My new book, American Bombshell: A Tale Of Domestic And International Invasion, has just been published almost in lockstep with poor Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s Republican primary debate gaffe. It’s convenient timing, because both of these things so accurately capture the emphasis of buzz and style over substance in today’s media and politics.
Best described as a roman-a-clef, American Bombshell mixes fact and fiction in telling the story of Catherine Carson—a right-wing television news star and former Republican Iraq War spin-doctor who ends up moving to France and becoming a backroom adviser to French President Nicolai Kuvasz. In this new role, she spends her time putting out so many fires caused by her boss and his entourage’s poor behavior that the president never gets around to accomplishing the reforms he was elected to implement. First, there’s the government minister who quietly kidnaps an underage illegal immigrant to help around the house, only to be busted when he muses about it in a novel. Then some ministers are caught couch-surfing in the palatial homes of various Third World dictators, even as the Arab Spring gets under way. Meanwhile, little actual work gets done, and the French economy quickly goes pear-shaped, along with the president’s ratings.
As in real life, politicians, voters and the media all get caught up with entertaining but petty nonsense. Case in point: Rick Perry stuck his cowboy boot in his mouth during the CNBC-hosted debate, unable to recall one of the “three agencies of government” he’d euthanize if he were to become President. Turns out it was the Department of Energy—which for a Texas governor to forget about would be a bit like the Prime Minister of Great Britain forgetting about Buckingham Palace. Okay, funny—but really, so what?
For at least 24 hours, the faux pas represented arguably the single most widespread American news item in the world. I even saw it broadcast and translated on French television in Paris. This is the media and political culture of today—all about stagecraft, showmanship and ratings.
As a political strategist, let me tell you a little secret: Debates are easy to fake. All you need to succeed in a debate is a good policy-prep team, a competent spin-doctor to distill that policy material down to snappy bite-sized talking points, and the memory and delivery capabilities of a C-list Hollywood actor. Perry just didn’t remember his lines. That’s all.
But what about the other guys who lucked out and did remember all their lines this time? Theoretically, it should be the media’s job during these debates to recognize boilerplate spin and slice through it. There’s one reliable way to do this, but it’s rarely seen: In response to a candidate’s prepared take, the media moderators need ask only one question, or a variation thereof: “What precise action in your background or experience illustrates this principle?” In other words, when a candidate says that he would do something, what has he previously done in his entire life or career to demonstrate that value through tangible action?
Whether they’re aware of it or not, voters consider three factors when marking their ballot: a candidate’s personal likability and qualities; his or her proposed policies; and finally, the candidate’s actual experience and record. Far too much emphasis is now placed on the first two, largely because in this age of total reality TV immersion, flash over substance has been imposed on us. A politician messing up his “lines” generates worldwide attention, while the important questions fall off the radar. Do you know who any of these candidates really is beyond what he or she claims to be?
If you don’t, then thank the media.
In my novel, the heroine is initially a co-host on a television news network, BUX News, and is constantly reminded by her bosses which news topics get the best audience ratings. Despite being convinced that even innately uninteresting newsworthy events can always be covered in a provocative way, management overrules her, ordering her to steer clear of themes that get poor ratings—such as war. And when she asks tough, provocative questions of a high-profile political guest, she’s admonished for jeopardizing the politician’s return visit. She’s told to sit there in her short skirt, crossing and uncrossing her long legs, giving viewers what management perceives that they want.
But like I said, it’s just a novel. Although it might make you think twice about what you see and hear.