Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

13 May 2011

High Noon on PBS

Yesterday the PBS News Hour aired an extraordinary interview, which every American citizen should watch. It bore more than a passing resemblance to the classic movie “High Noon.”

Released in 1952, “High Noon” was the cultural apotheosis of American individualism. It portrayed the struggle between good and evil as a personal one, with good and evil each having its own live avatar.

Gary Cooper plays a retired and aging marshall in the Old West. Alone and abandoned by his town, he faces a “fast draw” killer. The climactic gun battle takes place on the town’s deserted dirt main street at noon. The title is now a metaphor for any dramatic personal confrontation.

In this case the “marshall” was Jim Lehrer, one of the founders of the PBS News Hour and perhaps the most honest and professional anchor in all of television news. His antagonist was Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader and senior Republican senator from Kentucky, who has made a career shilling for economic bullies. The subject was the coming “High Noon” in Congress, in which the GOP will attempt to extort drastic cuts in social programs that keep ordinary Americans alive and healthy by threatening not to raise the debt limit and thereby to throw our nation into fiscal default.

At first glance, Lehrer and McConnell seemed far from the Wild West. Both have built their careers on soft voices and low keys. Lehrer loosens up his interview subjects with a mild, stumbling, “aw shucks” manner and simple, everyday English. McConnell so lacks emotion as to make you think he takes a hit of Versed before going on TV.

So you might think the interview would have been devoid of drama. If so, you would be wrong. High-definition TV has given us a whole new world. You can see every bead of sweat, every pulse of vein, every licking of lips, and every narrowing of eyes, as if you were there in person, standing right in front of the speaker. You can imagine that you can get right inside his mind.

McConnell started the interview with a pointed reference to Lehrer’s plan to retire―which Lehrer had not yet announced but had planned to do at the end of the show. No doubt McConnell intended the remark as a friendly ice-breaker, the politician’s staple before shoving home the knife.

But McConnell has been a soft-spoken bully all his life. It would have taken a far better actor than he to make his comment on Lehrer’s impending retirement seem friendly.

Both men knew, of course, that McConnell has led the charge to defund PBS, Lehrer’s life’s work. McConnell knew as well that the PBS audience, unlike the Fox zombies who are McConnell’s natural constituents, knew also.

So the exchange came off as McConnell no doubt intended it deep in his heart. It was a bully’s taunt.

“I’ve got you,” McConnell seemed to say with his eyes. “We’re going to cut your funding and dismantle your life’s work. You’re too old and tired to fight us, and our power is growing. Once you’re gone, we’re going to make our own reality on our own TV. And the bullies I work for are going to rule this country unhindered. There’s nothing you can do about it.”

If you don’t think that’s what was going on at some level in both men’s minds, watch the video. You can see it in their eyes.

Lehrer shrugged the taunt off and went on with the interview like the consummate professional he is. There wasn’t much substance to cover, for McConnell kept repeating his boring talking points over and over, regardless of what question Lehrer had asked.

He had the gall at one point to say, “Jim, you're a smart guy, but I'm not going to let you answer for me.” Of course Lehrer wasn’t trying to answer for him. He was just trying to get him to answer the question he had been asked, rather than repeating GOP talking points for yet a third time.

McConnell never seemed to ken an important difference between PBS viewers and the Fox zombies to and for whom he usually speaks. We don’t like incessant repetition. We can get it the first time, Mitch. But then, McConnell rarely has to deal with a well-educated big-city audience.

The interview did have a little substance. McConnell made two clear predictions. First, he claimed that the President would cave and accept cuts in spending without any tax increases. Second, he said the resulting cuts would be in the trillions, not billions, using the plural. That means at least two trillion dollars of reductions in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, without any offsetting increase in taxes, which McConnell repeatedly rejected according to his party line.

The climax―the “High Noon” moment―came when Lehrer asked, in his best folksy way, “[A]re you saying that you, if you all don't get what you want, you're not going to vote to raise the debt ceiling?”

McConnell never gave a straight answer. But what he did say made clear the answer was “yes.” Responding to a question about the catastrophe of a probable national default that failing to raise the debt ceiling would cause, McConnell said:
“I believe what would be catastrophic is to leave ―to miss this opportunity, presented by the president’s request to raise the debt ceiling, to do something genuinely significant about the debt.”
Fox zombies might have missed the point. But PBS’s educated audience could hardly. In this exchange McConnell was self-evidently threatening the President with presiding over a national default, and the public with suffering one, in order to cut safety-net programs on which ordinary Americans have relied for as many as eighty years, without any increase in taxes, even on the richest of the rich.

It was a bully’s extortion threat, despite McConnell’s usual catatonic manner. And the high-def TV showed it.

You could see a whirlwind of emotions pass over McConnell’s face. First, there was the bully’s resentment at facing his nemesis, a man smarter and better than he in every way. Then came the bully’s triumph: having made the bald threat he secretly had always wanted to make. Finally, there was a slow dawning of realization of the possible consequences: a national default for which voters might blame the party actually responsible, namely, McConnell and his GOP crew of bully nihilists.

You could almost see as well the slow recognition of his audience. Too late, McConnell realized that he was speaking to educated voters on PBS, not the conditioned zombies to whom he usually speaks. Too late, he began to see that the people to whom he was speaking might take his threat not with a bully’s delight, but with horror. At that point, you could almost see him gulp like a bully on the playground anticipating his teacher’s rebuke or his father’s spanking.

Was all this my imagination? Judge for yourself. Watch the video.

If you come to the same conclusions as I did, you will see the interview in the same way. In his low-key, aw-shucks manner, Jim Lehrer showed Mitch McConnell for exactly what he is, a bully and a shill for bullies who revels in raw power and will stop at nothing to get his way.

That’s about all any newsman can do. Wringing McConnell’s neck on camera would have been impolite, not to mention a crime.

It remains to be seen what the President will do. Will he cave and decimate our nation’s safety nets for seniors and the poor? Or will he call the GOP’s bluff and let them put us in or close to default? So far he hasn’t been the strongest poker player in Washington.

But he is a master of timing and the public mood. He may have tipped his hand at a rally in which he spoke of a “debate” about national priorities that will likely last several years. Apparently the President believes it will take real hardship and pain for the electorate to abandon their thirty-year infatuation with conservative nonsense.

I can hardly quibble with that approach, since I’ve said much the same thing myself. We have too much ignorance and stupidity abroad in the land for voters to wise up without a lot of suffering. The Greeks said it best, over two millennia ago: “the suffered is the learned.”

It took over thirty years, from Reagan to today, to destroy the public reputation of government, replace it with a religion of private profit and greed, and build up the broadest and most effective propaganda machine in human history to support the switch. No one is going to unwind those carefully constructed national tragedies in two years.

We all had hoped the President would. But he’s just a man like his predecessors, albeit a very skilled and good one. He’s not a miracle worker.

It took the Soviets seventy years to abandon their nonsensical ideology, and the Chinese almost thirty. It’s even harder in a democracy, where not just a few leaders, but the people, have to change. People have to feel real consequences in their personal lives before they wise up; and they have to feel them strongly and starkly enough so that clever propagandists cannot shift the blame, as they did for the 2008 Crash.

So fasten your seat belts and calm your nerves. The next few years are going to be an ugly, wild ride. And if you want to see the type of ruthless bully who will be driving our national juggernaut, watch the video. It’s all there: the ignorant man’s resentment of his betters, the threat, the bully’s fleeting triumph at extortion, and the slow-dawning realization that maybe a near-default to make the rich richer and the poor poorer is not the highest road to national resurrection.

But bullies never back down, if only for fear of “losing face.” For the GOP to give a single inch would admit how its governing ideology has dragged America from the top of the world to its current sorry state in a mere thirty years. The fleeting look of triumph on McConnell’s face as he mouthed his implied threat of default told the tale. He and his ilk must be beaten and undone, and it’s going to take a lot more than a revealing interview to do that.

So the real “High Noon” is yet to come. We’re in for the struggle of our national life, whose outcome will determine whether we rise from our national decline, and maybe whether we remain a democracy. In that struggle, Jim Lehrer’s retirement is a real loss, but I hope not a decisive one.

Anyway, now is the time to open your wallet and support PBS. Our brave new world is one ruled by propaganda financed by bullies with lots of money. If you want the truth on TV, you’re going to have to pay for it. Or you can join the Fox zombies and pay a much higher price later.

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