Monday, August 8, 2011

Chris Matthews as Mr. McGuire

by Libby Sternberg

As mentioned previously, I watch a lot of MSNBC. In fact, I have it on right now. Not liking that color green on you, Mika.

Watching so much of this network means I get to see their own promotional ads a great deal, and they often have me scratching my head wondering why their marketing gurus thought these would be effective enticements to watch their shows.

All the MSNBC promo ads feature their marquee hosts talking about a political or policy topic, ostensibly to demonstrate to the audience the level of discourse you'll find on the various shows, the thoughtful exploration of issues, albeit from a liberal point of view.

The problem is that each ad seems to communicate just the opposite to me. Instead of thoughtfulness, the ads telegraph simplistic misunderstanding of their opponents, and some of the ads, in fact, contain an implicit criticism of those who might disagree with their point of view.

Take the Lawrence O'Donnell spot, for example, which has him talking about immigration, telling viewers that if they understand how "this country was built on immigration," they'll understand the "added value" immigrants bring. He ends by saying something about how if we "close the door," we change who we are.

But who ever said we should close the door on legal immigration? Most of the debates and policy suggestions I've seen have focused on illegal immigration. Nice job, Larry. You insult your audience by ascribing unfair attitudes to them, that they dislike all immigrants.

Then there are Rachel Maddow's spots, which lately have featured her talking about America's past investments and its legacy or....something. My favorite is the one with her in front of the Hoover Dam gushing about how a country, not local towns and states, has to build such mammoth projects. Get with the program, people, she seems to be saying. You've given up on American greatness.

But does anyone seriously believe she would have supported something like the Hoover Dam's construction, a project that probably had profound environmental impact on the area? I don't know about you, but I envision Rachel M in the front lines of protest groups trying to block that kind of big project today.

My favorite spot, however, belongs to Chris Matthews.  He sits on an unidentified Washington rooftop with the White House and Washington Monument in the background, his right hand in his pocket, conveying a sort of avuncular congeniality (the exact opposite of the approach he takes on his show, Hardball -- I mean, c'mon, just read the title of the program and you catch its gestalt).

Matthews talks about President Obama's distinctive background and how those who criticize him for being un-American...or something...are wrong because the president is a living, breathing example of "American exceptionalism." (It's hard to find this ad on youtube, by the way.) At the end of this ramble, Matthews pauses for a beat, then looks at the camera and says with thrill-up-the-leg sincerity: "American exceptionalism" as if those of us who disagree with the president obviously don't get how darn special he is.

Let's leave aside for the moment whether it's wise to use that phrase ("American exceptionalism") to describe Obama, who rejected it as a singular description of his own country in an interview a couple years ago, saying he believes in American exceptionalism, but he suspects the Brits "believe in British exceptionalism and the Greek exceptionalism" (and yes, I'm aware of the arguments from those who think this quote was taken out of context, but unless he goes on to say, "scratch that, what I really meant was..." I'm not sure you can airbrush it out).

Let's instead focus on the chuckle this little bit of theater produces whenever I see Matthews utter those words.

When Matthews pauses, then says "American exceptionalism," I can't stop myself from thinking of Mr. McGuire's exchange with Dustin Hoffman's Ben Braddock character in The Graduate:

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Ben: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Ben: Yes, I am
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

Every single time I hear Chris Matthews smugly say "American exceptionalism" to describe President Obama, I'm sorry, I think of Mr. McGuire smugly saying "plastics" to the bewildered Benjamin Braddock.

McGuire completely misreads Ben Braddock, whose thoughts and worries are focused on what to do with himself now that he has graduated. Ben knows there are jobs out there, in plastics or elsewhere. He wants more than a job. He wants a life.

Similarly, Americans know President Obama has a great backstory, an inspirational tale of humble beginnings leading to great accomplishments. I venture to say that story makes most Americans extremely proud and happy. They get American exceptionalism. They embrace it.

But most Americans aren't focused on that right now. They're focused on jobs and an economy that will allow them to lead comfortable as well as meaningful lives.

It's all well and good that their president is a shining example of how anyone in American can rise to the top. They just want to stay afloat.

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