To give you an idea of how adhesively I have been glued to the American political scene these past four decades, I should point out that I have distinct memories of reading every word of available coverage during the 1968 presidential primaries. I favored George Romney on the Republican side (and just voted for his son in Florida 40 years later), Eugene McCarthy on the Democrat slate. When Robert F. Kennedy was shot during his speech after winning the California primary, it was about 1 a.m. in New York City, and I was listening on a transistor radio secreted under my pillow, long after my parents supposed me asleep. I even remember exactly where I was standing when I saw the New York Daily News headline that Lyndon Johnson would not try for reelection.
None of this sounds too terribly abnormal until you realize I was born in May 1958, leaving me a few months shy of ten years old at the time of these events.
Despite being this hooked a political junkie, I almost never watch television coverage of anything political. I find it shallow and tedious. The boob tube is not a prime venue for gleaning keen insight into either campaigns or elections; as for framing the intellectual issues being debated, it is an utter disaster. Yet there is one TV political event I never miss. You do not want to get between me and the screen on that special night every two years. Election Night.
There were some years I sat up until two a.m. watching; in 2000, the shifting Florida tally — Gore, Bush, Bush by a lot, Bush by a little, Bush by a few hundred out of millions — kept me up until past three, when Bush sent word that he would not declare a result. That night I even got to see the historical victory speech of Elaine Bloom over Clay Shaw, historic because after the military vote was counted Shaw was the winner.
Now a new night has been added, Super Tuesday. By jamming so many states and their primaries into one day, the parties forced us to view this as an auxiliary Election Day. The coverage, as it happens, was not too bad, although networks seemed to be quicker to call states for Clinton early on, conveying to California voters that Obama was being beaten badly, although quite the opposite was true. Hopefully that message did not succeed in depressing his turnout.
Still, there is one thing that absolutely drives me crazy about these shows built around counting the votes. They all have adopted a lingo that implies a weird inversion of reality. If you listen to them, it sounds as if the tabulation is the real election, so all the future counting of numbers is anthropomorphized into an illusion where the candidates seem to control their destiny.
Say you tune in at midnight Eastern, and the polls have already been closed in California for an hour. By that point you have a range between states like Georgia, counting their tally since eight Eastern, which are already two-thirds done. The states in the Pacific time zone are just starting to bleed out two or three percent of precincts. You are likely to hear television reporters, on most any station, speaking like this: “It looks like Clinton’s early lead in Connecticut is fading. If Obama can keep turning things around in some of the urban areas, he could really slow her down here, maybe even passing her later tonight.”
Check back at two and you hear: “This has really been an amazing comeback by Romney in Minnesota. All the early counting was going to McCain, but Mitt seems to have really surged in the past hour.”
This is all very disconcerting as you watch, almost disorienting. The media apparently assumes that everything becomes more exciting when framed in terms of future conflict, but it just makes me dizzy. Regrettably the problem seems to be growing. This language has now spread to the morning press, reporting on the events of the previous night. Numerous articles the morning after Super Tuesday described how Obama staged a late-night comeback in Missouri and other states whose inner-city votes were counted last. They conjure up an image of the Senator at 5 a.m. rallying his men in the dark streets of St. Louis. Yikes!
I admit I am too addicted to threaten a boycott. But I wish the guys and gals on the graveyard shift would realize that by the time we see their faces, it’s all over but the counting.