Political Party Pooper
Was that a fun 24-hour television news cycle, or what? If Tuesday night's happiest news was simply that those ghastly campaign ads had run for the last time, that our long national viewing nightmare was over, and we wouldn't have to hear the dreaded words "and I approved this message" for a couple years, that would have been ample cause for celebration.
Though I have to admit I did get a kick out of the ad Peter Welch started running toward the end, starring his dog. That was actually pretty clever. Funny. Memorable. The camera showed us the candidate out on the trail from the point of view of the pooch, about knee high. Most candidates' spots were beneath them, too, but the similarity ended there. This may have been the most effective political use of a canine since Nixon's Checkers speech.
But I digress. It was an amazing night of broadcasting, a perfect-storm-caliber combination of coverage and content. For a solid 24 hours the story played out as though it had been scripted in Hollywood - happy ending and all.
Of course, for a lot of viewers, it started pretty happily, too. The Hamburger Helper hadn't even made it from the pot to the plate in many homes before Channel 5 announced the Associated Press had declared Bernie Sanders the new senator from Vermont. Local TV crews hustled to the Wyndham expecting to find the Sanders camp in a state of hysteria, but found it in a cautious, let's-wait-and-see mood instead. The party started in many a home long before it did at the hotel.
Meanwhile, local and national pundits offered a play-by-play of the night's Republican wipe out. On the homefront, the University of Vermont's Frank Bryan and Middlebury College's Eric Davis saddled up to the WCAX news desk and concurred that the Welch-Rainville race would be the evening's most interesting to watch. A moment later it was over.
A short distance down the dial, Channel 17 hosted "Vermont Votes 2006" with live analysis of the results as they came in from Jess Wilson, Shay Totten and Joel Najman. The commentary was consistently insightful but, for some strange reason, I couldn't get the song "Please Say You Want Me" by Little Anthony & the Imperials out of my head. It was weird.
Finally, I had to change the channel to make it stop. CNN was by then in the midst of its marathon election-night spectacular, "America Votes 2006." Hmm, catchy. And who was Lou Dobbs in the middle of interviewing? Howard Dean. Our former governor smiled down on all the smarty-pants analysts and seers on the stage from a giant screen high above them and, I must tell you, I savored that scene. There were Dobbs, Anderson Cooper, Wolf Blitzer, James Carville and William Bennett all gazing up at this futuristic piece of high-tech set design with Dean's face beaming down on them. It was like something out of The Wizard of Oz.
As one red state after another flipped over to blue, Dean patiently explained that this was all part of the "50-state election plan" he put into motion upon becoming chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Something tells me the next time these guys use the term "master political strategist," Karl Rove won't be the first name that springs to mind. Bet some of them are having second thoughts about how many times they aired that "scream" clip, too. I've always admired Howard Dean for the way he ascended to the highest strata of national affairs on the basis of innovation and creative thinking. I've never admired him more than I did Tuesday night.
As 11 o'clock approached, the night had taken on a full-tilt, New Year's Eve vibe. Victory was in the air, history was in the making. You could feel it. You could see it in the eyes of newspeople, though on Fox News a lot of their eyes had that deer-in-the-headlights look. On CBS Bob Shieffer looked as though he was enjoying himself thoroughly. He'd delivered an eloquent rant just days before on "Face the Nation," venting his disgust at the depths to which the election process has sunk in this country. You could tell he relished the prospect of course correction.
On-air partner Katie Couric was a tad harder to read. Mainly because I couldn't stop speculating about whether she'd had her eyes done. I hadn't seen much of her since she left "The Today Show," and her face took me by surprise. Maybe it was just the lighting or the makeup, but she had that eerie, slightly out-of-kilter, Greta Van Susteren look about her. It really started to creep me out.
So, once again, I changed the channel. Besides, it was time to break out the champagne. CNN had just projected that the Democrats had won the House. Just in time for the political equivalent of "Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve": Comedy Central's "Indecision 2006 Midterm Midtacular," an hour of live election-night programming from everybody's favorite fake newsguys, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, "bringing you incomplete coverage at best." And a merry 60 minutes it was: stories on voting-machine snafus caused by squirrels, homespun pithiness courtesy of Special Correspondent Dan Rather, an announcement that Rick Santorum had been "raptured to a better place," and a great bit on the latest election-result tracking technique, the entrance poll. The perfect end to a perfect day of voter outrage and referenda on idiocy.
Except for one thing: Here we are on one of the most historic nights of the new century. Things have been shaken up from sea to shining sea. And what's the first thing out of Jon Stewart's mouth? A crack about Bernie's victory: "Vermont went from having an independent to a Jew from New York and a Socialist," he said with a chuckle. "Now it's even less relevant. Congratulations!" Ouch. Am I the only one for whom that put a damper on the party? I guess Mr. Satire thinks every state with a population under a million can claim an outgoing senator who singlehandedly changed the balance of power in Washington; an incoming one who's among the most progressive in the nation; another - Patrick Leahy - who will shortly become the chair of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee; and the head of the Democratic organization itself, one of the chief architects of the very victory the party was celebrating all night.
The next day would bring more cause for celebration: a clear win in the Senate and walking papers for Donald Rumsfeld. For the first time in the country's history, a woman would be Speaker of the House. As one of the most tumultuous 24-hour periods in modern memory drew to a close, I looked on with new hope and a glad heart, but kept thinking back to Stewart's remark. Maybe I'm being petty, but I think I'm going to have a problem getting past that. Maybe, like John Kerry, he'll recognize his mistake and issue an apology. Apparently anyone can make a bad joke.
The bottom line is, I'm going to have to get my fix of fake news somewhere else until he does. Stay tuned. I'm going to make sure the "Daily Show" host gets a copy of this column, and I'm going to request a retraction. I'll let you know what does or does not happen.
Until that apology arrives, Jon Stewart is - as his pal Colbert would say - dead to me.
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