The new year searches for a theme. Sometimes annual themes come ready-made; a presidential election looms, or a war. As far as can be seen from the American Rubicon called California, the theme (for the rest of you, anyway) that ushered in the new year is: It’s fucking cold, even as those of us on the West Coast lament every dip of the thermometer below 50. The media so abhors the vacuum of manmade conflict that it rushes to render even the weather controversial. Thus Fox Nation turns the designated polar vortex into a personal taunt of Al Gore—“What global warming?”—either truly or willfully ignorant that climate change is not about vanishing winters but meteorological extremes growing more so. Nonetheless this provided temporary solace to a right unsettled by reports that Obamacare might work after all.
The truth is that it’s too early to tell about Obamacare, and arguments about its success or failure are pointless except for their reflection of wishful thinking on both sides. The year’s thematic demands are impatient, wanting to know things before they’re known. None of us in this business has any use for ambiguity; nuance is for the soft-headed; so Robert Gates’s book is an indictment of the Obama administration or a betrayal of it, except for those who actually read it and realize it’s neither. The right professes outrage at the revelation that the president is a skeptic of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, something everyone else has been clear about since they first heard of Barack Obama. The left takes umbrage that Gates would write a book about a president who’s still in office, but didn’t mind so much when George W. Bush’s former Treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill, published The Price of Loyalty right before his old boss’s reelection bid in 2004. Rather O’Neill’s disclosure that the Bush White House was planning the Iraq invasion before September 11, 2001, was considered a public service, as some might consider Gates’s views of Joe Biden’s foreign-policy judgment, should the vice president buck for promotion in 2016.
Intellectual honesty has no track record in politics and was never going to make it as an annual theme anyway. The lack of a pending overarching event, however, makes the dishonesties more petty; to many, the Republican governor of New Jersey was a hero 14 months ago, having set aside partisanship to work with the Democratic president during a cataclysmic storm. So the relish of progressives in his current dismemberment as a prospective presidential nominee is almost as unseemly as the puerility of retributive traffic jams, setting aside that Chris Christie’s presidential chances were never as good as they’re being made out, both because his party is in the grip of a collective psychosis and because Christie is Christie and the harder they come, the harder they’re bound to fall. For its part the right finds itself tangled in agendas. On the one hand conservatives can’t stand Christie and on the other hand they can’t stand the idea of not being able to stand anyone other than Obama.
This produces the spectacle of last Sunday’s Meet the Press where one of the round-table guests, a member of the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, which otherwise has done some of the most diligent reporting of the Christie scandal, so impressively garbled the story’s implications that it might be called heroic but for the mendacity. In the chill of a thematically confused moment she attempted to both take down the governor and the president, suggesting that the only thing worse than a governor’s abuse of the Port Authority to shut a bridge is a president’s abuse of the Internal Revenue Service to target political opponents. When you’re in a position of journalistic authority on one of the country’s great newspapers, you’re consequently exposed to facts whether you like them or not, such as the conclusion by any number of investigations—from that of Congress to the Inspector General who first raised questions about IRS misconduct—that not only is there no evidence connecting the misconduct to the current administration but that the misconduct may not have been misconduct. Subsequently misrepresenting the facts (something most hardened journalists call “lying”) amid the decorum of “television’s longest running show,” Kim Strassel shrewdly calculated that other guests including the usually risible Chris Matthews would let her get away with it, as they did.
The breathless Christie fixation and its hypocrisies lie in the tradition of the media’s breathless fixations. Following the stupefying government shutdown of October and the Obamacare-debate’s rush in November to any premature conclusion it could grasp, polls measuring the Christie story show public indifference reaching critical mass. That’s not because the Christie story is trivial; it isn’t. Real lives were at stake when a bridge was closed on and around the anniversary of the worst terrorist attack against the United States in history. It’s because, from the perspective of the national media, the Christie story isn’t about the first month of 2014 but the eleventh month of 2016 which, by the math of most real lives, is 34 months away. In the real-life time-zone a lot happens in 34 months. Living a real life can get you exercised about all of it, some of it or none of it: It will get cold again; it will get hot again; more books will be published that won’t say what we in the media say they say; the Strassels that overrun us are good for 100 more Orwellian outbursts. In our search for the big theme that won’t matter 34 months from now lurk the smaller themes that will, such as the chasm between those who have in abundance and those who barely have at all, and the disgraceful and cruel resistance to extending a bare modicum of public support to those out of work only because some want to believe that the millions who aren’t working just don’t want to. Such a conviction is not a winter of the skies but the soul.