Redemption or Renaissance?

Guest: Cole Campbell, Dean of the Donald W. Reynolds School of Journalism, University of Nevada - Reno In between the second and third presidential debates, there was a flurry of blogosphere-driven chatter about a suspicious bulge in President Bush's suit coat during the second debate. A photo showing telltale shadows on the president's back was blown up, analyzed, explained away by the White House tailor, speculated about by everyone else drawn to the idea of conspiracy. Was this some device by which the president's handlers -- presumably people smarter than him, or at least with better syntax -- could coach the president to a more palatable performance in the debate? Was this whole contretemps a clever ruse by White House insiders to divert public discussion from substantive matters of war, jobs, the environment and schooling? What gives speculation over a shadow on a jacket such resonance -- besides our national appetite for conspiracy theories -- is that it fits with what we know about the deterioration of public discourse. Candidates are not free to speak their minds, bare their souls or open their hearts. They are assigned -- by handlers, pollsters, pundits, press commentators and others -- two specific roles: Consolidate and mobilize their base of supporters, and persuade as many undecided voters to align with them. Vision is reduced to a memorable metaphor -- President Reagan's "morning in America," President Clinton's "bridge to the future." So however disappointing it may be that the final presidential debate was reduced to redundant mantras and rhetorical semaphore signals, it's not surprising. It's the embodiment of a cynical kind of pragmatism. This is what the political elite knows from experience moves poll numbers and shifts momentum in the days leading up to balloting. What we need is a return to the older, nobler pragmatism -- the kind Rich encounters on Wisconsin public radio, in conversations with community leaders, in reflecting on community desires in a place like Las Vegas. This pragmatism is a search for solutions to real public problems, not a search for competitive advantage in an electoral contest. We can blame the candidates, and hope they can redeem themselves, or we can accept responsibility to use our own work, our own professions, our own institutions to reclaim public discourse. That's what Rich is doing through the work of the Harwood Institute -- and even through this blog. Are the rest of us doing the same? It's not two politicians who need redemption, but a system of political conversation and decision-making that needs to be reborn. The shadow we need to worry about is not on candidates' clothing but on our own political culture.