James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Posts Tagged ‘Richard Nixon’

Comparing Obama to other presidents — and to mermaids

Posted by James McPherson on May 31, 2013

mermaidAfter watching an Animal Planet program about mermaids the other night, I realized that the sea creatures and President Barack Obama have some things in common. Perhaps the comparison is inevitable, considering that the Weekly World News, a “news source” at least as reliable as World Net Daily, assures me that Obama has met with mermaids. Less surprising is that the article tells us that the mermaids are being “kept at an undisclosed aquarium.” Perhaps in Cuba?

And yes, I know the show was fiction, even if many people have apparently been fooled by the “documentary” style and the lengths the network went through to trick viewers. The fact that folks were duped isn’t a big surprise, though one might hope they would check things out before buying into the latest version of “Alien Autopsy.” I am a bit disappointed to find that Animal Planet is apparently now as much about animals as the History Channel is about history and the Arts & Entertainment network is about the arts.

In part, though, people believe in mermaids (check out some of the claims and a bad poem about mermaids and sonar in the comments section here), for some of the same reasons they believed–and in some cases, continue to believe–that Barack Obama is liberal, anti-war, anti-business, Muslim, a gun-grabber, Kenyan-born, a supporter of economic regulation, deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize, a socialist, or the second coming of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In fact, because both were relatively unknown and perhaps unknowable, mermaids and Obama became defined by how others want to see them. (We often elect “outsiders” for that reason.) But just for fun, here are some other comparisons:

  • Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid was translated into dozens of languages and led to an animated movie; Obama’s Dreams from My Father was translated into dozens of languages and led to an unanimated presidency.
  • Mermaids are famous for melodious singing that mesmerized sailors; Obama is famous for melodious speeches that mesmerized Democratic voters.
  • Mermaids hang out with fish; Obama also has been accused of having some fishy compatriots.
  • In some cultures, mermaids are thought to be seeking souls; Obama brought soul to the White House.
  • Mermaids can be found all over the world; Obama also has made appearances all over the globe.
  • Mermaids never appear on television without the help of CGI; Obama rarely appears without the aid of a teleprompter.
  • And perhaps most significantly, mermaids are thought to be half human, half fish; Obama seems to be half Democrat, half Republican.

In fact, Obama is pretty much like most other presidents, and that’s the problem. He’s certainly no liberal; like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Obama is a politically practical neo-conservative who relies on a combination of charm and corporate money for his power. Like FDRHarry Truman and Bush, he’ll freely kill civilians abroad to look politically strong while reducing American military casualties (for example, more Americans have been killed by guns in this country just since the Newtown massacre than were killed in the entire Iraq War). Like Bush and Roosevelt, Obama will overlook civil liberties to lock up potential “enemies.” Like Nixon and Bush, he is secretive. Also like Nixon and Bush, Obama is willing to let the government be intrusive, if not abusive.

I’ve noted previously the similarities between Obama and Ronald Reagan, and have become increasingly troubled by some of the current president’s similarities to Richard Nixon. (I agree with Bob Dole’s recent statement that neither Reagan nor Nixon could be elected as Republicans, though I think either might have a shot as a modern-day Democrat. After all, both Reagan and Nixon were more liberal in many respects than Obama.)

Obama is not particularly brave, nor especially effective in accomplishing his goals. He has accomplished some good things while doing some bad ones. He seems to be more reflective than Bush, but who isn’t? The one thing that liberals and conservatives might agree on in regard to Obama is that he has been … a disappointment.

Obama’s new support for a federal shield law and his nomination of James B. Comey as FBI director might seem to be encouraging notes in a presidency that has otherwise been marked by its obstruction and intimidation of the press and a general lack of once-promised transparency. But it’s worth noting that Obama previously helped kill the shield law (which probably would prove largely meaningless, and may actually make things worse for journalists, anyway) and the drone warrior’s latest “transparency” promise lasted all of about a week. And, of course, Comey may have had the gumption to bust Martha Stewart and WorldCom execs, but he also is another demonstration of how the president is continuing the work of George W. Bush, even if Comey proved to be a thorn in Bush’s side.

Obama’s attorney general apologized for the administration’s treatment of the press, but I wonder why he felt the need to offer the apology in an “off-the-record” meeting. (I’m also troubled by the fact that three of the five editors who attended the meeting promptly violated the terms to which they had apparently agreed; they should have done what most media organizations did and boycotted the meeting.)

So while it is true that some of Obama’s recent words sound good, we’ve heard false promises in the past. Until I see more evidence, I’m not putting a lot of faith in either Obama or mermaids.

Sunday follow-up: Slate offers some more perspective on the Animal Planet’s mermaid tales, and five things the channel could better be focusing in regard to the world’s suffering oceans. Related to#4 of the list, today I bought a tie covered with pictures of a dozen kinds of sharks. Maybe they ate the mermaids.

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Posted in History, Journalism, Legal issues, Media literacy, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments »

Hannity snubbed for man of the year, but named liar of the year

Posted by James McPherson on December 19, 2008

I tend to pay less attention to Sean Hannity than to Bill O’Reilly or Ann Coulter, in large part because I have trouble believing that anyone really pays any attention to Hannity.

Mind you, I don’t understand why anyone listens to O’Reilly or Coulter, either, but since they are regular guests on the so-called “liberal media” I have to assume that they do have some sort of deluded following. I occasionally check in on all of them because it’s my job as a media scholar–kind of like a doctor who has to occasionally check a patient for prostate cancer.

Still, even Hannity gets more attention than he deserves. I noted pretty much in passing in my last book that he was a liar, but this week Media Matters, a liberal watchdog group, named him its “Misinformer of the Year.”

Even if you consider the source of the “award,” however, that doesn’t explain Hannity’s actions later that same night, when he suggested that Time magazine had named Barack Obama its “Person of the Year” so that a writer for the magazine would get a job in the Obama administration.

Hannity’s report begins: “So as 2008 comes to a close, Time Magazine picks its Person of the Year, and to no one’s surprise, Time has chosen President-elect Barack Obama to grace the cover. This honor comes as the magazine’s Washington bureau chief, Jay Carney, leaves his post to become Joe Biden’s director of communication.”

When Fox News personality Kirsten Powers noted the obvious, that there was “no connection” and that Obama “would have been Man of the Year anyway,” Hannity offered this gem: “You know what? There have been a lot of great people over the years. I know this burst Obama of the ‘yes, we can’ chanting, Obama mania media, but there are other good leaders in the world besides a man who’s done nothing so far.”

Powers, no doubt used to Hannity’s unique combination of bluster and ignorance, did not embarrass him by asking which of those “good leaders” he thought Time should have picked.

Incidentally I agree that the mainstream media love Obama too much–but this year was there any other choice? And for the record,  Time has named a just-elected president more often than not every four years since 1964 (Lyndon Johnson), also tabbing Richard Nixon (shared with Henry Kissinger), Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush in both 2000 and 2004. Apparently Time editors were as amazed as I was that Bush won twice.

Time also named Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 and  Harry Truman in 1948, while picking John F. Kennedy 1961 because of his 1960 win. Presidents or future presidents named in non-election years were FDR (twice more), Dwight D. Eisenhower (twice), Truman, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan (with Yuri Andropov), George H. W. Bush and Clinton (with Kenneth Starr). See all the “Person of the Year” covers here.

This year’s the runners-up were Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, French President Nicolas Sarkozy (also president of the European Union), Sarah Palin (if she had won, I’ll bet Hannity wouldn’t say she’d “done nothing”), and Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, who produced the opening ceremony for the Olympics. Apparently, using Hannity’s logic, Jay Carney didn’t want a job in the EU or in the Chinese film industry.

Of course Hannity is right, in one respect: So far, Obama has “done nothing”: at least not much of anything other than coming from nowhere to inspire huge worldwide crowds, and then beating Hillary Clinton and the Republican Party to become the first African American to win the presidency.

On the other hand, Obama hasn’t cured cancer, stopped the Iraq War or saved the economy–or figured out a way to get Hannity to shut up.

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments »

Nixon ‘Frosted’: more bad history from Hollywood

Posted by James McPherson on December 15, 2008

Not having seen the play “Frost/Nixon,” I was much looking forward to Ron Howard’s critically acclaimed new film version. Now, based on reviews such as those from Tom Charity and Elizabeth Drew, not so much.

Richard Nixon and David Frost were both fascinating characters (and both a bit slippery as well as more than a bit self-aggrandizing), and apparently the film is riveting. But like so much else in Hollywood, it’s also a lie. Aren’t we stupid enough about our history without fictionalizing it?

Ignorance of history leads to a world in which actors,  liars,  crooks, blowhards, political losers and overrated buffoons become leaders, television hosts and respected commentators. Yet our only hope as a nation may come from leaders who understand the real lessons of history.

For some real Frost/Nixon, see the clips below.

Nixon: “If I had intended to cover up, believe me I’d have done it.”

Nixon:”When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”

Posted in History, Journalism, Media literacy, Politics, Video, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

More evidence of the conservatism of the American press & politics

Posted by James McPherson on December 10, 2008

This, of course, is the main theme of my recent book–that the mainstream media and American politics have become more conservative over time. Though the book came out before the recent election, I had predicted there and elsewhere that Barack Obama would be a good candidate. Part of the reason for his success, of course, is his own conservative nature, as expressed through his campaign and his appointments–a conservatism almost guaranteed by his educational background.

One of the most troubling expressions of that conservatism for me has been his expressed policy toward Afghanistan. That nation might become for Obama what Iraq became for George Bush and Iran was for Jimmy Carter: a distant nation that Americans care little about but which uses an inordinate amount of U.S. resources in exchange for little perceivable benefit.

Unfortunately, as Fairness and Accuracy in Media’s Gabriel Voiles notes, Obama’s view has become the conventional wisdom in the mainstream media. The problem with conventional wisdom is that it is so often wrong, whether it suggests that Republicans are more patriotic or better for the economy (which has been stronger in virtually every way under Democrats) or that Democrats are more peaceful (until recently we’ve had more wars and longer wars, under Democrats) and better for the environment (Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act).

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Nixon tapes again reveal Bush-league president

Posted by James McPherson on December 5, 2008

A news batch of tapes recorded in the Richard Nixon White House were released this week, reaffirming that the president was, in the words of MSNBC’s John Rutherford, “ruthless, cynical and profane.” This was the 12th release of Nixon tapes, now totalling more than 2,200 hours. None of the releases have helped Nixon’s image.

Nixon may have been our most paranoid president, though despite leaving office in disgrace, he probably was a better chief executive than George W. Bush or Jimmy Carter. Perhaps we can no longer even consider Nixon to be the most criminal president of our lifetimes, despite the protests of Fox News’ Chris Wallace. On the other hand, with increased government secrecy, a relatively gutless Democratic Congress and no independent prosecutor–and thanks in large part to the circus that the Bill Clinton impeachment became–we’ll likely never know anything close to the full extent of the Bush administration’s crimes, even if the permitted crimes decrease under a new administration.

One thing is almost certain: At a time when some already are comparing Barack Obama to FDR (a comparison already beginning to change as the shine wears off of Obama’s newness and various messes fail to be resolved quickly enough), Nixon will be the standard by which Bush is compared. Many are already lumping the two together.

Having been a reporter and a professor, the lines I found most interesting from the latest Nixon tapes were these, said to Henry Kissinger in 1972: “The press is the enemy, the press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy, the professors are the enemy, the professors are the enemy. Write that on a blackboard 100 times.”

I doubt that Bush would lump the press and professors in with “the establishment,” but he might agree with Nixon about professors and the press being enemies. Frankly, I hope so. Though if the news media had been more of an “enemy”–in other words, doing their job, regardless of GOP anti-press rhetoric–Bush might have been prevented from engaging in many of the actions that now have him so readily compared to the 37th president.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Why conservatives may want to sit this election out and let Obama win

Posted by James McPherson on October 31, 2008

Obviously most conservatives will keep pulling for John McCain to pull out a win on Tuesday, and McCain likely will continue his unprecedented slog through the mud (tempered with an appearance this weekend on “Saturday Night Live,” where he can have a conversation with a fake Sarah Palin that is as convincing as his rapport with the real Sarah Palin).

Still, barring something dramatic, unexpected and/or illegal, Barack Obama is likely to win the election handily (as I predicted a couple of months ago). Even NBC’s electoral map, one of the most conservative, now predicts 286 electoral votes for Obama, with 89 too close to call. But Obama also leads in most of those “toss up” states, including Nevada, Florida, Ohio and Indiana. CNN’s electoral map now has Obama leading by significant margins in enough states to claim 291 electoral votes, with 84 more up for grabs. Even just the 291 count, which National Public Radio also predicts, is 21 more than needed (the exact total offered by Pennsylvania).

CBS has the only map I found that doesn’t yet push Obama over 270 (giving him a 259-163, but it also leaves more states uncommitted. As I’ve noted previously, the so-called liberal mainstream media want to keep things close, and don’t want to be proven wrong. Incidentally, Fox News doesn’t have an electoral map (perhaps because the network hates to air news that might be detrimental to the McCain campaign), but Bill O’Reilly does, and even he puts Obama’s current lead at 286-163.

Non-media maps have things looking even tougher for the GOP. Real Clear Politics and Congressional Quarterly gives Obama 311 electoral votes as of today. Even more notably, so does Karl Rove, the man once known as “Bush’s Brain” and on whom some conservatives now place much of the blame for the current woeful state of the conservative movement. Politico’s map gives Obama 353 electoral votes, and VoteFromAbroad.org pegs the count as 364-171.

So what’s a distraught Republican to do? For one thing, he or she might recognize that an Obama win might well turn out to be the best possible outcome for conservatives. It is well known that conservatives has been no big fan of McCain’s, and in fact they have only one good reason to support his presidential bid: the chance that he might be able to solidify the hard right perspective of the Supreme Court. But other than that somewhat iffy possibility, there are a number of reasons conservatives probably should favor Barack Obama, instead.

Addressing the court issue first, McCain may not be able to change the court even if he is elected. He would try to make the court even more conservative, but his nominations to fill the expected two or three vacancies would have to get through a Senate approval process. And the older, more liberal members of the court might decide not to retire, hoping to outlast or outlive McCain (and good luck to a President Palin trying to get anything past a Democratic Congress).

On the other hand, even if Obama has the opportunity to replace three justices, in all likelihood he’ll replace three of the more liberal members of the court with three others who think much like them. The overall makeup of the court itself won’t change, unless Obama makes a mistake–as Dwight D. Eisenhower and other presidents have done in the past–and accidentally appoints someone who turns out to be something other than what Democrats expect. Think of the delicious irony for conservatives if Obama should happen to appoint the justice(s) who solidifies or even strengthens the court’s conservative activist stance for a generation to come.

Even national politics are unlikely to change a lot–to to become in the words of a Times of London columnist “a liberal heaven“–or to change nearly enough, for some of us. We live in a country with politics that have become increasingly conservative, as I’ve demonstrated elsewhere.

History also shows that presidents, once elected, tend to govern more like the opposite party, probably in an attempt to build larger coalitions and to recognize grand ambitions. That might explain why Richard Nixon went to China, Ronald Reagan went to the Soviet Union, and Bill Clinton approved NAFTA, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and welfare reform.

A decisive loss may help conservatives refocus their party. How they might do so remains anyone’s guess–Reagan managed to help create a coalition of otherwise distrustful neoconservatives, fiscal conservatives and social conservatives, before the neocons won. Conservative Republicans already have a meeting planned for just days after this election to try to rebuild the party, .

Finally, back in 1988, I told friends that Democrats should hope for a win by George H.W. Bush, because in my view the economy was about to hit a rough spot and whoever was in office would get much of the blame. Bush won, the economy plunged, and Bill “It’s the economy, stupid” Clinton won in 1992.

The same is true today, though of course the economy is already in the toilet. But it’s not going to be fixed in four years, and unless Obama and a Democratic Congress take dramatic steps that I think they’ll be afraid to take, they’ll get the blame for not fixing things quickly enough–setting the stage for yet another Republican revolution in 2012.

Other predictions for the GOP in 2012: Mitt Romney will be the likely GOP nominee, and the Religious Right will continue to decline in influence.

Posted in History, Politics, Religion, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Presidential debates

Posted by James McPherson on June 4, 2008

In what would be a positive move for the American political process, Barack Obama and John McCain both suggest they are open to a series of debates different from (and in addition to) the traditional three pseudo-debates offered by the Presidential Debate Commission. Though additional debates are unlikely to match the drama of the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960 (see a short history clip below, or the debate itself can be found via YouTube), perhaps we can avoid the traditional recitation of prepared soundbites that we get during most elections.

Or perhaps not. McCain says he’d like to see a series of town hall-style debates, but in a press conference this morning refused to consider the more freewheeling Lincoln-Douglas style proposed by Obama. Admittedly, McCain is in a tough spot. He is low on money, and needs all the free coverage he can get. Yet when it comes to public appearances, McCain looks old, he has difficulty remembering facts or reading a teleprompter, his diction is flat except when he’s angry, and he doesn’t draw the rock-star crowds of his younger opponent.

Neither candidate is likely to highlight policy initiatives. But probably the only chance McCain has to compete rhetorically is to find a setting that will downplay his negatives while enhancing his folksy ability to chat informally with people unaccustomed to asking tough questions about his recent history as a flip-flopper. Still, he has used his current ongoing town hall forums in much the same way that most candidates use the debates–as an opportunity to answer any question with a regurgitated well-used talking point–suggesting that the current proposal is more about TV face time than about a real desire to expand the amount of meaningful information available to the electorate.

Obviously prospective voters could spend time online to find more useful information than will be offered via the debates or anything else offered on television. But few will, and in general more information should be considered a positive–though Fox News might disagree. “America’s Election HQ” seems to be bored with the actual electoral process, judging by today’s comments from E.D. Hill.

Hill responded to the idea of expanded debates as something that would “put me to sleep,” and also indicated she had no desire to see more debates. (Her Wikipedia bio claims she is working on a master’s degree in government, again demonstrating the negligible value of Wikipedia as a reference–surely that uncited reference must be a joke inserted by a viewer familiar with Hill’s political intellect and level of curiosity.) Hill often serves as one of Fox’s living blonde jokes and key distortionists, though admittedly she is one of the few attractive women in America brave enough to co-host the radio show of sexual harrasser Bill O’Reilly’s (Fox paid, though O’Reilly never apologized). Having accumulated eight kids during her three marriages, perhaps the self-appointed child-rearing expert needs the money.

Perhaps someone should point out to E.D. (named Edith Ann at birth; one can imagine all sorts of appropriate “D” words as descriptors) that no one is requiring her to watch the debates–not that she’d understand the discussion of policy even if she did manage to stay awake for it. After all, this is a woman who produced a book with a title referring to “America’s Best and Brightest,” then included Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson, Albanian “dog trainer of the stars” Bashkim Dibra, and Fox morning nimrod Steve Doocy (recently slammed on the air by Fox’s Chris Wallace for his anti-Obama distortions)

As for the presidential debates, if they happen, Fox has plenty of other spinners who will watch the debates and then tell viewers what they heard, why McCain performed better than Obama, how Obama lied, and perhaps where Jeremiah Wright watched the debate.

A brief Kennedy-Nixon debate history

Posted in History, Journalism, Media literacy, Politics, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Utah Phillips and other dead patriots

Posted by James McPherson on May 25, 2008

This is the weekend that we honor those who died while serving their country. I also appreciated Bob Schieffer’s “Face the Nation” words from this morning: “Let us remember as well the wounded, those who came home from the battle not as God made them, but as war has left them.” Schieffer’s comments came after he offered a short eulogy for Jimmy Carter’s former chief of staff Hamilton Jordan, who died last week.

Of course this weekend is and should be primarily about dead soldiers, those who gave the ultimate sacrifice while trying to defend the nation’s values. Their service is not made less honorable–though it is more tragic–because their deaths were often unnecessary, precipitated by criminally stupid national leaders who themselves sacrificed almost nothing. But the Memorial Day weekend also has become a time for many families to remember other loved ones who have died, and I would like to take the opportunity to note a couple of other men who died in the past couple of days.

One of my favorite patriots, Utah Phillips, died Friday night. He was a former homeless hobo and Korean War veteran who became famous as a folk singer and storyteller (coincidentally, I quoted him in a post just last week). After serving for three years in the military he became a pacifist and a major supporter of workers’ rights. I have a brief recording of Phillips reciting World War I anti-war poetry, which I use in my media history class. One of the poems, titled “I Love My Flag,” goes:

I love my flag, I do, I do.
Which floats upon the breeze,
I also love my arms and legs,
And neck, and nose and knees.
One little shell might spoil them all
Or give them such a twist,
They would be of no use to me;
I guess I won’t enlist.

I love my country, yes, I do
I hope her folks do well.
Without our arms, and legs and things,
I think we’d look like hell.
Young men with faces half shot off
Are unfit to be kissed,
I’ve read in books it spoils their looks,
I guess I won’t enlist.

While still in college in the 1970s, I became a member of a loose-knit “Utah Phillips Fan Club” made up mostly of a group of my father’s friends, which “convened” on occasion to drink Olympia beer, tell stories (some from Phillips, most generated by members of the club) and listen to music. Though I’m sure many others have done the same, I’m the only person I know who saw him perform in three different states: in Idaho while I was in college in the late ’70s, at a private home when I lived in Arizona in the late ’80s or early ’90s, and later when I was in grad school at Washington State University. My wife was with me on the latter two occasions, and Utah memorably told her daughter–who had proclaimed him her new “hero”–not to have any still-living heroes, because they’d inevitably end up disappointing her.

“Good Though” (Moose Turd Pie) was Utah’s most famous story, but my favorite morality tale of his involved a little bird that postponed its flight south for the winter, nearly froze to death, was warmed by cow manure and then, after singing happily, was eaten by a cat. The moral: “The one who craps on you isn’t necessarily your enemy, the one who digs you out of a pile of crap isn’t necessarily your friend, and if you’re up to neck in crap it’s best to keep your mouth shut.” 

Another noteworthy passing, from yesterday, is that of Dick Martin. He was most famous for “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” which debuted in 1968, which Richard Nixon speechwriter Patrick Buchanan called the worst year in American history. What many people forget today, when it has become commonplace for political figures to appear with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, is that in September of that year Nixon appeared on “Laugh-In.” Less than two months before being elected president, the famously uptight Nixon intoned one of the show’s catchphrases as a question, “Sock it to me?” Perhaps a 25-year-old Bob Woodward and a 24-year-old Carl Bernstein were watching.

Below: Utah Phillips, in one of his later appearances, shares some of his politics.

Posted in History, Journalism, Media literacy, Music, Personal, Poetry, Politics, Video | Tagged: , , , , , | 4 Comments »