It started with a simple question: "Are there any politicians you admire?"
It came from a fellow Timely Talker, a member of a discussion group my wife, Linda, and I attend each week. I had been grousing about how politicians in Washington no longer represent the people whose votes put them there, how they were instead loyal to their wealthy supporters and how their constant fund-raising and campaigning leaves them with no time for actual governing.
The question caught me off-guard momemtarily before I responded: Bernie Sanders. Elizabeth Warren. ...
"Who's Bernie Sanders?" someone asked. Nobody in our group besides me and Linda had heard of him. Well, in the days since our last Timely Talkers meeting, Sanders has been one of the more visible politicians here in Iowa. He popped in for a few appearances around the state over the weekend, earning a few inches of news coverage in The Des Moines Register, even getting a mention in Rekha Basu's Sunday column. USA Today followed with a short profile two days later.
Sanders' emergence comes as he's pondering a run for the presidency in 2016. It was that possibility that landed him on Meet the Press on Sunday. Although Sanders has been in Congress since 1990 and is the longest-serving independent in U.S. congressional history, it was his first bite at the MTP apple.
Meet the Press has a new host, Chuck Todd. Todd, who retains his position of NBC political director, is generally highly regarded for his political savvy. Meet the Press is the longest-running series in television broadcast history, having started as an on-air press conference in 1947 with Martha Rountree as moderator. In its early years, newsmakers were pressed by panelists on important questions of the day.
In recent years, however, the show has morphed into a mostly political program. You would think that a politically savvy commentator like Todd would be a good fit for the show, but his handling of Sunday's Sanders interview offers little hope that the new guy will rescue NBC's flagship public affairs program from its devolution toward irrelevance.
In his introduction, Todd said that a Sanders presidential run "could cause Hillary Clinton some trouble." That, apparently, was the basis of the interview, which was grossly unfair to Sanders, whose positions on important issues over the years have nothing to do with presidential politics.
As Sanders pointed out repeatedly in the five-minute segment, Americans of both parties are profoundly angry at Wall Street, the political establishment and the media establishment. The middle class is collapsing, he said, and the Citizens United decision was one of the Supreme Court's worse decisions ever, "opening up the road to oligarchy in the United States of America."
In a discussion of "the billionaire class," when Todd pointed out that billionaires poured money into both major political parties, Sanders called him out on his false equivalency premise, accurately pointing out that billionaire political support was strongly tilted to the Republican side.
Todd repeatedly tried to pin Sanders down on where he thought he fit in the 2016 presidential race, probably because Sanders conceded that the logistics of a national claim could force him to compete in Democratic primaries, the paty he caucuses with. Generally, though, Sanders fended off such pigeon-holing attempts.
After the interview, Todd retreated to the staple for such shows these days, a panel discussion. The panel proceeded to dismiss Sanders' comments as the wailings of an irrelevant gadfly and promptly steered the conversation to the topic du jour: What about Hillary?
To me, this is one of the great failings of contemporary journalism: ignoring issues in favor of personality-driven speculation. There is way too much coverage of horse-race politics and not enough on actual governance. Sanders understands the anger in America today, the frustration and disillusionment in the process that sees politicians "working" three days a week, taking entire months off while important issues await action and spending more time fund-raising with wealthy benefactors than meeting with constituents.
Elections are important, but they're not the foremost concern of most Americans. Bernie Sanders gets that. Why doesn't the rest of the Washington political establishment understand? Or the media?