I arrived in the United States of America for a two-week vacation shortly after Barack Obama won the Presidential election.
The inflight newspapers, both English and German, carried headlines heralding a new era. At the Newark airport immigration desk there was a levity in the manner of the young immigration officer that I’d never seen in my previous visits to this country. (“You’ve shaved your mustache!” he said, looking back and forth between the photo on the passport and the person facing him.) Outside the airport we saw cars with banners displaying ‘Obama / Biden 08’ in blue, white and red.
Home greeted me with familiar sights (identical row-houses with big cars in front), sounds (the blaring TV inside) and smells (mother-in-law’s dishes, simmering on the kitchen stove). “I voted for Obama!” my 5-year-old nephew screamed; apparently his school had organized a “poll” on November 4th, and all but one child had voted for Obama.
The TV is always on in this house (switching it off, or even muting the sound, triggers a reaction not dissimilar to something you would expect from a patient on a respirator when his oxygen supply is cut off suddenly), so you cannot escape the constant background noise from MSNBC and CNN. I cannot complain, though; it has been a good source of entertainment so far.
The initial days were full of Obama: how he orchestrated the campaign and won the election. His every move was lauded. His wife Michelle was praised (“How well she had brought up their two beautiful girls!”) His first press conference as President-elect was discussed endlessly. (I thought he was very cautious on that occasion, quite unlike the person we’d seen during the campaign – a sign of times to come?) The print media too was awash with Obama and the ‘historic moment’ theme, and there were references to the Great American Democratic Institution that had surprised the world. It was as if the U.S., after all these years of being embarrassed about Bush and his policies, finally had reason to feel proud of its head of state. The emotions displayed on TV were akin to those of a young boy showing off a new toy to his neighbors.
After a couple of days of speculating and postulating how Obama could and should govern, the media’s attention shifted to Palin. It was trigged by news of leaks from Republican campaign aides that Palin had used $150,000 of campaign funds on her wardrobe. Soon more juicy news filtered in: apparently Palin thought Africa was a country and had expressed surprise when told it was a continent. Senior analysts and politicians discussed what this could mean for her political career, and the media hounded her with questions about these allegations. Although a bit shaken initially, she quickly recovered and began to relish the attention. She signed-up for detailed interviews with major networks and offered confident-sounding rebuttals. The pundits were divided over their assessment: some loved her and thought she had a great future (“She’d have to work hard and learn more about foreign affairs, though”, they said), while others thought she was a sham and had been the reason for McCain’s downfall. At one point I thought her wardrobe allegations were being given more airtime than any other topic, including Obama and his forthcoming presidency.
After a few days of this madness, the news about Palin not knowing that Africa was a continent no longer seemed shocking: how can anyone amidst such inward-focussed media know what lies beyond the country’s boundaries?
So it was with relief – and with the expectation of something more understated, balanced and stimulating – that I opened The New Yorker edition on the election. It did not disappoint. Ryan Lizza’s Battle Plans read like a case-study on election strategy; David Remnick’s The Joshua Generation traced the campaign trajectory through the lens of race politics, digging into, among other things, the development of Obama’s identity through his childhood in Hawaii and later years on the American mainland; George Packer’s The New Liberalism took a forward-looking view (of how he could govern) by looking back at Obama’s influences – people and books – and into how past Presidents have addressed situations of economic crisis they inherited.
Then, just as I was feeling better about having restored my faith in the media’s ability to act as an intelligent filter, I was shown a short snippet from ‘Desi Talk’ – an Indian newspaper published in New York – titled ‘Tribals in Jharkhand hail Obama victory as a sign of change’. Apparently “Hundreds of tribal people beat drums, fired crackers and distributed sweets in Jharkhand on November 6th to celebrate Barack Obama’s victory as the first black U.S. president-elect.” It went on further to quote a tribal organization’s president:
“The victory of Obama in U.S. election is indication that racial discrimination will end in all forms. This is a historical moment of the World that a black has been elected to president of most powerful country of the world. We hope even India will soon get a black president.”
No, it wasn’t The Onion. Reuters was mentioned as the article’s source, and it occupied a prominently marked box on a page that covered serious news about the election.
I have one more week to go before I return to Germany. Another week of this thriving media circus. I’m open to all possibilities it will offer.
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Update: here’s someone else who has pulled out most of her hair watching TV in post-election U.S.