How is it that in and around politics, we manage to trivialize nearly every crisis and at the same time, turn what’s trivial into a crisis? The debate over the flood of child immigrants to U.S. borders is typical: Here we have a wrenching human dilemma with awful choices about removing children who have fled their brutally dangerous countries, often sent by their desperate parents.
It’s a highly complex matter, as so many are. But it is mostly reduced to pettiness by political hustlers, with shameful cooperation from those of us in media. The debate was taken over by arguments over whether President Barack Obama should make a trip down to the facilities where the kids are being taken, for what would amount to a photo op — “theater,” as the president called it.
To his credit, he refused to go, in spite of the cheap shots heaped on him by nervous candidates from both parties, and their consultants, always at the ready to fire off a sound bite or tweet. And that wasn’t the only fiery question that obscured the real tragedy. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, trying really really hard to promote another run for the White House, made a big show of pandering to his party’s hard-liners by announcing he would not be seen shaking Mr. Obama’s hand when POTUS visited his state. That was not the kind of photo op Perry wanted to go viral.
In case you care, Perry was seen shaking Obama’s hand, and Obama didn’t head to the border, which is certainly a good thing, because it would have been a massive disruption at exactly the worst spot for any added craziness. So, by the dismal ways we usually tabulate scores, it was Obama 2, Perry 0. Absurd, isn’t it?
The borders are still overwhelmed by the kids, who will sooner or later be sent back to their native Central American killing fields where brutal gangs run rampant. The question is, How soon or how late? Congress and the White House are engaged in still more game-playing over how much money to budget to accomplish this, and how it should be used. Also, there’s a totally useless blamefest over which party was responsible. Republicans insist this is part of the Obama administration’s incompetence and the president’s inattention to every responsibility he carries. Democrats love to point out that a core part of this disaster is a well-intentioned law passed to inhibit human trafficking passed when George W. Bush was president. In this election season, no one is well-intentioned.
Obviously this is not the only time-pressing issue that has been reduced to a photo op. Politicians (almost all) contrive them constantly, oftentimes reducing human beings, including those involved in a tragedy, to props to sell whatever the officeholder/candidate/both is peddling.
Those of us in media lap up all this phoniness, because it’s our only way to get precious video or still images that make us look like we’re on top of things, which usually we’re not. But this way, we can pretend we’re an aggressive, unfettered press holding our government accountable.
Barack Obama certainly has been a frequent participant, which probably qualifies as an understatement. Why he got religion in this case is either because he considered it particularly distasteful or a huge, unwieldy hassle or, as his enemies contend, he didn’t want to be seen in the middle of such a mess.
To be clear, his adversaries play by the same rules.
With all the technological advances in transmitting information, we continue to be held captive to contrived events and spoon-fed information while most of our open government is conducted in old-fashioned secrecy. No wonder officials get so angry about leaks. They show everyone that their conduct needs to be challenged and certainly not trivialized.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.