. The Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, once again doing the bidding of the anti-American leader Moktada al-Sadr, somehow coerced American forces into dismantling their cordon of Sadr City, where they were searching for a kidnapped soldier. As the melodramatic debates over how much Mr. Kerry should apologize dragged on longer, still more real news got short shrift: the October death toll for Americans in Iraq was the highest in nearly two years. Some 90 percent of the dead were enlisted men and nearly a third were on extended tours of duty or their second or third tours. Their average age was 24.
When the premises for war were being sold four years ago, you could turn to the fake news of Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” to find the skepticism that might poke holes in the propaganda. Four years later, the press is much chastened by its failure to do its job back then, but not all of the press. While both Mr. Stewart and Mr. Colbert made sport of the media’s overkill on the Kerry story, their counterparts in “real” television news, especially but not exclusively on cable, flogged it incessantly. Only after The New York Times uncovered a classified Pentagon chart documenting Iraq’s rapid descent into chaos did reality begin to intrude on the contrived contretemps posed by another tone-deaf flub from a former presidential candidate not even on the ballot.
In retrospect, the defining moment of the 2006 campaign may well have been back in April, when Mr. Colbert appeared at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Call it a cultural primary. His performance was judged a bomb by the Washington press corps, which yukked it up instead for a Bush impersonator who joined the president in a benign sketch commissioned by the White House. But millions of Americans watching C-Span and the Web did get Mr. Colbert’s routine. They recognized that the Beltway establishment sitting stone-faced in his audience was the butt of his jokes, especially the very news media that had parroted Bush administration fictions leading America into the quagmire of Iraq.
Five months later, a video of Mr. Colbert’s dinner speech is still a runaway iTunes hit and his comic contempt for Washington is more popular than ever. It’s enough to give you hope that the voters may rally for reality on this crucial Election Day even as desperate politicians and some of their media enablers try one more time to stay their fictional course.