Media

The Optimist Club: Obama Reclaims Democrats’ Idealism

With his last convention speech, the president forced pundits to acknowledge that Democrats are taking back an optimistic worldview.

The Optimist Club: Obama Reclaims Democrats' Idealism

President Barack Obama addresses the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Wednesday, July 27. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

As the media saw it, last night’s Democratic National Convention was all about optimism, topped off by President Obama’s rousing speech that will surely be recorded as one of his best. Optimism was once the Democrats’ franchise. Franklin Roosevelt’s 1932 campaign song, in the depths of the Depression, was Happy Days Are Here Again, and it was his sunny disposition and unwillingness to accept defeat that helped buoy the country. The Democrats lost that optimism during Vietnam and then began to double down on pessimism. Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech in 1979 was both a signal and a concession. It is a speech no president, much less a Democrat, should ever have delivered.

To make matters worse, Republicans managed to co-opt the optimism Democrats lost. Ronald Reagan always talked of FDR as a political mentor, which confused liberals. What Reagan meant, I assumed, was that he picked up FDR’s hopefulness. Policywise, liberals were right to feel Reagan was a political disaster, and the country’s economy was nowhere near as good during his presidency as the eulogies for him suggest. But the country’s mood was lry good, which is the foundation on which Reagan’s reputation now rests. He wasn’t much of a policy strategist. He was a great national psychologist.

It has taken the media a long time to recognize that Democrats under Obama were seizing optimism back, and last night those pundits finally acknowledged it. This is a big deal, though the media are late to the game possibly because they contribute mightily to our sense of national pessimism. Many journalists, by their own admission, are cynical and jaded and, yes, pessimistic. They apparently see it as a sign of maturity or at least hard-nosed realism not to cheerlead or provide good news. They are above that. They were quick to point out how Donald Trump’s acceptance speech was mired in gloom and doom, a miasma of threat and fear, but they are not introspective enough to see how much they have contributed to the idea that America is on the wrong track — a track to hell.

Crisis suits the media. It is their bread and butter. Nothing is better than a scandal, which is why we are inundated with them in our papers and on our TV and computer screens. Obama has been especially victimized by this tendency to see the world through smoke-colored glasses. If Reagan was the Teflon president, Obama sometimes seems like the Velcro one. His has been a largely scandal-free administration, which has prompted Republicans and the media to invent scandals or inflate minor transgressions into major ones to keep the crisis mill going. Nixon gave us Watergate. Reagan Irangate. Bill Clinton Lewinskygate. George W. Bush… well, he didn’t need scandals since his entire administration was a catastrophe. But Obama, pretty much nada. So when the Obamacare rollout hit some speed bumps, the media erupted. It was a lead story on the network news. And when it turned out that 20 million Americans got health insurance because of it — zippo. Crisis sells. Success doesn’t.

Last night, Obama may not only have turned the election; he may have turned the media, which may very well be the beginning of how his legacy will be viewed. In soaring rhetoric and in contrast to Trump’s dark vision, Obama defined America as a place of optimism, fearlessness, compassion, strength and hope. In one fell swoop, he redefined the Democratic Party, at least in the media’s eyes. He was Rooseveltian, though the media, with their shorter historical perspective, called him Reaganesque. New York magazine blogger Andrew Sullivan summarized it: “And the Dems now own optimism. This is truly the Democrats’ Reagan.”

Reagan got an awful lot of media mileage, not to mention that burnished legacy, with similar rhetoric. It was almost as if, in taking on the media’s inherent cynicism, the Eeyores of the media were relieved to be challenged and not have to flog the gloom. Now Obama has taken on that cynicism. Though I purposely avoided Fox News, I didn’t hear one post-mortem of his speech that was not effusive. Even the pontificators on CNN were gushing, including their resident Republican operative, Steve Schmidt.

As far the media and the Democrats were concerned last night, happy days are here again. It has been a long time coming.

 


 

Which is not to say that all is lightness and gaiety. Trump’s entreaty to Putin to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails gave the media the controversy last night’s convention did not, and they ran with it until the Big Dawgs came on. What was somewhat shocking was how genuinely abashed they seemed to be, almost as if Trump, who had been crossing lines for a year, finally crossed one he shouldn’t have. NBC’s Chuck Todd didn’t mince words. He called Trump’s invitation “a violation of US sovereignty,” which was significant since national sovereignty seems to be one of Trump’s selling points. But Todd went further. He said he was flummoxed by the “lack of Republican outrage,” basically calling out Republicans. In effect, he was “unnormalizing” Trump, not brushing this off as just another instance of Trump being Trump.

Brian Williams on MSNBC went even further than that. He cited the lack of Republican censure as a possible case of the “death of outrage.” It’s a good phrase, applicable to the entire response to the Trump campaign — not only of Republicans, who now seem to have embraced Trump in a bear hug, but also of the media, who always seemed loath to treat him as the freak show he is. (By the way, where was the outrage when Bill O’Reilly said the slaves who built the White House were well-fed?)

 

If you are looking for a suspect in the death of outrage, don’t round up Trump. Round up the media. Round up CNN, where Trump lackey Jeffrey Lord is given license to debase the debate at every turn, and round up CNN head Jeff Zucker, who in the name of ratings has sold out every last shred of journalistic responsibility and respectability. Round up those network reporters who continue to treat Trump as if he were just another nominee and not a bigoted demagogue. Round up everyone at Fox News — why not? And while you’re at it, round up all those journalists who seem to have forgotten that Trump has yet to release his tax returns. Isn’t that a smoking gun in the murder of outrage?

 


 

Convention coverage nowadays is anachronistic. I remember when the floor was churning with delegates and suspense (if not over the nominee, then over some platform squabble) and reporters roamed to find notables amid the chaos. I even remember when NBC’s John Chancellor was unceremoniously escorted from the floor of the 1964 GOP convention as the sergeants-at-arms were clearing the aisles, signing off with the words, “This is John Chancellor, somewhere in custody.” And I remember Dan Rather being manhandled at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. If you think Monday’s Democratic convention was unruly, you don’t know unruly.

But conventions have since settled down into long, rather sedate TV shows, staged not for the delegates but for the cameras, and convention reporting has settled into post-mortems of speeches. If you think about it, this is rather curious. We see and hear the speeches ourselves. Why do we then need to be told whether the speech was good or not? It’s a case of the old Chico Marx line: “Who you gonna believe? Me or your own eyes?”

The only justification for this coverage is that it’s a way for the legacy media to seize the convention from the politicians — but also from the audience. And it is yet another post-modernist twist. The effectiveness of a speech is measured by its effectiveness on the media analysts. They tell us whether a speech worked, and when a consensus develops, that consensus is then reported. In effect, the media are telling us that we viewers are irrelevant. We can just wait for the pundits’ verdict.

As Jim Rutenberg discussed in Thursday’s New York Times, Trump sort of finessed this by staging his convention, intentionally or not, less for the media than for Twitter, which circumvents conventional media. As a TV show the GOP convention was a “hot mess.” As an occasion for tweets, it was much more successful.

The Democrats have finessed the media control, too, but in a different way. They have stacked one speech after another, so that the pundits really don’t have much time to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down until the end of the evening when everyone has gone to bed. Last night, we got almost no analysis of Michael Bloomberg’s speech, or Joe Biden’s or Tim Kaine’s, until long after the fact, and then, in newspapers and on the internet. TV was left speechless, except for the Obama oration.

Democrats clearly don’t trust the media any more than Trump did, though unlike Republicans they are not running against the media either. I haven’t heard a single word from the podium attacking the media at this convention, the way we did during the Republican convention when the media were allegedly in league with Clinton (even though a recent Harvard survey showed she received the most negative coverage of any candidate.) Instead, Democrats have just ignored them and asked us to believe our own eyes.

 

Neal Gabler

Neal Gabler is an author of five books and the recipient of two Los Angeles Times Book Prizes, TIME magazine's non-fiction book of the year, USA Today's biography of the year and other awards. He is also a senior fellow at The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, and is currently writing a biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy.