A queasy feeling about the state of U.S. politics

October 12, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN THE early-morning darkness, consciousness arrives with voices on the radio loudly trumpeting tomorrow's third presidential debate. In the morning newspaper, headlines say Marylanders are knocking down the doors to election offices, registering in record numbers for November's vote. Democracy is on the march. So why do I feel nauseated all the way to my soul?

I watched the first presidential debate with friends who happen to be Democrats. They did cartwheels across the living room as George W. Bush seemed to fight back waves of dyspepsia. I watched the second debate with some of the same friends. They thought John Kerry was strong again. But nobody did cartwheels, because Bush cleared up his apparent indigestion and turned it back to his old cowpoke swagger.

We see what we want to see, and hear what we want to hear, and we hope everyone else edits the way we do. But it doesn't work that way. We seem to be shouting at each other across this election season, equating volume with meaning, but losing translation across the psychological abyss that separates us. The noise is so loud that it shakes even the politically lethargic.

With hours remaining before tonight's 9 o'clock signup deadline, Maryland voter registration is up 10 percent over four years ago, with nearly 3 million voters eligible for the election three weeks from today. Around the country are reports echoing Maryland's: millions signing up to vote who never voted before, Democrats and Republicans alike boasting of big increases. We'd like to think they are prompted by a blossoming sense of civic involvement. But we suspect they reflect the national atmosphere of bared fangs, much of it driven by the incessant broadcast news cycle, and the sound of people choosing up sides.

In his new biography, Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism, former NPR morning anchor Bob Edwards writes, "People no longer tune in to a program for a detached assessment of political matters; they tune in to have their own biases affirmed."

Broadcasting drives much of the national dialogue, and much of it is venomous. On the radio are legions of pathetic Rush Limbaugh imitators who seem to broadcast from the back pocket of the Republican Party. On cable TV, James Carville and Paul Begala take turns co-hosting CNN's Crossfire while simultaneously advising the Democratic Party -- and, across the table, Robert Novak fumes against anyone varying even slightly from conservative Republican views.

It's not that they aren't entitled to their opinions; it's that everyone seems to conform so tightly to party lines that nobody's reaching for the common-sense middle, nobody's giving ground on even the most obvious points.

We watch John Kerry dissemble over questions about Iraq, about abortion, about gay marriage. On Iraq, "I've been consistent all along," he tells us, knowing that we know better. He can't deny, even for a heartbeat, that he's gotten lost in the thickets of his own verbosity, because somebody will turn it into a commercial 10 minutes later.

On abortion, could he have been more obsequious during the second debate? "I deeply respect your point of view," he said, and then said again and again, to the woman who asked his views. But Kerry equivocates on his own view. Would it be so hard to say, "Listen, nobody likes abortion. Women don't get abortions because they want to; in their desperation, they do it when they believe they have no other choice."

In Kerry's verbal dance, we feel conned. But, exasperatingly, Bush is no different. The day before the second debate, the top American weapons inspector reports that prewar sanctions were working in Iraq, that there were no weapons of mass destruction, that there was no "gathering threat" that Bush described.

It means that Bush's whole premise for plunging us into war was fraudulent. But, breathtakingly, Bush gives no ground, admits no mistakes. Are we living in the same reality? In the same week that 34 children are blown to bits and beheadings are broadcast around the world, Bush insists the war is going well and the reasons for entering it were valid, no matter the facts.

It's the same with taxes. The rich get the huge give-back because, says Bush, this creates jobs. It doesn't matter that he has the worst four-year jobs record since the Depression of the 1930s; he's sticking with this rationale. It's his instinctive posture, and the nation's: Dig in your heels.

We no longer expect to hear truths coming from the candidates, or from those who frantically spin what they say. We only expect today's version of truth, to be supplanted by tomorrow's version. They are shouted across a great abyss. The shouting becomes a continuous shriek. And our national nausea deepens.

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