Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 11.21.07

Tip from a Waitress
An admonition to ask better questions

Late last month, a study conducted by the Project on Excellence in Journalism proved what anybody with access to the American press already knows: Running for president is about getting the press to focus on how you run for president. The study found that 60 percent of stories were on the political and tactical aspects of the race. Recently, the press got what it had coming, even if it won’t make any difference. A waitress in Iowa called the media “nuts” for spending airtime and column inches on whether or not Hillary’s campaign left her a tip. “There’s kids dying in the war, the price of oil right now — there’s better things in this world to be thinking about than who served Hillary Clinton at Maid-Rite and who got a tip.” Snap!

Also this month, two of the political machine’s most distinguished components appeared to actually agree with this widely held sentiment. Lee Hamilton, the former congressman and co-chair of the 9/11 Commission, and John Bolton, former ambassador for the Bush administration to the U.N., took the stage at Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland for the 25th annual Tom McCall Forum. The liberal, played by Hamilton, and the conservative, as rendered by Bolton, agreed on two important points: 1) We should be demanding that candidates for the presidency provide a comprehensive foreign policy agenda before anyone gets elected; and 2) nuclear proliferation should be at the top of the page no matter who ends up in the oval office. But they didn’t agree on what the next president should do about it.

Hamilton held to the wisdom of diplomacy, treaties and surveillance of fissile materials as the way to insure that our kids could plan for a long life, a fat mortgage and the future of their children. Bolton told us that the only way to avoid a return to the bejesus fright that was the Cold War is to vote for somebody in 2008 who understands the necessity of pre-emptive war when dealing with nations we’re not willing to let into the nuclear club.

After the debate, I cracked open a copy of journalist and media critic Norman Solomon’s new book, Made Love, Got War: Close Encounters with America’s Warfare State. Given what I had just heard, a harrowing line jumped out, “I think that what we are up against is a generation that is by no means sure that it has a future.” It comes from George Wald, a Nobel Prize-winning biologist. Wald’s is a frightening idea because it touches uncomfortable truths. It’s easier never to speak the names of global conditions that render parents helpless, and children, not yet fools, hardened and dark. Having just heard radically different visions of what should be done about the insidious expansion of nuclear weapons, I found the line an appropriate caption to either. Given that Wald was speaking in 1969, it’s hard not to wonder if the horse race reporting on presidential politics, this practiced ignorance of how the candidates see the future, is the evolution of nearly two generations who accept that they won’t have one.


The view from the current generation is clearly rendered by another Wald quote: “Nuclear weapons offer us nothing but a balance of terror, and a balance of terror is still terror.” Consider the teetering scales we now know. Bolton understands how much trickier things are nowadays. But the nature of his remarks throughout the debate suggested he was serving not the god of high analysis but the chances of victory for Republican X in the general election (he has, after all, gone back to work for the American Enterprise Institute). Frankly, I’m surprised he hasn’t come up with logic that’s a little less tortured. He describes a long list of bad actors, both sinister nation states and nonstate evildoers, which o his mind suggests a foreign policy of shoot first and threaten somebody else later. But he ignores that the Cold War’s mutually assured destruction was, by comparison, a stable scenario. To be fair, he accepts retaining diplomacy and international agreements on the list of options. But he appears comfortable abandoning these less violent methods when their success is not quick and absolute.

This is why it is so important that we take the message of a waitress from Iowa and demand that the media cover presidential issues more important than the generosity of campaign staffs. Its also why we should take Bolton’s advice to demand that a candidate’s foreign policy is clearly understood before the primaries, let alone the general election. Because it is altogether possible that if we don’t, the next president will be taking Bolton’s advice on how to conduct that foreign policy.

Brian Shaw is a journalist and the director of Town Hall Media,