The BBC does suburban Kansas City
On December 29, prime time, British TV viewers visited a strange new world, suburban Kansas City, more specifically the 3rd Congressional District of Kansas.
Forget about Mission Hills, Leawood, Overland Park and all that. What the British viewer saw--at every introduction--was a land as flat and drab as the Clutter's Holcombe, as monochromatic as Dorothy's back 40, and so deep fat fried in country music it makes one want to deport Earl Scruggs to wherever it is his ancestors came from. Our heartland, the viewer learns, "typifies European prejudice about the US--open fields and closed minds."
The British Invasion
Ostensibly, the BBC--as in British Broadcasting Company--came to KC in late November to explore why Democrat Dennis Moore beat incumbent Republican Vince Snowbarger in the District's race for Congress. That they had another agenda I would learn soon enough.
Before host Mark Lawson arrived, I met with the BBC's advance man. Not surprising for a Brit, this gentleman had never learned to drive and offered his hand like a dead mackerel. Still, I hoped he and his colleagues had enough sand about them to seek the truth. I know I damn by faint praise to say so, but the BBC tends to cover American politics with more insight than our own media do.
Over lunch, I explained to the advance man my own theory on the election: how the "Mainstream" advocates of tolerance in Johnson County had been demonizing the Christian right for years, how they painted the inoffensive Snowbarger as a bible-thumping theocrat, how finally, their calculated hysteria paid off. I quoted a much too typical Gen X friend of mine who ingenuously summed up Vince's downfall. "Snowbarger never had a chance," he told me in all sincerity. "He's so extreme."
The advance man fiddled with his salmon salad while I talked. Although the expressed purpose of the meeting was to get my take on the mid-term elections, the fellow was not sufficiently skilled in the social arts to even fake interest. After a while, he cut to the chase: could Mark Lawson do a bit on our radio show, Talk Back With Mary and Jack? Sure, why not.
Rush to Judgment
Lawson proved even less curious than his advanced man. He did not come to listen. He came to instruct us in the so-called "Clinton Paradox"--his take on why Americans remain "wildly enthusiastic" about Bill Clinton regardless of the news coming out of Washington. Despite the fact that I and every single caller disputed his thesis, he remained unfazed. Like the blind banjo player in Deliverance, we were there as props, local color. When he left the studio, I could predict within a few degrees how far left his show would list.
I was right about the list, but I underestimated Lawson's skill. The show proved to be smarter and funnier than I anticipated. Besides which, old Mary and Jack found themselves in some heady company. Also interviewed for this special were cruiserweights like Tom Brokaw, Eleanor Clift, Alan Dershowitz, Mario Cuomo and Larry Sabato.
I also underestimated Lawson's close-mindedness. He was indifferent to my take on things because had picked the villains in this drama long before he reached our shores, and they sure as hell weren't the Mainstreamers or the Clintons. No of course not.
As British viewers first see the empty plains of suburban KC, Lawson tells them "If Clinton has enjoyed unusual tolerance from the majority of Americans, he also excites among about 30% of the electorate a level of hostility created by no previous president." These are folks, we soon learn, who view Clinton as "the devil incarnate."
We then cut to a large and active Christian book store in Olathe.
"Especially unforgiving are some of those supposedly in the forgiveness business, the Christians of middle America."
The word "supposedly" drips acid, the word "Christians" has three malevolent syllables, and if we missed the pun on "business," Lawson drives the point home: "In Kansas, where a church shop has the turnover of a supermarket, they aren't buying Clinton's lines."
We then meet a local representative of a Christian "pressure group." Although the sound bite from local Christian Coalition spokesman, Doug Johnson, was fair enough, his positioning was not. He was set up to look and sound mean-spirited.
A recent survey of The New York Times, by the way, revealed that Times writers used the phrase "mean-spirited" 102 times last year. One reference was to Monica Seles's backhand, another to a book by Ernest Hemingway. The other 100 were reserved for political conservatives. As to groups, those on the right were invariably "lobbyists." Not surprisingly, the euphonic "advocacy group" was reserved for the left. I can't imagine that semantics play out otherwise in the halls of the BBC.
The folks in Kansas City proper fare much better than their country cousins. The BBC cameras highlight the lighting ceremony on the Country Club Plaza upon whose "happy, prosperous crowds" the Clinton scandals "make no impact." As Lawson sees it--in a truly breathtaking generalization--these folks are too busy and self-satisfied to care. Lawson even features one relatively obscure DC talking head who cites the ignorant and indifferent among us as "the real American heroes."
The good people of Kansas City, Kansas are neither too busy, nor too prosperous. Indeed, the KCK that the British viewer sees looks like post-war Dresden but without the charm. Still, these folks love Clinton in spite of their poverty, and Lawson loves them. Their undemanding loyalty must surely ennoble them in his nostalgic, post-colonial eyes. That they turned out in record numbers, Lawson argues, is the reason Dennis Moore won the district. (Oddly, none among them seem to show up at his victory party.) To his credit, Lawson provides the most insightful look at Clinton's relationship with Black America that I have yet to see.
Given his perspective on Chris-teee-ans, Lawson treats Vince Snowbarger with surprising restraint. British viewers see Vince and his family at Thanksgiving saying grace and "eating humble pie" along with their pecan and pumpkin. But they see no horns, real or metaphorical. In his interview, Snowbarger comes off as gracious and forbearing. Life goes on. Oddly, Lawson is less kind to Dennis Moore whom he calls a "man of Clintonian smoothness." And that, even at the BBC, is no compliment.
The Dirty Little Secret
In fact, the whole of The Clinton Complex is laced with a wry, devilish irony which makes it all the more watchable. If the BBC is too steeped in relativism to condemn Clinton, it is too steeped in cynicism to praise him. Unlike American news shows, The Clinton Complex is, if nothing else, unpredictable.
Indeed, Lawson allows University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato to steal the show. Sabato reveals in detail how a White House friend betrayed him with the false story of Clinton's grand jury meltdown, a leak about which Tom Brokaw had just admitted total ignorance. "It's always hard to trace that back," laments the befuddled Brokaw.
More tellingly, Sabato admits--from the secure position of a "tenured academic who can't be fired"--that the American people, "know very little , care very little . . . and are easily fooled."
Alone among the pundits, Sabato hints at the dirty little secret behind Clinton's escape: namely, that a corrupt, complicit media managed to encourage the public towards a new nadir of moral lethargy and chose to celebrate the public's neo know-nothingism as "the wisdom of the American people." Yes, it can happen here.
Alas, Mark Lawson does not it have in his soul to come to this conclusion. And even if he did, no producer from London to LA would let him bare it.
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