The Golden Globe awards are in the rear view mirror with the Oscars and Grammys weeks off. They celebrate writing, acting, singing and the like—performing arts.
Many years ago I visited with Ted Danson on the set of Cheers. He played Sam Malone a washed up relief pitcher whose time in the Major Leagues was spent with the Boston Red Sox. He was the owner of a walk down bar in Boston and with poise and good humor engaged with a wide range of colorful characters.
Danson, noting my venue, Washington, and its characters, said, “We do the same thing. We are all actors; it’s just that our subjects are different”. Ronald Reagan was then President. I would note several other differences. As the award ceremonies unfold it is clear that a good show is a team effort.
Actors, whether in Hollywood or Washington, are not humble people. They have worked hard to get to the top and preen in the spotlight. But in the case of those who take the stage to act or sing or dance or whatever, they recognize that fame is fleeting and there is more skill behind the camera than in front of it. Almost all, gracious in their winning monologue, spend their seconds recognizing others.
Every four years America goes through a version of this at the election polls. A much more serious version. We then live with our choice for four years. Perhaps the most daunting challenge is looking ahead, as we know circumstances are always in motion and we can’t know as we are voting the challenges that our new leader will face.
In about a week and a half Iowa will kick off the choice of a national leader to serve four years. The overwhelming leaders out of the gate are two old men (I write as one). The prides of both miniaturize the collective pride in the performing arts.
One, Donald Trump, has a take no prisoners persona. The other, Joe Biden, has accumulated layers of ego unbeknownst to regular people. Both insist that America needs them. Both ask that, notwithstanding the certainty of age-related risk factors, that they be supported. For four more years.
An egregious element in the back story of presidential campaigns is that the media loves polls. They, of course, are not the real thing but like impending sports events they seed conversation and betting lines. They like them so much they brand the polls with their name. Most networks and the most circulated newspapers have their names on the polls.
So years and then months before the first votes are cast the New York Times and Washington Post and Wall Street Journal tell us what we are thinking. And therefore, while we are thinking about our mortgage or children or whatever, we are asked about people most of whom we have never heard of.
There is, of course, a companion problem. As my wife says, who would answer questions from a stranger in a world in which most answer the phone electronically? Fact is the pollsters now assemble panels of persons they quiz repetitively. I suspect the data value recedes with repetition. Perhaps the better test is Google Trends that reports interest in Niki Haley has surged. Days out from the beginning of voting people are now interested.
On top of the advantage the media gives to incumbents or the well known we have an extra aggressive use of leverage. President Biden used his leverage to change the order of primaries. Not wanting to start out in Iowa or New Hampshire, he stacked the deck in favor of South Carolina where he has an especially powerful surrogate.
Trump, on the other hand, being especially well known refused debate invitations. And he called officeholders (an especially quivering contingent) and said endorse me or I will oppose you. So Republicans who had supported one or more Bush or Reagan or had been in a youth for Eisenhower organization were at risk of being ruled out of the Party (Republicans in Name Only) by a New York billionaire whose principal occupation is Self. But, I can say with certainty that NYC businessmen know leverage—not just the definition, but the practice. And given that most who hold office do not have a backup job, they yield. Public ciphers not servants.
In the meantime the commentators who populate the media with their names on the polls confuse real voting with conversations. They then disparage Trump’s supporters and his supporters then use Trump as their middle finger proxy. All the while, Biden’s operatives goad Trump supporters toward the end of Trump being Biden’s competition.
In recent years I frequently feel like a contrarian. So I would vote for Congressman Dean Phillips (protest vote) in the New Hampshire Democrat primary that won’t count. Congressman Phillips is getting a good lesson in powerlessness. And for Niki Haley in the Iowa or New Hampshire primaries that will count. Haley is an especially interesting political figure. Her Americanness is already being challenged by Trump. And, it takes a lot of skill and performing talent to rise to second place with voters who several months ago didn’t recognize her name much less her background.
So let me close with two thoughts. To the extent polls have a constructive dimension it is in the snapshots they give us on public attitudes about topical issues and politicians. Democrats who are polled do not give Vice President Kamala Harris good marks. Joe Biden, who is lugging around his own baggage, should transition as delicately as he can to a new running mate with good operational credentials. Or Harris should stand down, be widely celebrated for having done so and become the President of a University.
And to Republicans. Voters who are not hardcore Republicans do not like Donald Trump. We need a President supported by a majority; his chances of winning with a majority are nil. In that respect I believe Biden’s operatives, in pumping up Trump, are simply responding to that fact. There is a message in there for America.
Several weeks ago I suggested that the CNN Republican Primary debate should be ducked by Niki Haley and Ron DeSantis unless CNN provided a video stand-in for Donald Trump. I anticipated a cage match and it was one. One that Haley won. Why? Her DeSantislies.Com web site which she frequently used as an elaboration point and her critique of his campaign, noting his continual declining poll numbers while burning through $150 million, were winners. But the cage match theatrics mainly served up political decay.
Free Over-the Air Broadcasting
One of the frequently repeated lines of pride during my time at the Federal Communications Commission was commenting favorably on “free over-the-air broadcasting”. The FCC had used its facilitation of a nationwide network of broadcast channels to help unify the country.
Now, and predictably, the monolith, the National Football League has decided to sell only streaming rights to the playoff game between the reigning Super Bowl winning Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins.
The FCC has no control over what the NFL does and sports, unlike news, does not carry much intangible value. But, anytime a product or service is controlled by a monopoly bad things will happen. I am a Chiefs fan but will boycott the game on Peacock, NBC’s streaming service. Hopefully enough people will boycott, sending the NFL and its complicit advertisers a clear message: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.”
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.