It has been a truism since the invention of television that politics has become more like entertainment. That truism is now too generous.
Much of what we call entertainment isn't. It is, rather, gossip and voyeurism pertaining to celebrities who may or may not be entertainers: Britney, Anna Nicole and Zsa Zsa Gabor's husband.
Similarly, much of what we call politics isn't. The zany scrutiny of Mitt, Rudy, McCain, Hillary, Barack and Edwards 18 months before the 2008 election is gossip, fantasy and voyeurism masquerading as serious politics and statecraft. It is a form of societal distraction just as much as celebrity rehab watching is. Just as obsessing over Anna Nicole's autopsy is a relief from credit card debt, dull jobs and dented Dodges, dissecting the latest dust-up between staffers for Hillary and Barack is a distraction from an Iraq problem that has no solution, a healthcare system that has cancer and an entitlement system that will screw our kids. The cliques are just different.
We in the media and political clique are righteous.
We think it's sick the way cable TV exploits the Britney Meltdown. And we think what is happening in Campaign '08 right now is Very Important. And, well, yeah, it is important. It does matter who the next president is – duh.
The point is that the endless American campaign – and this one in particular – is a diversion from what campaigns are supposed to be about – governing. It is fun to dish about the latest leaked opposition research tract. It's fun to speculate about a McCain/Giuliani dogfight in the airwaves of South Carolina. It's fun to read polls. I love it and I admit it. But it comes with a cost. It's celebrity star-gazing or sports fanaticism for people who happen to be interested in politics. Washington, they say, is Los Angeles for ugly people.
I hate to be a scold, but: The country is about to send more than 20,000 more kids into battle in Iraq. Thousands of others are in veteran's hospitals, maimed. The national debt has blimped. Al Qaeda is reported to be growing, not shrinking. Etc., etc., etc. And while many fine journalists, private experts and public servants are committing their professional lives to these matters, the Washington zeitgeist is all about '08. It's what motors the political blogosphere, attracts the biggest names in journalism, books the talk shows and motivates the Congress. It is easier for me to write this column than to write about the effects of the boom in private equity on corporate governance and income distribution.
There is a merry-go-round of vicious circles with which to contend. Reporters say they Have To cover the minutia of the campaign right now because the campaign has started for real. Candidates say the Have To start campaigning right now otherwise they won't have the money to run credible campaigns. Iowa and New Hampshire Have To be first so they Have To be in January.
If we didn't cover Al Gore's utility bills and Mitt Romney's abortion record, would the campaign go away? If we didn't cover Britney's shaved head and the Rosie-Trump ego orgy, would America tune out? Is the press supposed to cover what people are interested in? Do the media create what people are interested in?
I give up on those big questions. This much is certain: The political elite needs to be sent to rehab. Reform is too mild and gentle.
For my money, the single greatest deterrent to a more rational approach to public policy, a less cantankerous civic climate and a reversal of the decline in trust in government is the structure of the campaign system. It is a bi-opoly financed in an arcane way that deters many highly qualified participants and creates systemic disincentives for effective government policy-making. While the entitlement program quagmire is more than important than campaign shenanigans 18 months before Election Day, semi-intelligent repairs on entitlements will not occur until the campaigning system goes into detox.
Next week, the 12-step program begins.
Dick Meyer is the editorial director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.
If you prefer e-mail to public comments, complaints or arguments, send them along to
Against the Grain. We may occasionally publish some of the interesting (and civil) ones, sometimes in edited form.
By Dick Meyer