So God Made a Fawner
Paul Harvey's ad was terrific. Steve Kroft's interview was shameful.
So many people this week mentioned Dodge’s great Super Bowl spot, “So God Made a Farmer,” from a 1978 speech by the late Paul Harvey. Here are some reasons it was great:
• Because it spoke respectfully and even reverently of others. We don’t do that so much anymore. We’re afraid of looking corny or naive, and we fear that to praise one group is to suggest another group is less worthy of admiration. So we keep things bland and nonspecific. Harvey wasn’t afraid to valorize, and his specificity had the effect of reminding us there’s a lot of uncelebrated valor out there. It would be nice to hear someone do “So God Created Firemen,” or “So God Created Doctors,” but I’m not sure our culture has the requisite earnestness and respect. We do irony, sarcasm and spoofs: “So God Created Hedge Fund Managers.” Anyway, it was nice – a real refreshment – to hear the sound of authentic respect.
• Because it spoke un-self-consciously in praise of certain virtues – commitment, compassion, hard work, a sense of local responsibility. The most moving reference, to me, was when Harvey has the farmer get up before dawn, work all day, and “then go to town and stay past midnight at a meeting of the school board.” Notice the old word “town,” not “community” – that blight of a word that is used more and more as it means less and less.
• Because it explicitly put God as maker of life and governor of reality, again un-self-consciously, and with a tone that anticipated no pushback. God, you could say anything in Paul Harvey’s day.
• Because it was Paul Harvey, a great broadcaster and a clear, clean writer for the ear, who knew exactly what he was saying and why, and who was confident of the values he asserted. He wasn’t a hidden person, he wasn’t smuggling an agenda, he was conservative and Christian and made these things clear through the virtues and values he praised and the things he criticized. You could like him or not, but you understood that by his lights he was giving it to you straight as he could. He was often criticized as hokey, sentimental and overly dramatic, and sometimes he was. But mostly he was a pro who hit his mark every day, and it says something about his gifts that since he died in 2009, the ABC radio network has appointed a number of successors, but Harvey never really was replaced. Because he was irreplaceable.
Which gets us to another story involving a media figure and a media institution. I refer to Steve Kroft’s interview, on “60 Minutes,” with Barack Obama and departing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. That made a big impression too. It didn’t remind us of a style or approach for which we feel nostalgia, but one about which we are feeling increased apprehension, and that is the mainstream media fawn-a-thon toward the current president.
The Kroft interview was a truly scandalous example of the genre. It was so soft, so dazzled, so supportive, so embarrassing. And it was that way from the beginning, when Mr. Kroft breathlessly noted, “The White House granted us 30 minutes.” Granted. Like kings.
What followed was a steady, targeted barrage of softballs. “Why did you want to do this together, a joint interview?” Because, said the president, she’s been one of the best secretaries of state ever, and theirs has been one of the greatest collaborations in history. Also, “I’m gonna miss her.” No reading of the tea leaves here, pressed Mr. Kroft. We don’t have tea here, Hillary laughed.
Throughout the president and the secretary sat closely, shoulder to shoulder, leaning into each other, nodding as the other spoke, praising each other in a way that praised themselves. I don’t blame them for doing propaganda – that’s what White Houses do. But it’s hard not blaming Mr. Kroft and “60 Minutes” for being part of it.
Why did you want her as secretary of state? Mr. Kroft asked. Because she’s so wonderful, the president more or less responded, and not unlike me in the profundity of her seriousness.
Mr. Kroft noted that she had to be talked into taking the job. Mrs. Clinton said yes, she’d exhausted herself selflessly working to elect Mr. Obama in ‘08, she wasn’t sure she wanted to take on a cabinet position. But he’s so persuasive!
The president nodded, smiling. He noted that Mrs. Clinton travelled around the world carrying his forceful yet calibrated message.
“How would you characterize your relationship right now?” asked Mr. Kroft, the intrepid reporter. Hillary answered, “Very warm, close, I think there’s a sense of understanding that doesn’t even take words … a bond.”
Mr. Kroft said he’d “spare you reading what was said” during the heated 2008 Democratic primary battles. And boy, did he spare them.
How did they overcome the tensions and hard words of that battle? “We’re professionals,” said Hillary.
“What do you think the biggest success has been, foreign-policy success, of the first term?”
The president could think of a number of them.
Really, access isn’t worth this. The get isn’t worth it. The entire interview reminded me of an old radio insult: When an interviewer didn’t try to push and probe, didn’t even try to get the story, the resulting interview was called “soft as a sneaker full of puppy excrement.” No, they didn’t say excrement.
We are living in the age of emergency – the economy, the Mideast, North Korea, Iran. The president has an utter and historic inability to forge a relationship with Congress. Unemployment seems intractable.
And the best Steve Kroft and “60 Minutes” could do was how wonderful are you?
The Obama-Clinton relationship is interesting, but here are some questions about it that might have elicited more than outtakes for a Hillary 2016 commercial:
Mr. President, does your foreign policy really come out of the White House, even out of its political office, and not the State Department? Has the department’s ability to formulate policy and be a player in terms of the development of grand strategy been diminished? Her first year in office Mrs. Clinton looked like someone who’d been put on a plane and told to do interviews on “Good Morning Manila” about how she met Bill. What do you say?
Mrs. Clinton, some think you held your tongue, made the best of a bad situation, worked the areas you could, moved forward on issues of particular concern like women’s rights; that you dummied up on Benghazi, demolished your congressional critics in one masterly day of testimony, and now have been rewarded for your loyalty and discretion with a joint presidential interview that amounts to an anointment for 2016. Can you comment?“
There is nothing wrong with being a declared liberal or conservative and conducting a sympathetic interview with a political figure who shares your views. Such interviews have their place and can be useful: a nondefensive, nonwary president elaborates on his thoughts, or commits accidental candor.
But Mr. Kroft is a reporter whose job it is to be impartial and nonpartisan, and who works for a towering journalistic institution, "60 Minutes.” People like him are supposed to approach political figures with no fear or favor.
Their job is to grill. What are they afraid of?