An Exercise in Futility

Sunday morning's guardians of American virtue helpfully prepared a presumably pre-jaded people for the Democratic national convention by asking the questions that burn in the hearts of ordinary Americans. Wasn't it a thrill to hear Cokie Roberts ask John Edwards how he was going to explain his positions on repealing tax cuts for billionaires to the citizens of South Carolina, on keeping Social Security socially secure and not privately privatized, on defending Americans against massacre, on defending the national parks against the subsidized tree killers? Weren't you struck, as I was, by her uncanny grasp of what Americans have on their minds?

Kidding, of course. American morals have no fiercer defender than Roberts, so she had more urgent business of the man who would be vice president. Here was her actual question: “How do you explain politically to the people in Seneca, South Carolina [where Edwards was born], votes against ‘partial-birth-abortion' ban or against the banning of flag burning or on gun shows? How do you explain that politically?”

Edwards answered cogently, as if summing up for the jury, by -- what do you know? -- defending his positions on partial-birth abortion, a flag-burning amendment, and gun shows. He didn't position himself; he took positions.

Roberts was unfazed. Honest arguments were not of interest to her. Assessing their quality was not what she'd been brought back to her coveted Sunday-morning pulpit for. A few minutes later, she was back with this razor-sharp insight into the nature of the Democratic Party: “It's a unified party, but it is a party of the left.”

It is a party of the left. Meaning, she went on to say, that the Dixiecrat racists are no longer Democrats, and that Zell Miller is no longer a Democrat, either, leaving nothing but left-wingers. So in case you might have thought that the Democrats are a center-left coalition, trust Cokie Roberts to set you straight.

And will you ever forget how, the same morning, Tim Russert turned to Barack Obama, who is going to nominate John Kerry on Tuesday night, and, with his patented research depth, popped this memorable question: “Are you going to be a senator who fights to bring Big Pharma to heel and busts up the Republican-Saudi axis of oil?”

Yup, kidding again. The actual question from Buffalo's voice of the people was, “Are you going to be a liberal senator?” Who can make this stuff up?

Russert was back Monday night with this, after Bill Clinton's rousing speech pungently outlined differences between Kerry and himself: “An extraordinary night for the Democrats, how they're trying to position their party. … Very clever speech.” He was packed up with CNN's Jeff Greenfield, who earlier in the evening declared about the Democrats in Boston, “This is all an exercise in making John Kerry acceptable.”

An exercise. The way the Republican minstrel show of 2000 was an exercise in spraying polychrome on the white guys in suits who run the party and vote for it. You remember how America's Sunday-morning ministers made mirth at that exercise.

Number of July 2000 network references to Philadelphia as an exercise, according to Lexis-Nexis: zero.

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of Letters to a Young Activist.

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