Chris Matthews, Dan Rather, and Voting With My Dog

The colorful election coverage of the news networks.

Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2006

What Katie Couric introduced as “the fun part” of CBS’ Election Night coverage turned out to be nothing more than her chatting up the two people on her bipartisan panel of talking heads. Couric asked each of them what the best and worst implications of the evening’s events might be for the folks on the other side of the aisle. They answered harmlessly. This felt less like “fun” than like a “basic requirement of Election Night coverage.” For whatever reason, CBS decided to bring back Bob Schieffer as Couric’s chaperone for the night, but I didn’t catch him doing anything very useful. The following is an approximation of their repartee. Katie: What will Nancy Pelosi need to do to bring these disparate elements of the Democratic Party together? Bob: Nancy Pelosi really needs to bring together these disparate elements of the Democratic Party.

Part of the fun-quashing problem at CBS was that the network’s set and graphics—a soft-focus swirl of homey blues and anemic reds—closely resembled the deliberately unsophisticated look perfected by Fox News, where prime time looked as a lively as an accounting class. Here was Brit Hume (dour, droopy) orchestrating the performance (molto grave) of a quartet of Fox News regulars—one of whom, Fred Barnes, likened the oratorical powers of Rick Santorum to those of Winston Churchill.

Whenever I felt that Hume was about to overpower me with raw torpor, I would switch to ABC, where Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos looked to be trapped in a scale model of a NASA control room, or to CNN, which preeningly provided a fix of bold color and contemporary slickness. Wolf Blitzer and Jeff Greenfield stood before a wall of screens; one of the screens periodically hosted a clock that counted down to the next round of results—a delightfully egregious touch. Anderson Cooper stalked the set like the game-show host he was meant to be. He strolled between a bank of capable reporters and another stocked with civilized pundits and inspired one overwhelming question: Where does he get his suits made?

The evening’s only sustained moment of true incompetence came courtesy of Dan Rather. A bit that aired midway through Comedy Central’s Midterm Midtacular—largely a fine and frisky production—called for Rather to spoof himself and his down-home turns of phrase. (On Hillary Clinton’s landslide victory: “She ran away with it like a hobo with a sweet-potato pie.”) This looks good on paper and must have sounded great in the writers’ room, but Rather was unsure of his timing and looked at once too reticent and too eager to please. And doesn’t proper self-mockery require self-knowledge?

MSNBC put on the best show—intelligent, patient, historically aware, fun. I had just jotted down the words “Chris Matthews—a junkie for this stuff, like never before” when Chris Matthews said, “I’ve never been such a political junkie in my life—and I was doing this in grade school.” Matthews and Keith Olbermann reveled in trading lines about the vintage ballot-box gamesmanship of Chicago’s Richard Daley. For better or worse—Norah O’Donnell was, alas, the only woman on set—it was a virtuoso display of boyish passion. At 2 a.m., Matthews and company were going strong. In salivating over the prospect of the showdown shortly to occur in Virginia, they fleshed out a scene that Fox News had first conjured for me 13 hours earlier by flashing an evocative phrase: “More than 10,000 lawyers ready to go.” Ready to go—what a picture! I dreamed of tasseled loafers and sensible pumps fixed in starting blocks, of 10,000 cups of coffee fixed in grasping hands. … 2:25 p.m.

Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2006

“I feel like Tucker’s gained a few pounds.” This was my fiancée—generally a perceptive lass—cocking an eyebrow at our TV around 1:25 p.m. ET. Tucker Carlson’s smirk was firmly in place behind the anchor desk on MSNBC. He was interviewing Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who, despite being a self-described “Italian kid from a steel town” and all, might have put on a necktie for the occasion. Carlson—nicely despicable as a pundit, hopelessly afloat as an anchorman—asked Santorum the same question that Fox News’ Martha MacCallum had put to him 10 minutes earlier: Why, unlike so many of his fellow Republicans, had he not tried to distance himself from President Bush? Santorum answered. Meanwhile, the graphic at the bottom of the screen read, “Santorum tried distancing himself from Pres. Bush.” The control room did not quite seem to be in touch with the control room, and that’s what it was like in the afternoon and early evening: Much heat, much noise, no light, no action.

The anchors on CNN spent the afternoon fighting back giggle fits, barely. They made no attempt to suppress the temptations toward gimmickry, human-interest stories, and unabashed nonsense. There was some fun about “a rogue squirrel” disrupting voting at a precinct in Oklahoma. There was, again and again, a low-angle shot of Mark Sanford, the governor of South Carolina, filing through his wallet in search of his voter-registration card. (Wolf Blitzer: “His wife had reminded him.”) For legal analysis, there was Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker, who delivered an aside in the mood of that magazine’s cartoons: “I voted with my dog for the first time, which was interesting.” Around 4:35, CNN teased, “the first-ever election-night blogger party”—a gathering of politically minded citizens whose writings are popular on the Intertron. The network was hosting this “party” at Tryst, a Washington, D.C., coffee house. “You’re gonna wanna see this,” said Blitzer. It was true; I was going to want to see this.

As you know, and as the blogger may not, the term party carries certain connotations: If the people being entertained are, in the main, younger than 11, they expect to find cake, balloons, games, and maybe a pony. If the guests are any older, they show up anticipating alcohol, possibly drugs, a chance of getting laid, and maybe a pony. At this party, however, we saw a handful of Americans, none of them remarkably telegenic, sitting in front of computer screens in a Washington, D.C., coffee house. No ponies.

In the absence of exit polls, the cable networks gave us meteorology and little talks about how rain might affect voter turnout. The attentive viewer of cable news now knows more about the weather in Tennessee than the founders of TVA.

Day turned into night. The talking heads limbered up. On Fox News, Shepherd Smith sat coiled like a jungle cat. On MSNBC, Chris Matthews found some reason to quote William Blake. On CNN, they reported that Britney Spears had filed for a divorce from Kevin Federline. Blitzer: “We wish both of them only the best down the road.”

The broadcast networks are just gearing up as I write this. Goodie! Katie Couric recently promised the Wall Street Journal that she wanted, tonight, to “have fun.” … 10:29 p.m.