Nasty presidential races are nothing new. Eight years ago, bogus claims that John McCain had a mixed-race, out-of-wedlock child helped George W. Bush win the South Carolina primary and the Republican nomination. Herbert Hoover’s 1928 win over Al Smith was accompanied by rumors that Smith, who was Catholic, had commissioned a 3500-mile tunnel from New York to the Vatican. And in 1836, famed frontiersman and Whig supporter Davy Crockett accused Democrat Martin Van Buren of secretly wearing women’s corsets. (Van Buren won anyway.)
What is new, though, is the Fourth Estate’s distinctive contribution to the unsavoriness of the current campaign season. When Ann Coulter called John Edwards a “faggot” at the March 2007 meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference, it was easy to dismiss the remark as an anomaly, since Coulter’s whole career is based on her self-abasing need to shock. But in retrospect, Coulter’s comment was a portent of things to come. In September 2007, MSNBC’s zealously liberal Keith Olbermann accused the president of “pimping” General David Petraeus, the architect of the military’s Iraq “surge,” who was then testifying to Congress. Earlier this month, MSNBC’s David Shuster wondered aloud, with the cameras rolling, whether Chelsea Clinton had been “pimped out” by her mother’s presidential campaign. And this past week, Mark Halperin, Time’s senior political analyst, announced on Barbara Walters’ weekly satellite-radio show that Edwards thinks Barack Obama is “kind of a pussy.”
You don’t have to be a prude to think that, when it comes to national politics, the reliance on a junior-high vernacular is a mite troubling. Pointed commentary is all well and good. But how about some rhetorical restraint, too?
Pimp your news
Easy there, cautions Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz. “I’d be awfully careful about taking a few remarks by cable-TV loudmouths and concluding that the entire press corps is going down the gutter,” Kurtz tells the Phoenix. “Clearly, there’s some language that would have been unthinkable 15 years ago making it on the airwaves, to a point that there was a debate about whether ‘pimped out’ has become an acceptable part of the lexicon. But I think the fact that most of these incidents have been followed by apologies shows that there’s still a line that everyone knows shouldn’t be crossed.”
That’s one way of looking at it. Here’s another: these apologies, when they occur, are cynical attempts at appeasing the dwindling ranks of those who are actually offended by this coarse language. (For the record, Halperin and Shuster apologized; Coulter and Olbermann didn’t.)
And here’s a third. The aforementioned transgressions, plus a bunch of others — including Chris Matthews’s arguably misogynistic references to Hillary Clinton, which led to an apology, and the New York Times’ itemization of how many nights Bill and Hillary spend together, which didn’t — actually show that no one knows what the line is anymore.
Whichever gloss you favor, there are a few background factors worth pondering. For starters, the whole culture is coarser than it used to be. Yeah, people have been griping about cultural decline for millennia. (“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today,” Hesiod kvetched around 700 BC. “When I was a boy, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint.”)