Mark Steyn on media and politics on both sides of the Atlantic
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HH: We being as we do every Thursday when we are lucky with Columnist To the World, Mark Steyn, www.steynonline.com. Mark, President Obama went to the Cooper Union today. The last sitting president to go there was Bill Clinton, who gave a speech on the federal deficit. You see any irony in that?
MS: (laughing) Yeah, I don’t know how, what are we now, 12 years on, and President Obama is proposing basically to multiply whatever it was back in those days 12 times at least.
MS: And he doesn’t seem to realize, as Clinton did for whatever shallow and poll-tested reason, that in fact the spending is the issue.
HH: You know, at that time, Clinton was denouncing a federal budget debt that had gone from $1 trillion to $4 trillion in a dozen years. And we are now at $10 [trillion] and rising, Mark Steyn. You think maybe Bill Clinton could call him and tell him to read the old speech?
MS: No, because of course Bill Clinton is too busy comparing the Tea Party movement to Timothy McVeigh, and doesn’t seem to have anything else, time for anything else at the moment. But I think the trouble is that whatever President Obama says, the American people get it. And I think it’s very, I think it’s very dangerous for any political leadership class when the people simply no longer believe it. I’m not comparing the President to the Soviet Union in any other sense than this, except that in late Soviet Russia, when Brezhnev used to stand up and announce this and announce that, the public knew it was rubbish, and was never going to happen. And the minute you squander kind of core credibility, as I think the President is doing with more and more people, it’s very difficult to recover that.
HH: You know, Mark, I don’t think that’s a fair comparison, because Brezhnev did not speak as often or nearly as long as President Obama.
MS: No, and that’s true. And actually, listening to an interminable series of May Day speeches from Brezhnev and Chernenko and Adropov would actually be relatively relaxing compared to listening to President Obama at full throttle.
HH: Now I want to turn to across the pond before I lose track and forget to ask you about the collapse of the Tories in the polls, the surge of Nick Clegg. And you used to cover this. There’s never…they’re about to be Obama’d. And they don’t even know it. They’re about to fall for the same trick.
MS: Yes, Nick Clegg is the leader of the third party, the Liberal Democrats, who…Nick Clegg is an irrelevant figure. You know, he’s this week’s fad, he’s this week’s craze. But he could have a very great impact, because he exposed something that is real, that there is something tinny and hollow about David Cameron, the leader of the British Conservative Party. Now David Cameron has done everything that a lot of people on this side of the Atlantic is saying Republicans should do. My friend, David Frum, often cited David Cameron and his so-called repositioning of the Tories as something that the Republican Party should be doing. But Nick Clegg in some very basic way in this leadership debate exposed something fake and empty at the heart of David Cameron. And Cameron and his advisors are now floundering. They should be winning this. Gordon Brown is about as unpopular as you can get. The British economy is basically Iceland on Thames. It’s kaput. And if the Tories cannot win under these circumstances, then there is no point to having a British Conservative Party at all.
HH: Now…but the British, I had always assumed, that the voter in the United Kingdom were more sophisticated than American voters, because they had been, you know, participating in democracy much, much longer, and have had this whole sales of soap before. But Nick Clegg turns in one nice performance on the telly, and the whole country swoons for him. I’m actually very disappointed in them.
MS: Yes, I mean, that is contemptible in a way, but I think what it illustrates, I mean, these are really three types that we saw in this British TV debate. Gordon Brown is the third way leader after all the, after the bookkeeping is caught up with the record. So in other words, he talked the third way talk, and the net result is that Britain is broke, and the economy’s in the hole. David Cameron is the empty, hollow marketing man who has done what all the focus groups suggest, a man who doesn’t believe anything, but who has done what the focus groups suggest, and moved the so-called Conservative Party to the center. And Nick Clegg is, as you say, doing the Obama thing, running as a man who is against politics as usual, and is running as the anti-politics politician. And in fact, everything he favors is bigger and more statist than ever. And he might reasonably conclude well you know, if 300 million Americans couldn’t see through that obvious hooey, why should 60 million Britons be any smarter?
HH: That’s true. True. Now I want to move to media, and you mentioned Bill Clinton’s op-ed in the New York Times, a despicable exercise in absolute incendiary rhetoric. But it’s now spread everywhere. I’m afraid I’ve cost Donny Deutsch his job, because I made this passing reference to Keith Olbermann and Ed Schultz as being hatemongers, and he was insufficiently vigorous in his defense of them, so he’s now been exited, stage left, left, left at MSNBC. What is going on out there, Mark Steyn, as you watch this hand-wringing about political rhetoric, when it’s in fact not even that heated right now?
MS: No, I don’t think it’s heated at all, but I think the media recognized this as a real threat to Obama, and to the new, what they see as the Europeanization of America, which is something the media, like Obama and the Democrats, favor. And in fact, these Tea Parties are, by the standards of these things, extremely moderate and well-behaved and civilized. And so the only trick left is to make it unrespectable to be part of this movement. Now that’s something that has been politically effective in certain circumstances. Whether you can actually do it in the internet age, I think, is very unclear. I’m not so sure, for example, that Clinton’s actually absurd, never mind offensive, but actually totally, patently absurd linkage of Timothy McVeigh with conservative talk radio fifteen years ago, I’m not so sure that that would be possible now. But it’s the last trick left. You’ve got to tell all the squishy, moderate centrist people that getting mixed up with the Obama opposition is somehow dirty and unrespectable, and puts you in the mean-spirited hatemonger camp. That’s the only trick, it’s the only quiver left what is otherwise a very empty bag.
HH: And I really doubt that’s going to work. Now Mark, I owe you an apology. I had been promoting you as the answer to CNN’s problems, that they ought to make you the host of like 12 hour blocks. That’s like urging someone be appointed chief guide to Siberia, and I’m sorry about that. But at this point, is there anything they could do to save their programming, and MSNBC as well?
MS: Well, you know, one night a couple of weeks ago, Campbell Brown had, I think it was 22,000 people watching. I’ve got friends up in Canada who get bigger readership than that on their daily blogs, with a potential market that is a tenth of the size of Campbell Brown’s. It gets beyond the politics, really. Those shows are boring, and the hosts are simply not as sharp. And I have a degree…I don’t say that as someone who dislikes Larry King. I have a tremendous amount of affection for Larry King, and I love it whenever he interviews, you know, Tina Louise or Ann Margaret, or something, and he suddenly springs to life for the first time in the last couple of decades. But he is not, but the others do not even rise to that level. I mean, everyone goes on about Anderson Cooper, the exciting, young, new face of CNN. Larry’s audience fell by 54% last quarter, and the fresh, new, hot, young talent, Anderson Cooper’s audience, fell by 42%. So I don’t think there’s any future in Anderson Cooper. You just shed the audience marginally less dramatically.
HH: And I really don’t know how it can be that way in a time of tremendous political interest and activity. I don’t want to say tumult. I don’t think it’s, you know, a revolutionary moment. I just think people are deeply engaged and worried, and they can’t get anyone to watch political shows.
MS: Well, but I do think it gets to the presentation of these things. I mean, I think simply put, these hosts, for example, are not engaged. The graphic style of the network is dreary. They don’t have, in a way, it gets to who’s the guy thinking strategically for the network. They don’t have a Roger Ailes. Whatever one feels about Roger Ailes, is he’s a man who knows how to produce entertaining TV. He was doing it on the Dinah Shore show.
MS: I reminded him that I’d once said to him on the BBC when I interviewed him years ago, oh, I loved it when you did the Dinah Shore show. Now that’s my idea of a talk show. And Roger said dismissively, yeah, that’s why you’re on the BBC.
MS: And it’s the ability to refresh the format that has kept Roger Ailes the master that he is.
HH: That is…is there anything in the United Kingdom, by the way, that is remotely watchable on politics? Is there a great UK show on politics?
MS: Well, I mean, I think they don’t have the equivalent of networks like Fox, and they would be difficult to do, simply because it’s much more regulated over there. They have a very patrician figure called Jeremy Paxman, who does these very languid, condescending interview, especially with Americans.
HH: Mark Steyn, we’re out of time. www.steynonline.com.
End of interview.