The 2004 Presidential campaign reminded me of an earlier time.
Two decades ago, I worked for a major public relations firm. Our biggest client was the world’s largest cigarette maker. One of my jobs for this client was writing press releases. We had two criteria for success. One was whether the press release was technically excellent. The other was how many newspapers published it.
Whether it was accurate or not was not on the table. We knew it wasn’t. But no one cared.
So it was with the recent political campaign and political campaigns throughout American history. It was about who could be more professional in crafting the ten words most likely to resonate with voters, i.e. “he voted for the $87 billion before he voted against it”; “he didn’t show up for National Guard duty.” It was about “staying on message.” It was about appealing to “the base” in the basest possible ways. It was about political theater. It was about stagecraft. And it was about campaign managers and their utter contempt for the intelligence of the electorate -- ten words being the max American voters are capable of processing.
So, since President Bush was reelected, he hails Karl Rove as “the architect.” Rove would have written great press releases for that tobacco company.
But should we condemn Mr. Rove and John Kerry’s campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill? I think not. Because there was more than enough complicity to go around. The voters were complicit. They settled for sound bites rather than demanding substance. They failed to spend the time to understand which issues were important and which were trivial. The media were complicit for allowing the campaigns to “define” the candidates and “frame” the stories. And, perhaps most troublesome of all, America’s schools were complicit. They graduated millions of people without the most minimal equipment necessary for choosing a leader.
America’s voters are the same folks who are unable to show you where Mexico is on a map. Who think Iraq sent us the 9/11 hijackers. Who know less about history, science, math, and most other subjects, than their peers in most of the rest of the industrialized world.
Did you know that close to 30 percent of high school freshmen fail to graduate? That more than 25 percent of the high school graduates who enter four-year colleges fail to return for their sophomore year and that, in two-year institutions, the dropout rate is twice that high. That more than half of today's college students are placed in at least one remedial math or English class, learning skills they should have acquired in high school. And that surveys of employers find a high proportion of new hires lacking basic reading, writing and math skills? And foreign languages? Forget it!
Not to worry, we are told. Americans have “common sense” and “good gut instincts.” Sure, but is that enough? These days, Americans are scared to death. Of terrorists. Of Saddam Hussein’s mushroom clouds. Of losing a son or a daughter or a father or a mother in Iraq or Afghanistan. Of being forced to have a same-sex marriage. This is the “new normal.” So people respond to whoever looks like a way out. Whoever sounds most confident. Whoever they’d like to have a beer with. Whoever is most telegenic. Whoever is best at compressing a dangerous and increasingly complex world into ten words or less: “Mission Accomplished”, or “I’m John Kerry and I’m reporting for duty.”
Maybe the world used to be simpler. Maybe you could get by with common sense and gut instincts. But if history tells us this wasn’t enough even in the past -- we’ve elected our share of deeply flawed leaders -- it surely is not enough now. This is not a Republican thing or a Democratic thing. Or a Red State/Blue State thing. It is an American thing. World powers have declined and vanished before. If ours is not to become one of them, our voters need to inform their common sense and gut instincts with real knowledge.
If the people don’t demand fact and truth -- from the candidates, from the media, and from our education system -- we are doomed to get the government we deserve.
William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the
Middle East and North Africa for the US State Department and the US Agency
for International Development, and served in the international affairs area
in the Kennedy administration. He can be reached through his blog at: