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K-School Couch Potatoes

By Joshua A. Kaufman

Sitting next to me at the James Carville-Mike McCurry discussion at the Kennedy School on Tuesday night was a fellow who works in dining services. "I like to see these speeches from time to time during my breaks," he told me on the third floor balcony overlooking the ARCO Forum. "Especially when you've seen the people on TV all the time."

Of course, then, he would have been interested in seeing these two "esteemed" panelists, the former a strategist, the latter a spinmeister--both television celebrities. Substantively, the panelists did have something to offer, or at least Carville did. But that is probably not what prompted the worker to become so interested in these Washington players. More likely it was his having seen their lovely mugs on TV: Carville hawking his book on Letterman, McCurry explaining away the President's foibles on C-Span.

The political glitterati and hordes of students who filled the audience were--for the most part--similarly drawn by the magnetic rays of the cathode tube. No more discriminating than the dining worker, they flocked for Carville and McCurry because they recognized their names and knew their faces. The K-School simply doesn't get that kind of turnout even for cabinet members.

(The non-ticketed departing speech by former Secretary of State Warren Christopher comes to mind as an example of a particularly sparse audience.) With the exception of world leaders, the auditorium is ordinarily filled only by such names as John F. Kennedy Jr. and Barbra Streisand--and these names get top billing. So when we see a packed reception for political lackeys, we can only conclude that they are celebrities themselves.

All of this is a problem, the reason being that our political culture is a TV-celebrity culture; JFK Jr. was following up on a national political trend with George rather than presaging it. What's wrong with a TV-celebrity political culture is that it exists in a commercial environment, one that is based on marketing.

What's wrong with political marketing is not that its end, to persuade voters, is ignoble. Rather, what's wrong with political marketing is that it costs money, Big Money, because American consumers spend Big Bucks. Networks will displace Proctor & Gamble only if Clinton & Carville supply the cash to do so. What's wrong with Big Money is that it comes from Big Business, and attached to Big Business are Big Strings.

Understanding just how mediated is our relation to our government highlights the irony of two of its chieftains, a senior political advisor to the president and the White House press secretary, themselves known in public only for their television personas, complaining about the system, lamenting how broken it all is, calling for free TV time.

They are obviously envious of greater celebrity status. Now that might seem a lowly purpose to attribute to such high-minded individuals as Carville and McCurry. But don't fool yourself: both are astute political fighters aware that the ring is inside the television, and that it is controlled by corporate executives unconcerned with politics except as it concerns their right to broadcast what they will.

Now whom should we blame for this political mess? Operatives Carville and McCurry? But they are just doing their jobs. Television network executives? You wouldn't cede your legally guaranteed property (in this case, the airwaves) either. Voters? Ah, yes. Blame ourselves for being victims of a passive culture.

Blame ourselves for the mental atrophy induced by television. Blame ourselves for letting politicians at first cede and now, what is the neo-liberal solution, sell, the public airwaves. Blame ourselves for being able to be seduced in politics by the same people who get paid to think of creative jingles for laundry detergent.

Blame ourselves for falling in love with the culture of the celebrity. Blame ourselves for allowing the culture of celebrity to infect and corrode our politics.

Joshua A. Kaufman's column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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