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George W. Bush as the Media’s "Likable Protagonist"
Published on Sunday, January 30, 3005 by CommonDreams.Org
George W. Bush as the Media’s "Likable Protagonist"
by David Benjamin
 

PARIS -- Often when Europeans see President George W. Bush depicted by U.S. media as "bold," "resolute," morally upright and visionary -- despite ethical, intellectual, grammatical, political and diplomatic deficiencies that would disqualify almost anyone else from public works administration, much less the leadership of the free world -- they anoint me spokesman for America and ask, "What's wrong with your journalists? Can't they see through this guy?"

I've tested countless solutions to this riddle, but never really put my finger on Bush's uncanny knack for turning the cream of American newshounds into a lot of slobbering lapdogs -- 'til the other day, when Rosalind Russell came to mind.

Russell's plum role was Hildy Johnson, opposite Cary Grant's Walter Burns in "His Girl Friday," Howard Hawks' comedy about reporters. Besides being great cinema, "His Girl Friday" encapsulates journalism's growth since 1940. It suggests how a dissembling charmer like Dubya can effortlessly hypnotize today’s reporters, although Hildy's team would have ground him into mincemeat.

The monograph of "His Girl Friday" sets the story "in the 'Dark Ages' of the newspaper game." It adds that the characters bear "no resemblance to the men and women of the press today."

Amen to that. Except for Hildy, none of the film's reporters has the benefit of higher education. A gaggle of blue-collar cynics who rarely interrupt their eternal poker game, they sneer at the targets of their reportage and snigger at human tragedy. Hildy sums them up aptly as "a lot of daffy buttinskies running around without a nickel in their pocket... peeking through keyholes... chasing after fire engines... stealing pictures off old ladies..."

Today's journalists are a finer breed. Even though Walter Burns might regard them -- men and women alike -- as "little college girls from the school of journalism," they have uplifted the profession from mere literacy to near literature.

Indeed, today's school of journalism is not Hildy's inner-city diploma mill. It's an elite graduate school that requires four years' grounding in a reputable liberal arts university. While matriculating, today's new improved reporters studied the great works of Western letters -- Shakespeare, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and guys like that. They learned that good prose is more than just an inverted pyramid and an edit from the bottom. They cherish the symmetry of a perfect sentence, the sublimity of a vivid description and, above all, the power of characterization to illuminate and uplift a narrative.

In their pre-journalism studies, reporters also pondered what might be termed the "Raskalnikov dilemma." The hero of Dostoyevsky’s "Crime and Punishment," Raskalnikov, presents one of the defining problems of modern literature (and by extension, journalism): Must the author provide a likable protagonist as a means to engage the reader and justify the telling of the tale?

Dostoyevsky's answer was obviously, "Nyet." His protagonist starts the book by murdering a little old lady. Only much later, after anguishing over the murder for 400 pages, repenting his crime and healing his soul with love for a saintly prostitute named Sonia, does Raskalnikov earn the reader’s sympathy. But he’s still not a guy you'd want to have a beer with. In the whole book, Sonia is the nearest thing to a "likable protogonist," except... well, she's a whore.

Academics resolve Raskalnikov by explaining that, in serious literature, requiring a "likable protagonist" is a bourgeois hindrance to artistic expression. Popular fiction, however, is less flexible. Your pop-fiction writer, pandering to a public composed largely of the (bourgeois) sales staff of a publishing house, pretty much has to cough up at least one huggable main character in Chapter 1. Or else!

So, what about journalism? Certainly, it's not the cutthroat tabloidism of Walter Burns' day. But is it literature -- or just pop fiction?

During the Clinton era, America's new wave of college-bred journalists -- bless their hearts -- bravely opted for literature. They wrote a presidential narrative that Tennessee Williams would've been proud to call his own -- crawling with sleazy sex, bickering spouses, backstabbing staffers and tawdry courtroom theatrics, all presided over by the Adulterer-in-Chief.

Trouble was, America wasn't quite ready for tabloid crypto-lit. The more the press flogged its version of "Crime and Punishment," the less Clinton resembled Raskalnikov. Stubbornly and cheerily, readers ignored Bill's dark side, seeing him instead as a sort of lovable rascal, like Jay Gatsby or Rhett Butler.

This debacle taught the media that, despite their Master's degrees, they were safer sticking -- like Hildy Johnson — to bourgeois pulp. So, as Clinton's narrative wound down, reporters started seeking a "likable protagonist." They chose Dubya over Al Gore, probably because they were pretty sure Bush couldn't pronounce "Dostoyevsky," much less read "Crime and Punishment." Eventually, by morphing Dubya from a dyslexic lightweight into madcap fiction ("Bertie Wooster Runs for President"), the U.S. Media cleansed the Clinton stain and reclaimed the affection of their audience -- while totally befuddling the rest of the world.

Ironically, the following thumbnail of Raskalnikov’s murder plan, which I found in my "Reader's Companion" sounds -- if you read it closely -- more like the Bush presidency than the Dostoyevskian Clinton years:

"Though it has been carefully planned, it has been planned as a sort of daydream, which [Bush] himself hardly believes in, and the plan is finally carried through on impulse... with a mixture of devious cunning and neurotic blundering."

David Benjamin (lastkidpicked@wanadoo.fr), journalist and novelist, has been editor of the Mansfield (Mass.) News, Tokyo Journal and other periodicals. His books include The Life and Times of the Last Kid Picked. Born and raised in Wisconsin, he now lives in Paris.

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