October 29, 2007
by Charles Bierbauer
Whereas Mayor Bob Coble declared this Stephen Colbert Day in Columbia, we resolve to treat the comedian’s campaign with a bit more respectiness.
After all, several hundred people gathered on the University of South Carolina’s Horseshoe on Sunday morning to hear the newest entrant in the 2008 presidential race. A lot of other candidates would welcome a crowd of that size and enthusiasm.
Last week I called Colbert’s gimmick a “faux campaign.” Perhaps he deserves a bit more credit for mobilizing public interest.
The crowd—supporters, the curious and a good number of dog walkers—had demographic breadth to make any candidate envious. College students, university professors, the red-haired, the green-haired, the grey-haired, a young woman with a surfboard (we’re two hours from the beach), tree huggers and tree climbers (if only to get a better view), and the university mascot Cocky (Gamecocks vote!).
There were signs calling for “Colbert in ‘08”, “Truthiness and Justice for All”, and an end to global warming. One sign took a slightly negative tone on Colbert’s political venture, demanding “Literacy, not Idiocy.” (I’m on the literacy bandwagon. South Carolina needs a literate population, and every child deserves that chance. But I wouldn’t call this idiocy so much as comedic idiosyncrasy.)
It all looked like a campaign rally. There were as many television cameras as I’ve seen at other candidates’ events, probably more. The mayor played along, calling Colbert “South Carolina’s favorite son.” Take that, John Edwards. Loudspeakers played Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Enter Stephen Colbert.
Colbert played to the state’s strengths—peaches and shrimp, by his judgment. He played to South Carolina sentiments. “If elected, I will crush Georgia.” (Good thing he is only running in the South Carolina primary.)
He played to its sense of history—first to secede. And its sense of destiny, forecasting the state would be “first to succeed” in its visionary creation of Innovista, the university and city’s partnership in a research campus. He extolled its innovation in creating an environment in which scientists can both live and work in the same neighborhood so that “if something goes wrong, they will be the first to mutate.”
The energized crowd launched into antiphonal shouts—Game…cocks! Col…bert! Just about everyone left smiling—the dog walkers, the bicyclists, a couple of folks late for church. The candidate, too, or was that a smirk?
October 23, 2007
By Charles Bierbauer
Exit candidate Brownback. Enter “candidate” Colbert. Even swap? I’m joking, of course.
Senator Sam Brownback’s campaign was built on an appeal to Republicans to make him their conservative of choice. TV comedian Stephen Colbert’s faux campaign is built on an appeal to broaden the audience of his Comedy Central show “The Colbert Report.” This is a joke, right?
Brownback suggested an Oz-like fantasy when he dropped out, saying his “Yellow Brick Road just came up short of the White House this time.” If Colbert is not fantasizing, he may be pulling our leg. He plans to run only in his native South Carolina, and wants his name on both the Republican and Democratic ballots.
Colbert told Tim Russert on “Meet the Press” Sunday that he’ll call it a win if at one party convention he hears, “the proud state of South Carolina, the palmetto state, the home of the greatest peaches and shrimp in the world, casts one vote for native son, Stephen Colbert.”
Inside or outside South Carolina, should we care? Perhaps, just a little bit. When young people indicate that they get at least a modicum of their news about the world and politics from “The Colbert Report” and “The Daily Show,” the Comedy Central production that spawned Colbert, we cannot ignore it.
Politics has long been fodder for comedians. Candidate foibles and fumbles are cheap laughs. What’s to stop a comedian saying, “Hey, I’m as smart as they are and twice as funny.”
Politicians are willing to make themselves foils for late-night hosts in exchange for the millions of late-night eyeballs watching. Remember Bill Clinton playing his saxophone for Arsenio Hall? Rudy Giuliani as an almost regular guest on Letterman? Fred Thompson announcing his presidential candidacy to Jay Leno?
Thompson is not the first actor to think he could be president. Ronald Reagan blazed the trail from Hollywood to Pennsylvania Avenue and could tell a funny story with an actor’s good timing.
Colbert is not the first comedian to take aim at the presidency, even if he’s not all that serious. The Pat Paulsen for President campaign (a joke) spun out of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1968 and carried comedian Paulson’s career into the ‘90s. Black activist and comedian Dick Gregory campaigned (no joke) as a write-in candidate for the Freedom and Peace Party in 1968. In 1928, encouraged by Life magazine, Will Rogers wrote a series of columns touting himself as the candidate of the Anti-Bunk Party. No bunk!
Congress has had a singer—Sonny Bono; a dancer—George Murphy; and actors—Fred Grandy (The Love Boat) and Ben Jones (The Dukes of Hazard). Former Senator and Vice President Al Gore swam in the opposite direction to win an Oscar and an Emmy, not to mention the Nobel Peace Prize.
So candidate Colbert, welcome to the fray. You must feel you have something worth saying. Imbue the campaign with more than “truthiness.”
Truthiness? Wikipedia says it’s a satirical term to “describe things that a person claims to know intuitively or ‘from the gut’ without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.” (We don’t usually cite Wikipedia, but it’s truthy enough in this case. Besides, it credits Colbert with popularizing the term.)
Nor can we overlook the fact that Colbert has a bully pulpit through his show that other candidates might envy. They have to pay for air time for ads or draw what camera attention they can get on the still crowded debate stages. Federal equal time provisions for broadcasters require television to give each candidate equal access for free or purchased air time. Those provisions forced Thompson to leave the cast of “Law and Order” to become a candidate, rather than require NBC stations to match his air time for other candidates.
“The Colbert Report” airs on cable where equal time provisions have typically not been enforced. There may be just enough truthiness in the notion that if candidate Colbert has a show, every candidate—the droll, the dour and the dreadful–could demand one. Comedy Central might not see the humor in that.
Charles Bierbauer covered presidential campaigns from 1984 to 2000 for CNN. He is currently dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the views here are his own and not those of the university. Dean Bierbauer is also the senior contributing editor and consultant to http://www.schotline.com.
October 8, 2007
Columbia—Just because you stage it—say, a rally for Darfur—doesn’t mean the presidential candidates will come. Too bad. The candidates missed a chance to see diverse components of a community drawn together to make a moral statement transcending parochial interests.
“It’s not a black or white issue; it’s not a Republican or Democratic issue; it’s a human issue,” University of South Carolina President Andrew Sorensen said. The black and white and Republican (a few) and Democratic (probably a lot more) crowd sported an equally rainbow-hued variety of t-shirts, caps and buttons with the rally’s “Save Darfur” slogan.
Country singer Kenny Alphin skipped the diplomacy for a note of passion. “I’m ready to see some politicians jump and scream,” Big Kenny (his performing name) fairly shouted.
There were politicians in the crowd and on stage—the mayor, a congressman, a former governor, a couple of legislators—all Democrats by my count. But not presidential candidates. Barack Obama was probably closest, campaigning Saturday in Aiken.
That wasn’t the plan. The rally for Darfur—South Carolina Responds to Genocide—
was set for a day when national and local advocates for health care solutions had planned an all-day candidates’ forum in Columbia, presuming candidates would be moved or compelled to also attend the Darfur rally a couple blocks away.
The flaw was in assuming the candidates would show up for the health care forum at which each was to have a 40-minute solo opportunity to explain his or her approach to the nation’s health care needs. The candidates avoided that invitation like the plague.
Presidential campaigns are complex moving targets. Campaigns are besieged with invitations for debates and appearances, have their own strategies and priorities and have not figured out how to place a candidate in four states at once. Democrat Bill Richardson, whose Hispanic heritage helped elect him governor of New Mexico, cancelled an appearance at the Hispanic Heritage Month luncheon here in Columbia last week.
The four front-running Republican candidates—Giuliani, Romney, McCain and Thompson—skipped a forum led by Tavis Smiley at Morgan State University in Maryland last month. In the process, the candidates also skipped an opportunity to show they are attuned to issues that matter to African-American voters.
Second tier candidates rarely pass up free media opportunities. At Morgan State, they got to talk about Darfur. Congressman Tom Tancredo suggested we “see whether the United Nations is worth its salt.” Congressman Duncan Hunter called for a “humanitarian corridor.” Congressman Ron Paul said the U.S., as a nation, has neither constitutional nor moral authority to be in Darfur. Mike Huckabee said. “there are a lot of people in America that don’t think the only poverty is in Darfur — understand there’s poverty in the Delta.”
You could search online for the Republican frontrunners views on Darfur. But you won’t find any help on their official web sites. You could check the Democratic candidates, too, and find that only John Edwards has a detailed plan that says, in part: “we should work with NATO, one of the world’s most effective security organizations, to make sure the UN process will be as rapid, tough, and effective as possible.”
The U.S. State Department sent Sudan programs officer Joan Mower to speak to the Darfur rally. She held out some hope for UN-sponsored peace talks later this month and UN peacekeepers on the ground. But for now, Mower said, “It’s violent, chaotic and evolving.”
A candidate could argue that 15 months from now when a new president takes office, Darfur will have evolved from where it is now. The 15-hundred or so who gathered at the South Carolina State House know Darfur won’t be first among a new president’s priorities. Their message to the candidates was, at least, think about it
Charles Bierbauer is a former ABC News foreign correspondent and CNN White House correspondent. He is now dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though these are his views and not those of the university. Bierbauer is senior contributing editor and consultant to the SCHotline.com.
October 1, 2007
By Charles Bierbauer
North Myrtle Beach—Our hair is thinner. Our waists are thicker. Our step is slower. But what can you expect of old soldiers forty or so years removed from their Cold War outpost? Our eyesight is weaker, but our vision, we trust, was sharpened by our shared experience in another era of our Army’s history.
About sixty soldiers who had served at “Det. 4”, a small listening post on Turkey’s Black Sea coast, gathered this past week for a reunion surfside on South Carolina’s Atlantic coast. We talked small talk, as you do at reunions. Politics and geopolitics wove through our conversations, but mostly we wanted to know about each other.
When were you there? In my case, 1962 and 1963. Quonset huts or barracks? This is a big demarcation. Those of us who had lived in the huts, of course, lord it over the “yenis”—new guys–who moved into cushy billets. Linguist or ditty-bopper? We’re speaking code, of course. Our job was to intercept and analyze any electronic communications emanating from the Soviet Union across the Black Sea. Morse code, satellite traffic, cosmonauts in space, Russians on the phone.
We probably knew more about the Russians than we did about our Turkish hosts, such was our isolation. Diogenes Station sat on a hilltop above the tiny, walled, once Greek town of Sinop. Our post was named for the town’s most famous native son, the cynic philosopher Diogenes, typically pictured carrying a lantern in search of an honest man.
We served in tricky, less than honest times of strategic cat-and-mouse games. While I was in Sinop, the Cuban missile crisis was unfolding. The removal of U.S. Jupiter missiles elsewhere in Turkey would become a tacit part of the deal to remove the Soviet missiles from Cuba.
At our reunion, we talked about Turkey’s strategic role then and now. Turkey was a staunch ally of the U.S. and the West, a member of NATO and CENTO, alliances linked for the containment of Soviet communism. That alliance has weakened. Turkish support for the U.S. remained strong during the Gulf War of 1991. Key bases in southern Turkey were staging areas for action in the north of Iraq. But the Turks denied the U.S. the same degree of access for the 2003 assault on Iraq.
In the decades since I served in Turkey, I have returned on several occasions as a journalist and come to know a number of Turkish leaders. I have seen the economic contributions that Turkish guest workers have made to the European economy. I’ve also seen the social discrimination Turks have endured in Western Europe, primarily because they are Muslim. I’ve watched the rise and fall of Turkish aspirations for inclusion in the European Union, a move supported by the Bush administration. The Turks, themselves far from flawless, are not there yet.
The Turks see themselves as a political and geographic bridge between Europe and the Middle East. They maintain relations with Israel, as well as the Arab states.
They are deeply concerned about the outcome in Iraq, particularly as it pertains to the ethnic Kurds who straddle several borders and have a strong and contentious presence in eastern Turkey. Internally, the Turks are trying to balance the historic power bases of national secularism and the military with the rise of religious conservatism and the August election of Abdullah Gul, an Islamist, as president.
Several of my Sinop brethren wondered which, if any, of today’s presidential candidates would grasp the role Turkey could play. A focus of the presidential campaign has been much more on how to extricate American troops from Iraq than on solutions for the region. We also wondered which, if any, candidate has sufficient global vision to keep a watchful and wary eye on the reemergence of Russian power.
As one colleague summed up our Cold War experience, “we made a difference.” Much as today’s soldier serving in dramatically more hazardous Iraq must feel, the battle is only worth it if you sense that at some level you have made a difference.
Charles Bierbauer covered the Cold War from Moscow, Eastern Europe and the White House for ABC News, CNN and others. He is now Dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though these are his views and not those of the university. He is Senior Contributing Editor and a consultant to SCHotline.
Update: Sinop, Turkey, a city near the Black Sea in Turkey