Last Night's Viewing and Other Afflictions

I've been sick in bed for a little bit, felled by a flu more powerful than a locomotive, hastened by a few too many days on Writers Guild picket lines in the chill and drear of a Manhattan November.

One mixed blessing: too dizzy to read, I had a chance to focus on that most treacherous medium, the one in which I allegedly make a living when not on strike, TV.

I was struck by two commercials in particular that seemed to sum up the decline of civilization. One was an ABC promo for the annual rebroadcast of the gentlest of children's specials, "A Charlie Brown Christmas."

Just a couple of weeks ago, an episode of the public television American Masters series focused on the life of Charlie Brown's progenitor, Charles M. Schulz. At one point, it told the story of the Christmas show's creation more than 40 years ago; how the special's original network, CBS, resisted the program's reverent presentation of the Nativity and its message condemning the commercialism of the holiday. Until the ratings came out the next morning -- half the country had tuned in. CBS ordered four more.

The 21st century version of a network crass act was the ABC promo for this year's airing. It began with a shot of a festive Snoopy accompanied by a shrill announcer's voice screaming, "WHASSUP, DAWG!?" If Charles Schulz were still alive, the next day's front pages might have read, "Peanuts Creator Guns Down TV Executives, Then Self." I simply lunged for the bathroom.

The other amazing advertisement was for an all-bran cereal, starring an actor playing a hardhatted construction supervisor extolling the virtues of regularity. As he spoke, in the background, demolition and other activities occurred, each a not-so-subtle metaphor for an efficient intestinal system. I counted about six, culminating, I kid you not, with a dump truck tipping back and unloading its contents.

Which somehow seems an appropriate segue to Wednesday's night's CNN/YouTube Republican presidential candidates' debate. You'll recall that in July, the Democrats (in deference to our president, I personally prefer to call them the Democratics, but it's your call) participated in the first YouTube debate. Viewers from around the country submitted their questions via videotape and computer.

It was an entertaining, freewheeling evening, as robust and energetic as an old-fashioned town meeting in a beer garden. There were queries about just about everything, from a range of interrogators that included a gun nut and a computer-generated snowman fretting over global warming.

When startled, starchy Republicans saw the unscripted result, realizing that they, too, had a YouTube debate scheduled for September 17, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and some of the others suddenly remembered that they had to wash their hair that night. Mitt told the Manchester Union Leader, "I think the presidency ought to be held at a higher level than having to answer questions from a snowman." I see -- but it's okay to answer questions from the abominable Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity?

In any case, a stunned world responded with such force that the GOP changed direction and dragged themselves kicking and wailing into the world of reality television, finally settling on November 28 for the big CNN/YouTube Florida fiesta.

Impressions: Fred Thompson's so done he should have had a bone-handled serving fork stuck between his shoulders, like a "Law and Order" murder victim, although he did have the best single line of the evening when a munitions fan from Phoenix asked each candidate to describe their firearms collection: "I own a couple of guns, but I'm not going to tell you what they are or where they are."

The heated opening fight between Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani over immigration included Romney referring to a worker from outside the US as "someone with a funny accent." Duncan Hunter announced that he personally built the security fence between San Diego and Tijuana (THAT'S what he was doing all those weekends away from Congress). John McCain accused Ron Paul of being the kind of isolationist who caused World War II. Huckabee scored points by seeming the most sincere although he almost blew it with a glib, feckless response when asked what you-know-who would do about the death penalty: "Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office." Ugh.

None fell for a question as to whether they regarded the Bible as literal gospel. Asked about gays in the military, the candidates were either opposed or supported "don't ask, don't tell," including McCain. This puts him at odds with his late mentor, conservative giant Barry Goldwater, who memorably said he didn't care what soldiers were or did as long as they could shoot straight.

Biggest surprise: no mention of 9/11 until over an hour had passed, and no question, from a disgruntled NYC firefighter or anyone, about Giuliani's actions on 9/11 or the days and weeks immediately following, no question about the alleged lack of preparedness or proper emergency radios, or the failure to truthfully inform rescue workers and the public about the toxic air quality in and around Ground Zero. Prior to the debate, many had speculated that this was one reason Rudy had been reluctant to participate in the YouTube forum.

This on the day New York papers reported a survey from the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene revealing that children who were exposed to the dust cloud from the collapse of the Trade Center are twice as likely to be diagnosed with asthma. A study earlier this year found that Ground Zero workers have an asthma diagnosis rate a dozen times greater than the general population.

It's enough to make you sick.

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