There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
On last night's Hardball, host Chris Matthews and David Shuster focused like a laser on the things that really matter:
MATTHEWS: He's [Sen. Barack Obama] not that good at that -- handshaking in a diner.
SHUSTER: No --
MATTHEWS: Barack doesn't seem to know how to do that right.
SHUSTER: -- he doesn't do that well. But then you see him in front of 15,000 people in some of these college towns, and that's why, Chris, we've seen Chelsea Clinton and Bill Clinton in Bloomington and South Bend and Terre Haute. I mean --
MATTHEWS: What's so hard about doing a diner? I don't get it. Why doesn't he go in there and say, "Did you see the papers today? What do you think about that team? How did we do last night?" Just some regular connection?
SHUSTER: Well, here's the other thing that we saw on the tape, Chris, is that, when Obama went in, he was offered coffee, and he said, "I'll have orange juice."
SHUSTER: He did.
And it's just one of those sort of weird things. You know, when the owner of the diner says, "Here, have some coffee," you say, "Yes, thank you," and, "Oh, can I also please have some orange juice, in addition to this?" You don't just say, "No, I'll take orange juice," and then turn away and start shaking hands. That's what happens [unintelligible] --
MATTHEWS: You don't ask for a substitute on the menu.
MATTHEWS: David, what a regular guy. You could do this. Anyway, thank you, David Shuster. I mean, go to the diners.
The mind-blowing inanity of this conversation can't properly be appreciated through the transcript. When Matthews said "No" in response to Shuster's revelation that Obama ordered orange juice in a diner, he sounded as though he had just been told that Obama had punched a nun in the face. Watch for yourself.
When CNN's Candy Crowley suggested after the 2004 election that John Kerry's attempt to order green tea in an Iowa restaurant showed a "disconnect" between the presidential candidate and "most of America," it seemed unlikely that we would see a sillier attempt to find meaning in a candidate's beverage choice. Not only was Crowley taking the elitist attitude that simple Iowans couldn't possibly be familiar with green tea, she was also wrong. The Kmart in Dubuque, Iowa, stocked Lipton's green tea.
But last night's exchange between Matthews and Shuster was far worse. Offered coffee, Barack Obama asked for orange juice instead. And Chris Matthews and David Shuster pounced, aghast that he would dare do such a thing as ask for orange juice. A preference for orange juice was supposed to demonstrate that Obama is out of touch with "regular" people. (For what it's worth, neither Matthews nor Shuster so much as hinted that a single, actual voter who was in that diner was put off by Obama's interest in orange juice. But Matthews and Shuster were upset enough for everyone.)
MSNBC runs commercials for itself in which Tim Russert solemnly explains why MSNBC covers politics: "It's about the war. Our sons and daughters. It's about the economy. Our jobs. It's about education. Our schools. It's about health care. Our families' well-being. It's about everything that matters."
MSNBC doesn't run any ads that claim that what really matters is whether the candidates choose to drink coffee or orange juice. But that's what the cable channel's brightest stars (Matthews is reportedly paid $5 million a year for this nonsense) chose to spend their time discussing last night.
Orange juice -- and bowling.
Immediately after his exchange with Shuster, Matthews hosted Obama supporter Sen. Bob Casey. Here's the very first question Matthews asked this United States Senator:
MATTHEWS: Isn't that interesting, Senator Casey, that Barack Obama, your candidate, can walk before 15,000 people with complete calm and assurance, but he seems a little out of place in A) a bowling alley and B) a diner? What is the problem with your guy?
Obama ordered orange juice in a diner and isn't a very good bowler -- and based on these facts, which can only aspire to qualify as trivia, Chris Matthews demanded to know "[w]hat is the problem with your guy?"
Matthews has been positively obsessed with Obama's lack of bowling skills. He talked about it on Hardball on March 31 -- in two separate segments -- and announced, "[T]his gets very ethnic, but the fact that he's good at basketball doesn't surprise anybody, but the fact that he's that terrible at bowling does make you wonder." And again on April 1 -- this time bringing it up in three separate segments and opening his interview with Obama supporter Sen. Claire McCaskill: "[D]id you advise Obama to go out and try to bowl the other day?" On April 2, Matthews interviewed Obama himself -- and his very first question was about the presidential candidate's bowling. On April 8, Matthews said, "I'm actually surprised by the fact that neither Barack or Hillary have bowled much in their lives. Maybe that tells you something about the Democratic Party." He referenced Obama's bowling again on April 9.
A profile by Mark Leibovich in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine suggests that Matthews thinks his other television show -- The Chris Matthews Show airs on Sundays -- disproves the notion that he isn't serious. Leibovich writes:
When I asked Matthews about the bloviator stigma, he dismissed it as jealousy or at the very least ignorance among those who don't know him or who don't regularly watch his Sunday show or who have not read his books or who are not aware that he is a student of history and film or that he is on the board of trustees of the Churchill Center or that he has received -- did he mention? -- 19 honorary degrees.
Leibovich also quotes the executive producer of The Chris Matthews Show describing that program's audience as "smart people who want smart analysis."
But even on a show that purports to offer "smart analysis," Matthews can't resist focusing on Obama's inability to bowl well; he included a segment on the topic in last week's broadcast.
These discussions of bowling and beverages may be stupid, but they aren't pointless. They are part of a broader pattern of media portraying prominent progressives as elitists.
Matthews routinely asks if Obama can "connect with regular people." Apparently, all those people who have been voting for Obama are irregular. And, just so you don't have to wonder exactly who it is Chris Matthews considers irregular, he spelled it out for you, continuing: "Or does he only appeal to people who come from the African-American community and from the people who have college or advanced degrees?"
New York Times columnist Gail Collins said Obama "can be disturbingly Ivy League." Candy Crowley, doubling down on her green tea comments, refers to Obama supporters as "latte liberals." The Chicago Tribune refers to Obama supporters as "wine-track" voters and chides the senator for referencing arugula while in Iowa. Obama's arugula reference drew a barrage of (inane) media criticism, with Glenn Beck falsely claiming "arugula is not even grown in the state." In fact, it is -- and it is readily available in Iowa supermarkets, too. Apparently they even having indoor plumbing in much of the state, despite what Candy Crowley and Glenn Beck seem to think. Even George Will got in on the act, mocking Obama for mentioning arugula to Iowans. Yes, George Will wants you to think Barack Obama is an out-of-touch elite.
And, of course (according to the media) John Edwards' big house and expensive haircut showed that he was out of touch with "regular people," as did John Kerry's windsurfing and Al Gore's childhood attendance of a private school and his decision to occasionally wear brown clothing.
Most people who are no longer in middle school understand that it isn't a great idea to judge people based on things like their haircuts, their wardrobe choices, or what beverage they drink. Most people understand that we shouldn't choose a president based on these things. Most people -- but not political journalists.
Most people understand that in a time of war, with the nation teetering on the edge of recession (if one hasn't already started), and the housing market collapsing, and an administration that views the Geneva Conventions as "quaint" and the Bill of Rights as optional, assessing candidates based on who would be the most fun to have a beer with is not the way out of this mess; it's the way we got into it in the first place. Most people -- but not political journalists.
Which isn't to say that there is nothing candidates can do to avoid having reporters relentlessly mock them as out-of-touch elitists: They can run for office as Republicans.
George W. Bush and Al Gore were both sons of successful politicians, both attended private schools and Ivy League colleges, but only one was portrayed by the media as an out-of-touch elite; the other was a "regular guy." Bush owns $13,000 worth of bicycles -- a fact that never seemed to come up when the media were portraying John Kerry's windsurfing as the pastime of the wealthy. Kerry was skewered for ordering a cheesesteak with Swiss cheese -- and when Bush lied about ordering his with Cheez Whiz, the news media politely stayed silent. John Edwards' expensive haircut was endlessly portrayed by the media as evidence that he was an out-of-touch elitist dandy --but how often have you seen a reporter mention that George W. Bush handpicks the cloth for his $2,000 suits?
During the height of the media frenzy over Edwards' haircut, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd made fun of him for visiting "the Pink Sapphire spa in Manchester, which offers services for men that include the 'Touch of Youth' facial, as well as trips 'into the intriguing world of makeup.' " But, as Bob Somerby pointed out, John McCain has also taken a trip "into the intriguing world of makeup" at the Pink Sapphire. Somehow, Dowd forgot to include that in her column -- and the rest of the media (except for the New Hampshire Union Leader) forgot as well. (A Nexis search for "John Edwards AND Pink Sapphire" returns 71 hits. One news report available on Nexis mentions McCain's visit to the salon. One.)
Last year, CNN's Wolf Blitzer called Hillary Clinton a "flip-flopper" because she sometimes drinks her coffee black, and sometimes with cream. The very same Associated Press article from which Blitzer learned this completely irrelevant fact also reported that Rudy Giuliani drinks his coffee with "Sweet'n Low or Equal, whichever is available," and that John McCain likes "[c]appuccino or coffee with cream and sugar." Blitzer saw no troubling insecurity in Giuliani's or McCain's preferences (and, to be clear: He shouldn't have. Just as he shouldn't have branded Clinton a flip-flopper because she sometimes puts cream in her coffee and sometimes does not).
And that same AP article also reported that Mitt Romney doesn't drink coffee at all -- but "has been known to have hot chocolate." Try to imagine how Chris Matthews would react if he found out that Barack Obama doesn't drink coffee -- and that, instead, he drinks hot cocoa.
Now imagine how Chris Matthews would react if Obama didn't drink coffee -- and was as rich as Mitt Romney is.