The Year of Unreliable Witnesses

Joe The Plumber, a.k.a. Samuel Wurzelbacher, has become a kind of bellwether for the 2008 presidential campaign, though it is clear that he has his own (semi-hidden) agenda, his own (semi-hidden) secrets and his own (semi-hidden) reserves of ignorance. This “average guy” from Ohio is now stumping for John McCain, claiming that an Obama presidency would turn this country socialist and mean “death to Israel.”

Such transparently poisonous nonsense would seem ludicrous on its face to all but the most deluded partisan right-wing warriors. But McCain — who surely knows better — is courting and grooming “Joe” as an attack dog, to say things the candidate himself prefers not to utter.

By accosting Obama on a public street, thus making it into the news cycle, and then becoming a point of contention in a presidential debate, Wurzelbacher ascended from a well-deserved obscurity to fifteen minutes at the pinnacle of presidential politics as an apparent arbiter of common taste: the Average Joe. But his inflammatory views make him more pox than vox populi.

Joe is but the latest and least vetted of many incredible opinionators who commandeer media platforms in this campaign from which to bestow their “wisdom.” Media outlets pay big bucks to individuals who have disgraced themselves or disgraced the system or simply failed upwards from unsuccessful political careers to paid punditry.

We have a minor tradition of convicted felons turning to media for a living. Oliver North and Gordon Liddy are examples of political abusers, crooks and liars who now offer their opinions as talk-show hosts. As long as they have an audience their employers will keep paying them. But who in the world listens to those clowns?

Karl Rove has probably done more to demean and subvert the democratic processes in the United States than anyone in recent memory. He has slandered opponents, politicized government and promoted war as a campaign tactic. He has flaunted Congressional subpoenas with apparent impunity. Some hail his political “genius” for getting George W. Bush into office twice. But Rove has no moral credibility.

We don’t need to ask Rove the question Joseph Welch put to Senator Joseph McCarthy: “Have you no decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” We already know he does not. But instead of answering for his many crimes in Congress or in courts of law, Rove pontificates about Obama’s fitness for office or McCain’s campaign strategies for megabucks on the Fox network and in the pages of The Wall Street Journal. Why would anyone trust anything this scumbag has to say?

Unlike Karl Rove, Robert Shrum has not undermined the democratic system with illegal or mean-spirited tactics. But neither has he won any of the various Democratic presidential campaigns he has advised over the years. Yet here he still is, after publishing his memoir entitled No Excuses, offering advice to candidates and voters alike through The Huffington Post and various op-ed pages. Why should anyone listen?

And why should anyone pay attention to William Kristol, the neo-con sage whose track record on issues makes Shrum look Solomonic? Kristol has wrought more than enough destruction as a cheerleader for the misbegotten Bush-Cheney junta wars in the Middle East. He apparently pushed for Sarah Palin as McCain’s vice presidential candidate. Do we really need to hear more from this discredited bozo in the pages of The New York Times? Enough already.

Assessing the veracity and gravitas of most radio and television commentators, we are confronted by an appalling paucity of perceptive political observation. Fox offers nothing but white noise, in the racial and the aural sense. Talk radio whips ditto heads into emotional frenzies that the “hosts” themselves don’t really share. Their humongous salaries put them in another, higher economic class than the listeners they stir up. Theirs is an exercise in populist cynicism and professional expediency.

We tend to gravitate toward mainstream media and internet sites whose opinions we already share. But the myth of the uncommitted, undecided voter provides a rationale for shrill, outrageous stories and charges that bid to change our minds and our votes. Along with the unreliable mainstream media commentators, the marginal mumbles of Joe the Plumber only add to the uncivil, uninformed babble drowning out any meaningful discussion of urgent issues we can no longer afford to ignore.

James McEnteer is the author of Shooting the Truth: the Rise of American Documentaries (Praeger 2006). He lives in Quito, Ecuador. Read other articles by James.