Taking an obvious swipe at President Bush, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said last month about the coming presidential election, "At least we'll have an adult in office who can lead and can accomplish something."
That would be nice, wouldn't it, having an adult in the White House again? Someone who doesn't rely on righteous impulse to determine policy, instead allowing hard facts and reality-based advisers into the mix. Someone who might actually work with Congress again rather than petulantly bully through an agenda or issue signing statements to ignore laws not to his liking.
And as a baseline, all three presidential hopefuls seem to meet this minimum threshold. But the way the presidential race is shaping up makes me wonder whether the media will ever again allow true, adult leadership to emerge.
An adult leader is one who will starkly discuss our national challenges and the difficult choices that lay ahead. A responsible media would undergird the seriousness of such issues as the coming crisis in Medicare, America's uninsured and the exploding national debt, among a multitude of others, by focusing on them — harping on them — rather than pouncing on a candidate's gaffes or missteps.
But the national media, and particularly those gasbags on cable and network news, are playing the opposite role. I thought we had reached the nadir of media focus on irrelevancies during the ABC News Democratic debate in Philadelphia. The first 40 minutes was spent grilling Barack Obama on such vital national issues as his flag pin wearing and who's clinging to what. Ugh.
But the tsunami of coverage over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's race baiting — as if Obama is responsible for every voluble uncorking by his pastor — was off the charts.
According to the News Coverage Index of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, 42 percent of all campaign-related stories from April 28 to May 4 involved the Obama/Wright issue. The next highest was the price of gas at 7 percent. That week a total of 38 percent of all news coverage on television, radio, online and in print, was about the campaign. But cable TV, the monster-in-a-box, devoted a whopping 70 percent of its airtime to it.
Meanwhile, here is what was happening at the same time that really matters to our nation:
Big Agribusiness is about to extort the taxpayer again. In the quinquennial farm bill that was (and still is) being hammered out in a congressional conference committee, more than $5-billion in automatic annual payments would go to mostly very rich farmers, some with incomes in the millions of dollars.
These subsidies are holdovers from the 1930s when commodity supports may have been needed — temporarily. But today with consolidated megafarms charging record high prices for grain and strong harvests, there is no excuse for this giveaway. The administration to its credit wanted to rein in this practice and put a reasonable means-test on the payments, but the Democratic leadership and the farm-state Republicans have pushed back.
Good for Republican John McCain for having the guts to call crop subsidies unnecessary — a truly adult position. On the other hand, his gas tax holiday plan (shared by Hillary Clinton) is a disaster from every vantage but political pandering.
Why the American public doesn't know every bit as much about the farm bill as what Wright is saying now, is the fault of the media. If 42 percent of the campaign coverage last week were homed in on this taxpayer pocket-picking, presidential candidates would be called to account. Candidates like Obama and Clinton couldn't get away with supporting farm subsidies to gain an edge in the Iowa primaries. There would be a backlash.
Only when our media decide to focus on complex, substantive issues and determinedly ignore the extraneous, inconsequential and diversionary, will we get to know the adult leaders in the race. Then maybe we'll elect one. Wouldn't that be nice.