Last night, Keith Olbermann kicked off MSNBC’s election-returns coverage by unpacking a trunkload of figurative language suited to match the nasty weather in Ohio. He riffed on flood tides and sandbags and bridges. He self-consciously ventured that the storm constituted a form of divine gift, aid to “political reporters, desperate and weary, already out of analogies and imagery, and it’s only March.” And then, as is the habit of commentators on that most pop-savvy and merrily allusive of news networks, he plunged deeper into reference, speaking of “M.C. Escher-like perceptions,”Groundhog Day, and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, further attempting “a Cape Canaveral kind of analogy” and some Jiffy Lube sort of imagery, and nodding to the Oregon Treaty of 1846 in a way that risked a neck sprain. It added up to a vision of anchoring as a free-form Dennis Miller routine.
As such, Olbermann gave what the evening required. The challenge of long TV nights like Tuesday—periods when information drips forth at a leisurely pace and the tensions are slow to resolve—is finding ways to fill time that are not entirely artless. We all know how this goes. The campaign managers buzz by to beam confidence and say nothing. The pundits roll up to the desk to say whatever it is they’ve been saying for a fortnight. Some reporters risk dizziness by evaluating every revolution of campaign spin, while others, old-fashionedlike, breathe news of confetti. With nothing like clarity or insight in the offing, the forecast calls for shtick.
The best shtick going on CNN this election season is its wall-sized touch-screen interactive map of these United States. Lou Dobbs last night called it a “magic board,” about which claim Wolf Blitzer was politely skeptical: “I don’t know if it’s magic, but it’s very, very sophisticated.” Let’s split the difference and call it nifty. At the board, chief national correspondent John King would call up county-level results in Texas or project what advantage Hillary Clinton could gain in delegates by winning some caucus by such-and-such a margin. The board is an impressive tool, and the only catch is that CNN mostly uses it to demonstrate exactly how impressive the board is.
Fox News, for its part, refused to traffic in such niftiness. They gave us only proof that Karl Rove is settling into his analyst’s job with plump aplomb, his jolliness set off by the near-uniform dourness of his new colleagues. Fred Barnes did manage a koan about the nature of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, site of TV’s next Superabundant Tuesday: “It’s more like Ohio than Ohio is.” Wouldn’t you love to see that sentence on a license plate?
In time, the evening’s winners materialized at rallies. John McCain was in Dallas. His wife had a vibrant new hairdo. His delivery was awful. I’m not certain whether I’ve ever seen McCain read from a prompter before, but I’m positive I don’t want to see it again, such was the unnerving effect of his middle-distance squint. His confetti was red, blue, and sparse.
Hillary Clinton won the evening’s confetti war in a landslide. Up in Columbus, Ohio, the paper fell in a thick and multihued blizzard, dazzling the camera and slashing an exclamation point on one of her better speeches of the campaign season. Sen. Clinton, always most appealing in victory, was warm and loose. She was taking the stage three days after gamely playing along with Saturday Night Live’s fond teasing and one day after chipperly submitting to an awkward conversation with Jon Stewart (who is never less interesting than when striving to be serious), and she carried some of that showbiz ease up to the podium. With cuddly Mike Huckabee bowing out of the Republican race, Clinton looks poised to take the lead in the comedy-show primary—a contest that, despite awarding no delegates, offers imagery not to be sneered at.