George, Laura, and Condi in Wild White House Love Romp!
If, like me, you like to spend those boring minutes waiting in line at the supermarket scanning the covers of the tabloids, you may have noticed something interesting. Over about the last year and a half, several of these papers have been running expose-style stories about President Bush. Judging by the front-page headlines (honestly I haven't gotten up the nerve to actually buy the papers yet), the stories say or imply that Bush has returned to drinking heavily, that his marriage is on the rocks, and that he has been having an affair with one or more of the women in his administration (Condi Rice being the obvious favorite candidate).
I find this fascinating from several standpoints:
1. It's an interesting bellwether of how far the administration has fallen in public favor. My sense is that the tabloids rarely offer any moral or social judgment that the vast majority of Americans wouldn't endorse. Hence their fondness for stories that confirm what "everybody knows" about celebrities: O.J. Did It! Madonna Is a Slut! Michael Jackson Is Weird! Hollywood Starlets Are Too Thin! Brad Was Mean to Jennifer! etc. etc. If "Bush Is a Lying Bully!" has been added to this list of universal verities, it's hard to see how the administration has any chance of coming back during the next two years.
2. I wonder whether any of the tabloid stories are true. Has Bush been drinking? Is his marriage in trouble? Does he play around with other women? (For what it's worth, none of these would surprise me; they don't seem sharply contradictory to what we've seen of his personality. But of course that means nothing in evidentiary terms.)
3. Do the tabloid headlines reflect rumors that are widespread among the Washington press corps (as similar headlines about JFK, for example, would have done)? Is anyone from the mainstream media trying to track down the facts behind these allegations--or do the august personages who run the Times and NBC News still turn up their noses at the likes of the Globe or the National Enquirer? (In this day and age, that would be a highly short-sighted attitude, considering that the tabloids have been breaking big political stories since at least 1987, when the Enquirer printed those famous photos of Gary Hart and Donna Rice aboard the Monkey Business.)
4. Finally, what effect, if any, does tabloid coverage have on public opinion? Have the stories about Bush's personal life helped to drive the president's steadily-declining poll numbers? Sophisticates like you and I (ahem) may think we are too highbrow to be influenced by stories in America's sleaziest papers. But plenty of people read the tabloids; although circulations are generally down in recent years, papers like the Enquirer still sell over a million copies a week. And even those of us who may not read them are exposed to their "worldview" (if that's not too hifalutin a term) whenever we go shopping.
I wouldn't be shocked if there was a correlation between a celebrity's declining favorability rating and the number of times he or she gets trashed in the tabloids. Why shouldn't this apply just as much to a politician as to an actor or singer?
We political bloggers, and our establishment counterparts on the op-ed pages of newspapers, might like to imagine that the average voter gets most of his or her information about the great political figures of our day from Time, The Nation, and The Weekly Standard, or at least Hardball and The Daily Show. But maybe our sights should be set a little lower.
Tags: supermarket tabloids, George Bush, Laura Bush, Condoleezza Rice, National Enquirer