Water, Water Everywhere

Guest: Cole Campbell, Dean of the Donald W. Reynolds School of Journalism, University of Nevada - Reno There are others beyond themselves that the candidates probably would need to trust in order for them to follow the admirable path that Rich suggests.

Take my professional domain: the news media. Journalist Matt Bai discusses John Kerry’s reluctance to spell out his nuanced approach to foreign policy in the post-9/11 world in Bai’s cover story in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, “Kerry’s Undeclared War.” This simple exchange, and how Bai interprets it, is telling:

''What kind of water do you drink?'' I asked, trying to make conversation.

''Plain old American water,'' he said.

''You mean tap water?''

''No,'' Kerry replied deliberately. He seemed now to sense some kind of trap. I was left to imagine what was going through his head. If I admit that I drink bottled water, then he might say I'm out of touch with ordinary voters. But doesn't demanding my own brand of water seem even more aristocratic? Then again, Evian is French -- important to stay away from anything even remotely French. 

''There are all kinds of waters,'' he said finally. Pause. ''Saratoga Spring.'' This seemed to have exhausted his list. ''Sometimes I drink tap water,'' he added.

After months of having his every word scrutinized by reporters and mocked by Republicans, Kerry appeared to sense danger in the most mundane of places.

If candidates can’t even order water in front of a reporter without feeling on the precipice of a trap, it’s unlikely they will unburden themselves publicly on matters of deepest conviction. We can blame the candidates for not being made of sterner stuff, but that’s too easy. I think we can blame other institutions for channeling discourse into a meaning-sapping mélange of image cues (Drinks Evian! Drinks Saratoga Springs! Drinks tap water!).

If we want candidates to engage us directly and fully, we need our institutions of public discourse – the news media chief among them – engaging both candidates and citizens directly and fully.