The mainstream media’s penchant for covering national elections as if they were high school popularity contests continues with New York Times reporter Michael Powell’s gushing portrait of GOP presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani.
Following the establishment media mold, Powell dispenses with substance altogether and gets right down to what matters most: image.
After an anecdotal intro depicting Giuliani’s softer touch on the campaign trail (he dances around an elderly woman’s criticism of the Bush administration’s approach to fighting terrorism with the words: “Ma’am, I really respectfully disagree”), Powell, who boasts in accompanying video commentary of covering “America’s mayor” for fifteen years, is ready to crown his homecoming king.
The dyspeptic, “not afraid to suggest his opponents have really deep-seated psychological problems” Republican mayor of fact and legend has taken a holiday. What’s left on the presidential campaign trail is a commanding daddy of a candidate, a disciplined fellow who talks about terrorism and fiscal order and about terrorism some more.
To make sure his “daddy of a candidate” metaphor sticks in our minds - that it resurfaces in columns nationwide, is christened through the echo chamber of the Sunday morning talk show circuit and cements itself in the campaign’s vernacular - Powell then delivers a truly penetrating contrast between his newly branded media caricature of Giuliani and the already media-accepted caricatures of his competitors.
If Hillary Rodham Clinton is the nurturer warrior and Barack Obama the college idealist and John McCain the tough but irreverent flyboy, then Mr. Giuliani is the father, the talk-tough-on-terror, I’m-comfortable-wielding-authority guy.
Mark me down, then, as the nauseous-but-resolute-media critic, the I-can’t-believe-this-tripe-still-passes-for-news guy.
With fifteen years of experience on the Giuliani beat, you would expect Powell to bring at least a modicum of substantive historical context to a report on Rudolph Giuliani the Presidential Candidate, to reveal how his record as mayor – the demythologized version - might point to his approach as president. But the only historical context we receive once again revolves around image.
Mr. Giuliani was always a visceral pol; he knows when to retract the canines. Before the 1993 mayoral campaign, Democratic operatives assured all who would listen that they would poke until Mr. Giuliani unleashed his inner Mr. Hyde. It never happened. In November, he beat the incumbent mayor, David N. Dinkins.
And that’s the most insightful historical perspective of the article.
Powell also deconstructs the staid trajectory of Giuliani’s wardrobe:
In dress, he plays to type. Other candidates go open-necked or pull flannel shirts out of the closet for New Hampshire.
Not the former mayor. He dresses in the one-size-too-large suits he has favored since his days as a federal prosecutor, with the top shirt button fastened and tie knotted tight. It is difficult to imagine anyone asking him a “really dopey” (two favorite Giuliani words now in abeyance) question about his favored style in underwear, as someone once did of Bill Clinton.
An un-“dopey” journalist, Powell thankfully keeps his probing eye on Giuliani’s choice of suits and height of shirt buttoning.
And, of course, what kind of mainstream portrait of a candidate would this be without a hair analysis (complete with its very own comb-over definition)?
Mr. Giuliani has made upgrades. The comb-over, his decades-long insistence on combing his hair across a substantial expanse of cranium, is history. His remaining hair is slicked back and comes to rest in a tight nest of graying curls.
To give Powell credit, it’s a nicely written paragraph: “His remaining hair is slicked back and comes to rest in a tight nest of graying curls.” As a sentence, it’s undeniably lyrical, vivid, a line worthy of, say, celebrated short story writer Alice Munro.
As journalism, however, it’s vapid and pointless. Ten more American soldiers died in Iraq today, along with scores of Iraqis, and a New York Times journalist – in a news article - is comparing the merits of a presidential candidate’s former and current coif, a candidate with hardly any hair on his head, no less.
The rest of Powell’s love letter heats up the hero worship, shamelessly contributing to the media's Mythology of Rudy.
David Pass, 31, journeyed to Olgethorpe to hear Mr. Giuliani. He cannot hide his enthusiasm. “He lets you know exactly where he stands,” Mr. Pass said. “He’s not afraid to say what he believes.”
They wait patiently for the man who will be introduced as America’s mayor, and they will give him a standing ovation.
He flashes a smile, and the patrons stand and clap and slip arms around him and cadge autographs and photographs.
More often, the image that comes to mind as Mr. Giuliani traipses into a string of packed, applauding rooms in Alabama, Georgia and New Hampshire is of a rock star, if that rocker happened to be a balding and slightly hunched former mayor.
In Atlanta, Mr. Giuliani offers to take questions, and a stout blond woman in a red pantsuit shoots straight up, raising her hand and nearly shouting, “I think you are sooooo handsome.”
(In 1994, a woman in Queens translated the same compliment into New Yorkese; she peered carefully at Mr. Giuliani and acknowledged, “You look a lot better in person.”)
At the root of his celebrity lies Mr. Giuliani’s performance on Sept. 11, 2001. The shadow of that day is inescapable; he is prayed for, applauded and asked to reminisce. And the refrain from those who listen to him is the same: When President Bush was flying to and fro, when Vice President Dick Cheney went to his bunker, Mr. Giuliani was the eloquent voice and face of America.
But conversation usually circles back to that September day. When the towers fell, Mr. Giuliani was certain of what he saw.
Defense is for the surrender crowd. He is about playing offense, and with a strong stomach: More electronic surveillance, more Patriot Act, more tough “but legal” interrogation methods. Mr. Giuliani peers at the smiling residents of Tuscaloosa.
“Right now, as we sit here enjoying breakfast, they are planning on coming here to kill us,” he warns them. “I don’t blame people for not getting it before 9/11. But I do blame people who don’t get it now.”
He circles his hands around his head, as though to bat away America’s cobwebs.
“The Democrats want to take us back on defense,” he says. “You can feel it; you can hear it.”
Unmentioned is Giuliani’s mayoral record of institutionalized police brutality directed at minorities, the 41 bullets fired into the body of Amadou Diallo and the rape of Abner Louima with a broomstick a symbol of NYC law enforcement run amok under the Giuliani administration. All the more reason why Powell’s nearest allusion to such incidents is not only grossly insufficient but unseemly.
Mr. Giuliani laughs, he gestures expansively, he even pokes fun at his tendency to wax a wee bit authoritarian. (He suggests a touch of the cane was necessary to impose discipline on that liberal asylum known as New York.)
Missing, too, is any reference to the fact that Giuliani failed to protect 9/11 workers from inhaling the poisonous dust at Ground Zero, leading to untold sickness and death, persistent illnesses that have destroyed lives and will continue to do so in the future. Most of which could’ve been prevented had America’s mayor actually protected his citizens. Recent news reports confirm that Giuliani knew the air was dangerous to breathe but chose not to inform the public and to ensure that all 9/11 workers wore protective masks.
Sure, Powell could've mentioned this. But why ruin a good fairytale?