“This is not theater,” declared President Obama on the Today show last week. He was defending his response to the BP oil spill, which he insisted was designed to get actual results, not to put on a show. But there he was on TV again last night to deliver an Oval Office address, which is—if any commander in chief’s action is—a piece of theater. Here is where our presidents seem most presidential, talking directly and sincerely to the American people: where Carter described the national malaise and Bush tried to calm a nation rattled by the 9/11 attacks. That’s the idea, anyway.
Critics describe the Beltway media as an echo chamber. But on occasions such as a presidential address, the pundits seems more like the world’s least funny improv troupe. They have elbowed into the old act of presidential theater, and they usually steal the show. Why is anybody surprised that Obama offered his cri de la tête against the theatrical side of politics? When you share a lineup with these guys, who wouldn’t?
There’s real value in offering people an informed analysis of major presidential addresses. But the way that the analysis gets delivered can be more or less corrosive to the relationship between the government and the governed. When pundits are so clear in their demands, so visceral in their disappointment, so numerous, and so verbose (the 18 minutes that Obama spent delivering his speech was a fraction of the time the cable channels devoted to talking about his speech), it weakens the communication between president and audience that defines theater, political or otherwise.
First the talking heads work themselves and their audience into a fit about what the president must do. A sort of collective narrative takes shape—with heroes and villains, successes and reversals—building as it goes. Thus Chris Matthews and Wolf Blitzer both referred to onscreen clocks counting down to the speech, like the Super Bowl kickoff. Suzanne Malveaux told CNN viewers, “He’s going to try to convey that he gets it.” John King caviled a little, saying that actions would matter more than words.”Without a doubt,” confirmed Anderson Cooper from a photogenic corner of the gulf. “What the president is going to do tonight is hold BP accountable,” added Gloria Borger.
By the time Obama appeared, CNN and MSNBC had done a thorough job of telling the audience how to judge what he said. (I imagine Fox did the same, but it’s so riddled with its own pathologies I didn’t check.) Did the president “get it”? Well, he studded the speech with the language of war, referring to his “battle plan” and describing the spill as “a siege.” Was BP “held accountable”? He failed to use the head of a BP executive as a paperweight, but he did say in plain terms that the company “will pay for the impact this spill has had on the region.” Characteristically, he seemed most engaged not during the backward-looking stuff about assigning blame, but the forward-looking stuff: offering a big-picture look at a clean-energy initiative. “We cannot consign our children to this future,” he said, neatly evoking a kind of inverted Mad Max scenario, with oil spills everywhere.
In the postgame show, the pundits judged Obama’s success by how well or poorly he fulfilled the expectations that pundits like themselves had set earlier. On MSNBC, Keith Olbermann knocked him for “not addressing what many expected tonight: a bigger picture for America’s energy future, not even much of a pitch for his own energy bill . . .” The more Olbermann talked, the more disgruntled he grew. First he said the president aimed low, then he bid himself up, declaring that the president “didn’t aim at all.” He asked, “It’s startling to have heard this, isn’t it?”—which is the sort of question that has only one answer.
Matthews was even more chagrined by the feeling of expectations not being met: “I don’t sense executive command. And I thought that was the purpose of this speech tonight. Command and control.” Then he offered a sample of a superior speech that he would have given. “ ‘I’m calling the shots. My name is Barack Obama. I’m the boss. I’m telling people what to do.’ ” (The word he was fishing for seems to be “decider,” but maybe he had just enough self-awareness not to say it, considering how it turned out for the planet the last time our president talked that way.) Borger, for her part, fretted that “I don’t know how much inspiration this will give to people.” On the bright side, she continued, “at least he said [he’s] in control.”
The warping effect of all this punditry isn’t new; Spiro Agnew was complaining about it 41 years ago. But where he objected to the power of a small handful of gatekeepers, the problem now seems nearly reversed: It’s all our elected officials can do to be heard above the din. When the contents leak ahead of time—Politico posted details at 7:35, Suzanne Malveaux offered an outline a few minutes later—the actual speech begins to seem superfluous.
In White Noise, a couple of Don DeLillo’s characters pay a visit to what is billed as the Most Photographed Barn in America. As signs lead them toward their destination, they discover that nobody can see the barn—they can only see the other people who came to photograph it. “Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn,” one of them realizes. “We can’t get outside the aura,” he adds as they merge into the crowd. “We’re part of the aura.” Spoken like a cable-news viewer.