Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Roundhouse Roundup: Gergen on Polarization

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
October 8, 2009

For $33,000 per appearance, you might expect someone to sing like Frank Sinatra or dance like James Brown.

David Gergen did neither at the Council of State Governments-West conference in Santa Fe on Wednesday. He just gave a speech, answered some questions and signed some copies of his 2000 book, Eyewitness to Power.

Nice work, if you can get it.
David Gergen. Photo by Diane Kinderwater
But it was a good and interesting speech from one of the increasingly rare calm and moderate voices on cable TV news and political programs.

In case you haven’t watched CNN in recent years, Gergen is a “senior political analyst” who frequently offers commentary on Anderson Cooper 360. He served as an adviser to four presidents — Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

As a political junkie who gets tired of the screamers and ranters on the talking-head shows, and even more weary of suits spouting predictable partisan talking points, Gergen’s commentaries are a relief. It’s not that he doesn’t have opinions. As he admitted Wednesday, he tends to be hawkish on foreign policy. But he’s a self-described moderate on social issues.

Gergen talked about the political polarization of the country, which he said, “makes it very hard to govern.”

Just a few months ago, there was hope that President Barack Obama would somehow lead the country out of the intense partisanship of previous years. Perhaps Obama allowed those expectations to get too high, Gergen said. “The magic is fading,” he said. “Some would say it’s gone. And we have returned to a partisanship that is often vicious and eventually could be perilous.”

Part of the problem, he said, is that the Republican Party suffered big losses in the past two elections and the GOP is “in the wilderness” looking for fresh leadership. “But in this case, the vacuum has been filled in effect by raucous voices that are pretty far to the right.”

Instead of debating serious policy, Gergen said, “We’re having crazy arguments” about Obama’s birth certificate and “death panels.”

“It’s gotten mean and ugly, and part of this, frankly (is the fault of) the press,” Gergen said. “The blogosphere has become a place, it’s like a free-fire zone. It’s like the Wild West. … It’s a place where there’s a lot of viciousness, and there’s a lot of rough language. What has happened is that some of this rough language and viciousness has become sort of normal.” And it’s begun to seep into the mainstream press, Gergen said.

(“Right on!” I thought. “And the worst offenders should be rounded up and shot!” Oh wait …)

The mainstream media have to find ways to keep readers and viewers while having a “serious conversation,” Gergen said. Paraphrasing Obama in a recent interview, he said, “The press needs to find ways of making civility interesting again. But I tell you, the problem here is that the audiences tend to go to the food fights.”

Gergen said Obama has contributed to some of this, but he didn’t elaborate.

Later, Gergen was asked whether reviving the Fairness Doctrine for broadcasting would help restore some of the civility. (This policy, which required broadcast license holders to present both sides of controversial issues, was ended during the Reagan years.) Gergen said he thought the Fairness Doctrine was helpful, but he’s seen no interest on the part of the White House to fight that battle.

“I think it’s a cultural challenge,” he said, “not a government challenge.”

Ring around the Roundhouse: Gov. Bill Richardson has called a special session Oct. 17 to deal with the state budget crisis. Not much else is expected to be on the agenda.

But a local group of gay-rights activists is using Facebook to organize a unique kind of protest in favor of allowing same-sex marriage.

“Join us on the Don Gaspar side of the Roundhouse at noon on Saturday Oct. 17th to create the world’s largest engagement ring,” is the message on an event page on Facebook. “We will circle the Roundhouse and hold the ring up for 15 minutes …”

As of late Wednesday night, only 20 had signed up as “confirmed guests” while 57 had said they were “maybe attending.” These figures are slightly larger than those in the print version of this column because I checked the Facebook site several hours later. But still, it’s going to take a lot more to encircle the Roundhouse.