Politico

Opinion | How About a Little Sobriety, Please?


Washington’s public works department should have built an emergency system of drainage ditches, culverts and tunnels to divert into the Potomac River the torrents of praise, approval and adoration the press poured down on President Joe Biden on Inauguration Day. At one point in the early evening, citizens living in low-lying portions of the city were at risk of drowning in the flash flood of commendations that flowed during the day-long pageant.

CNN glowed almost as brightly about the event as a state media would have. It accentuated all of Biden’s leading attributes—his modesty; the length of his Capitol experience, where he outlasted some of the building’s marble columns; his Catholic faith; his bounce-back from personal tragedies; his love of country; and so on. Biden’s perfectly fine if pedestrian speech earned instant accolades from Wolf Blitzer, who jibbered that Biden had put “his soul into his first address.” Joe Average, rejected for president by primary voters in previous election years, the guy who said, “you ain’t black,” the fellow who plagiarized, suddenly became a seasoned Caesar and a potential savior.

MSNBC worked from the same script, going gaga for not just Lady Gaga but the whole schmear. At day’s end, Rachel Maddow confessed to having worked her way through an entire box of Kleenex during the festivities and Joy Reid gushed like a partisan about the event. “They gave us fashion. They gave us celebrity. They gave us hope,” Reid said of the “incredible” inauguration. Incredible it was not. In fact, it was very low-fi without the Mall-filling, cheering crowds, the parades and the balls that ordinarily pad the swearing-in.

The Washington Post got with the program, giving Biden credit for not waiting “long to begin staffing up his administration, swearing in top White House aides,” as if previous incoming presidents had dilly-dallied about taking the reins. The New York Times swallowed whole the recent myth-making that has transformed Biden from a shifty politician into a statesman, conveying his call for civility and unity and portraying him as a disciplined, restrained character when anybody who has studied his career knows he’s anything but.

Yeah, yeah, everyone can all appreciate that the coverage was minted at the honeymoon pressworks journalists fire up for most new presidents, so in that sense the outbursts came as no surprise. For one thing, he isn’t Donald Trump, and that carries him a long way in the media precincts. Also, reporters and analysts craved something akin to normality after witnessing the January 6 siege on the same steps, as they kept saying, where rioters had just gone hand-to-hand with police. And the swearing-in of a female vice president who hailed from the African and South Asian diasporas gave the occasion a genuine and deserved boost.

But this doesn’t excuse the rhetorical overkill that the press flung so profligately. CNN’s Jake Tapper, a normally sober commentator and reporter, was so moved by the Biden-Harris visit to the Tomb of the Unknowns after the investiture that he helped himself to a little play-by-play from inside the new president’s mind. “I cannot imagine that President Biden was not thinking of his favorite soldier, Beau Biden, his son, who died of cancer, who was a major in the Army Reserve, and for whom he mourns greatly,” Tapper intoned. Please, please, can we have a brief moratorium on future Beau Biden references unless absolutely necessary?

On his Twitter feed, CNN media guy Brian Stelter actually complained that the gashouse gang at Fox News Channel were killjoying the happy day with criticisms of the coverage. Freed from his previous self-assignment to defend Trump’s lurching madness, the network’s Greg Gutfeld took aim at his competitors for their lapdoggery. “As the corporate press drools for Joe, they frantically spit on President Trump, the outgoing guy, trying to outdo each other on who’s more relieved that our national nightmare is over,” Gutfeld said on Wednesday, making himself one of the blind hogs who found a truffle.

Honest Biden acolytes would have to admit that Gutfeld had a point, though, and that by going overboard for Biden, the press was guilty of 1) hyping Joe; 2) inflating expectations to a volume he can’t possibly fulfill and 3) giving viewers and readers a reason to suspect if not distrust the gleaming Biden coverage. In an era when large portions of Americans think mainstream media is a tool of the left, a tad less bootlicking could help build trust among media skeptics.

True, the squeals of delight from the TV booths that greeted Biden were not unique to his inauguration or his political persuasion. Presidents like Ronald Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II have been the beneficiaries of honeymoon inaugural coverage. But such demonstrations arrive most reliably when Democrats take the White House, and never did a Republican get the sort of treatment Barack Obama did in his 2008 inaugural, when MSNBC’s Chris Matthews famously admitted to having “felt this thrill going up my leg” when Obama spoke.

The human impulse to treat an inauguration as a sacred and holy event akin to a coronation can never be eliminated, only suppressed. Until the United States switches from a presidential system to a parliamentary form of government, where the top political leader can be cashiered and replaced inside a day without pomp or circumstance, we’re stuck with all the fussery that meets an incoming president.

Short of dosing commentators, anchors and reporters with Seconal to prevent their central nervous systems from over-reacting to Inauguration Day proceedings, maybe we could embed a house cynic on each network and newspaper to police or at least tamp down the irrational exuberance that rains down on most inaugurations. Think of the house cynic as the one trusted to stay off the sauce all night long so that when the party ends, a sober somebody is still standing to drive all the drunks home safely.

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I’m not volunteering. I’d rather drink. Send cocktail recipes to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts lips have never touched liquor. My Twitter feed got through college on a diet of MD 20/20 and cornflakes. My RSS feed drinks rotgut to keep its gut rotted.

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Lisa

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