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.”But this is only one of many examples.
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.
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.Rich reminds us that the media has done everything possible to enable the Bush administration's "reality creation".
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.The Colbert moment.
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.Maybe you can fool a majority for awhile but maybe not forever.
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.
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