How horribly uncivil America is becoming! That’s the big space-filling, time-filling newsmagazine and cable talk topic of the moment. Between the homicidal tea parties and the “spontaneous” congressmen, it's time to wheel out Miss Manners (as CNN anchor Fredricka Whitfield did on Saturday) to puzzle out all this shocking unrestrained fury that’s suddenly invaded our lives. But why are we all so surprised? American distemper has been a strangely long time coming. Now everyone’s on a short fuse, even female tennis players.
It amazed me in the months after the foreclosure crisis hit and Wall Street’s fecklessness melted everybody’s savings that my new countrymen were so stoic, so seemingly resigned to being shovel ready for the economic dumpster. A few mean things were shouted at AIG managers and such, but where were the pitchfork-wielding hordes charging the Merrill Lynch executive suite to rip out CEO John Thain’s $35,000 commode? How come no break-ins now at Goldman Sachs with burlap sacks to redistribute the first half of this year’s $11.4 billion in bonuses and compensation (up 33 percent from a year earlier)?
Obama is such a rational dude himself, he assumes that a Sunday talk show marathon of cool rationality can prevail over a summer of sulfurous, satanic smoke.
It has been left to Michael Moore, in his usual antic, flawed way, to enact a theatrical liberal insurgency. His new movie, Capitalism: A Love Story, which opens Sept. 23 in New York and Los Angeles, ends with the familiar roly-poly figure in the baseball cap cordoning off Wall Street’s most blue-chip institutions in yellow crime scene tape. The scenes in which his cameras watch with a silent family from inside a small doomed house in Miami as the sheriff’s posse advances to repossess it are full of raw suspense. Just as painful is the laid-off worker at a glass company in Chicago, who tells the camera angrily: “This happened because of bad business deals. I don’t make business deals. I make doors and windows.”
Judging by the wildly different grievances offered to TV reporters by the Washington marchers, it wasn’t health care that drove them to take to the streets on Sept. 12. It was a muddled, media-fueled, generalized fury. The achievement of the GOP and its allies in cable, talk radio, and the Internet has been to convert the righteous discontent with joblessness inflicted by financial and managerial malfeasance into rage at the guy in the White House, whose health-care plan is the only thing on the horizon that might actually do those surly marchers some real-world good. (By the way, the ones who have heard of Michael Moore probably hate him and his liberal view of their grievances even more than they hate Obama.)
• Paul Krugman: Reform or Bust (NYT)Franklin D. Roosevelt was fortunate: He didn’t take office until nearly four years after the Wall Street crash, by which time the Republicans’ responsibility for the Depression was taken for granted. It’s Obama’s bad luck that he got elected just as the mayhem of the foreclosures, the banking collapse, and the General Motors disaster was accelerating the surge in unemployment to warp speed.
Obama, the avatar of change, himself recognized as early as July that change might end up provoking more fear than hope. After listing all the woes he had inherited, he told Time’s Karen Tumulty that when “you add that all together” and throw in a big dose of misinformation about cost, “in people’s minds it’s just a big expensive thing that may end up resulting in me paying more taxes.”
Was it the vanity of supreme self-confidence that made Obama underestimate how ruthlessly Republicans would stoke that fear? Or that their media voiceboxes would go after him with the same paranoid fury they spewed at Bill Clinton? Maybe the verbal posies Obama tossed to grumpsters John McCain and Orrin Hatch were just part of Obama’s Gandhian strategy of killing ’em with kindness, but what if he’s naïve enough to imagine that these guys can be persuaded to lend him a hand?
Glenn Beck is Rush redux—Limbaugh with liposuction, partying like it’s still 1993. Foxy cable “news” is talk radio with pictures, birthers are Whitewater conspiracy wonks with sharper forceps, and most of the heads we see talking on TV are cab drivers with microphones instead of Bluetooth headsets, mouthing off while the meter ticks. The biggest change since the Clinton-hating days is the Internet. It helped elect Obama and now it disseminates the venom that threatens to poison his efforts. And Rush is still around, but bigger, richer, and louder, with scores of imitators, respectable networks ready to take him seriously, and Republican politicians dropping incense on his altar.
There was always something of a demagogue about FDR. His patrician background gave him the Wall Street cred to scorch his enemies in that plummy voice: “We know now that government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob… They are unanimous in their hate for me and I welcome their hatred…” Obama can’t say something like that. He knows he would come off as an angry black man—and everybody would know he was faking it. He doesn’t welcome hatred, is the truth. He made an admonishing speech to Wall Street last week, but it was a day late and a trillion dollars short. Besides, the summer’s toxic flare over health care has muffled the urgency for financial reform. It doesn’t help that the pencil heads on his own team were participants in the reckless era of unraveling regulation.
Obama is such a rational dude himself, he assumes that a Sunday talk show marathon of cool rationality can prevail over a summer of sulfurous, satanic smoke. But I am afraid that what the 18th-century satirist Jonathan Swift observed still applies: It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.
Tina Brown is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times best seller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown.