The thing about any presidential election is that it could be an event in which sober and intelligent men and women stage a thoughtful and serious debate on the high-stakes issues of our time, guided by the principle that the American people, if nothing else, simply deserve it. On the other hand, it could also be a welter of low-blow stupefaction and soul-extinguishing venality that leaves you with the feeling that this American experiment should be mercifully drowned in a bucket of ranch dressing. What path will 2016’s looming civic pseudo-event take?
Well, let’s consider the strange controversy that recently embroiled the nascent proto-campaigns of former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as an amuse-bouche before the meal to come. On Dec. 30, the U.S. News and World Report’s David Catanese published a lengthy profile of Webb, seeking to elucidate the Democrat’s possible motivations for jumping into the 2016 race. Well down in the piece, Catanese reported that “Clinton loyalists are keeping an eye” on Webb, and that in the days before the Thanksgiving holiday, “staffers of Philippe Reines, Clinton’s longtime communications guru, pitched talk radio producers on the racy, sexually charged writings in Webb’s novels, according to a source.”
There was, as you might suspect, some immediate pushback. Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill told Catanese that his source had told “an unmitigated lie.” Catanese granted his source both anonymity and the final word on the matter, reporting that he or she “stands by the account.” This week, the contretemps ended up as the basis for a Media Matters post. In large part, Media Matters simply took Merrill’s denial at face value and declared the matter to be closed — which, when you think about it, is a strange position for a media watchdog organization to take, and one that I have severe doubts will be applied in consistent fashion going forward. (Catanese, by reporting that his source stood by the earlier claim, stands accused by Media Matters of “doubling down,” proving once again that the term “doubling-down” has become tragically untethered from it’s original meaning.)
But look, I’m not interested in doing a twelve-part podcast investigating who was shopping Jim Webb oppo to whom back in November. What I am interested in pointing out is that using the contents of Webb’s novels as some sort of brickbat in 2016 is stupid as hell. I am astonished and bewildered to have to confront even the potential that this could be a thing that gets litigated as a part of 2016’s festival of nonsense.