Getting By on a Diet of Rats

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For almost a decade, with eerie regularity, the gods of media have provided gaudily gruesome three-ring tabloid circuses of news: 

Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill... O. J. Simpson... Oklahoma City... Columbine... Unabomber... Diana... Monica/Ken Starr/impeachment... JFK Jr. — all the continuous 24-hour media spectacles that defined the '90s.

Things have been pretty slow lately. We've just been maintaining — on the news equivalent of small-dose methadone and cheap card tricks of "reality" like "The Blair Witch Project." At the end of summer 2000, we have exhausted even such idiot's delights as "Survivor." We push around the streets of big cities on tiny chrome scooters, like 10-year-olds, and argue about The Kiss, or about George W. Bush's I.Q.  "The Blair Witch Project" is out in video, so a few might go back to that. (But the word I get is that that wasn't real documentary footage anyway! It was a fake!!!)

And, oh, there's the presidential campaign.

There was a time — try to remember — when an American presidential election campaign seemed a matter of some consequence and passion. Theodore H. White would bustle about the republic composing Homeric prose about "The Making of the President." 

If White's sonorous mythologizing was overdone, the making of the president 2000 seems ridiculously underdone — the election campaign at times little more than a curiosity, an irritation yammering toward a foregone conclusion. Even the summer's mild suspense (it's a toss-up, we said) is draining out of this one. The race began by raising two fundamental questions: How strange is Gore? How dumb is Bush? There are real policy differences, of course, but personality trumps those. The answer is emerging — the sum of Al's weirdness works out to be less than the sum of W.'s dumbness. That, anyway, is the current state of play. It could yet change.

The starkest evidence that we are living on short rations came in recent days with the events of Ratgate. Journalists who should have known better — and would have, if there were any controlling grown-up authority on the National Desk, any intelligent superego left to say, "Spike it, it's a phony" — worked themselves into a state about the idea that the Bush people had commissioned a campaign ad containing the word "RATS," subliminally flashed on the screen in the midst of a discussion of "bureaucRATS" or  "DemocRATS."  The diabolical idea (a brainwashing trick that the GOP's mind-control people picked up from the Commie Reds north of the Yalu) was to have this message, "RATS", flash subliminally in the mind of the late Lawrence Harvey and persuade him to vote Republican in November. Not only Lawrence Harvey, but millions of previously normal Americans: Envision them on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November walking stiff-legged and blank-eyed, zombielike, to the polls, muttering, "RATS, RATS... DemocRATS!!!"

Al Gore greeted the GOP's Manchurian ploy with all condign solemnity. He gravely pronounced himself "very disappointed" in George W. Bush. I suppose it would have been too much to expect Gore to greet the rat story with the snorting hilarity it deserved.

More to the point, Ratgate shows what happens to the nervous systems of certain news organizations when they go into withdrawal, deprived of the usual diet of sensational junk to which their bodies have become habituated. What do you do if you're not mainlining 24-hour-a-day Diana or Columbine, or some such? Well, you cast a fevered eye about for something that will do until the real thing comes along again.