The Carter-Bush Catfight Got Overhyped

NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- Judging by the coverage of the vicious name-calling between Jimmy Carter and the Bush White House, you'd have almost thought that Britney Spears and Paris Hilton were feuding again.

In a word: Yawn.

Get real. Does anybody really expect Carter to praise Bush or vice versa? Of course not. Remember, Carter took advantage of his moment in the sun to take Bush to task during Coretta Scott King's funeral.

As far as the media are concerned, it was helpful, but hardly paramount, that two occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue turned out to be the main combatants. As usual, what matters is that the antagonists were . Maybe this is Satan's revenge on journalism: Sooner or later, we all turn into People magazine writers.

A desire to exploit the presidents' fame was the media's highest priority, and it jacked up the story. Whether the bickering parties are thin-skinned diva starlets or thin-skinned diva politicians, all the media ever really want to do is ride the coattails of the rich and famous.

Smackdown

This silly spat started last weekend when Carter told a reporter that the Bush administration, which can't rescue the troops from Iraq, was the "worst in history" for its impact on the world. Carter's remarks appeared in the -- you guessed it -- Arkansas -Gazette. (Aha! A liberal conspiracy!)

The Bush administration fired back that Carter, the ex-president who couldn't rescue the hostages in Iran, was becoming "increasingly irrelevant."

When I last engaged in this kind of mindless name-calling, it happened on a schoolyard, and if memory serves, I was about 12. Someone probably told me "You're a jerk." I'm pretty sure I retorted "You're a bigger jerk!" Something smart like that.

I can't help but feel a little cynical about all of this. Since leaving office in 1981, Carter, who has been recognized for his efforts to help those in need, has nonetheless achieved his highest profile from writing books. Authors crave publicity, right? What better way for Carter to stay in the limelight than by reiterating his contempt for Bush's policies?

The White House had to be secretly pleased as well, given the president's disastrous, Iraq-tinged approval ratings. Perhaps the administration seized an opening to slam Carter for his foreign-policy failures to divert some attention.

Uncomfortable

The catfight put the media in an uncomfortable position for a moment. We didn't seem sure what was the appropriate tone for this discussion. Should it be played as a joke? Should we recount the history of presidential politics? Should the liberal press seize the day and bash Bush for our woes in Iraq? Or should his supporters circle the wagons?

For better or worse, Carter subsequently retreated somewhat from his position on NBC's "Today."

The New York Times led with its story by opining: "Nothing rattles Washington quite like a good violation of unwritten rules, especially when the violator and the violated are both presidents (past and present, respectively)."

As any media junkie knows, whenever the Times invokes parenthesis in the first paragraph, you know the story has achieved, in Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" description, "heavy-osity."

The American people will quickly grow bored with another nitpicking fight between these two. Clearly, they'll have to come up with something daring to give their feud legs.

Here's my modest proposal: Carter and Bush should hold an arm-wrestling bout and have it simulcast on C-Span and ESPN. The ever-calm Brian Lamb could host it, and the excitable Dick Vitale could provide commentary.

To kick things off, Britney could lip-synch her way through the National Anthem.

MEDIA WEB QUESTION OF THE DAY: Do you care about the spat between Jimmy Carter and the Bush White House?

WEDNESDAY PET PEEVE: With all of the gloom-and-doom coverage of the publishing industry, it' unfortunate that the American and Paste, two up-and-comers, might be getting overlooked. Both of them put the emphasis on presenting interesting information in a no-frills way. If you haven't heard of either title, that's only because they haven't used hype to get their message across. (Thank God.)

The American's current issue contains such front-page teases as "The Economic Consequences of Pulling out of Iraq" and "The Upside of Income Inequality." This is Mensa stuff compared to the drivel that many magazines plaster across their covers. (Yes, it's a new business magazine not named Portfolio -- imagine that.) Paste, a pleasing alternative to Rolling Stone, reports on pop culture in a refreshing and fun manner. When you see them at a newsstand, why not pass on the established magazines and give them a shot?

THE READERS RESPOND: "Jon, I was afraid you were not listening to me. However, in today's report card, your comment about ABC and 'the news first' is spot-on. Now maybe you will stop caring about the trials and tribulations of Katie Couric and use your influence to get her a spot on 'The View,' where she belongs." Peter Schleif

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By Jon Friedman