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Political Animal

Game On

By Brian Morton | Posted 8/27/2008

In the spring of 1988, I was work-ing in radio news in Washington, D.C., and often the editor on the desk at the time would send reporters out into the street to get comment on the "issue of the morning." In the business, this pointless, time-filling and uninformative exercise is called the "man on the street" interview, but it has also been termed by some old-timers as a "Triple A"--"Ask Any Asshole."

The "Triple A" never produces any news; aside from filling up a space in a newscast that could ostensibly be used for real news, its sole purpose is to get the people interviewed to listen to your radio station. If you're really lucky, they might be one of the faceless masses who fill out an Arbitron diary, thus skewing the ratings in your direction and allowing the sales side to jack up advertising rates.

Rarely do people actually want to comment to an anonymous man with a radio microphone on topics of interest in the news, most especially in Washington, which is a small company town where small gaffes can be amplified into career-ending mistakes. Perhaps the only time people enthusiastically offered their opinions to my microphone was after Oliver North was convicted (later overturned on a technicality) on charges of shredding documents, accepting illegal gifts, and obstructing a congressional inquiry stemming from the Iran-Contra affair.

In the spring of 1988, during the Democratic primary season, Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden, two years younger than Barack Obama is now, was running for president. When the news erupted that Biden had essentially lifted a speech wholesale from British politician Neil Kinnock, it was the story of the morning, and I was sent out into the street to get comment.

Never before had people literally run away from my mic. It wasn't just a nonstory, it was a "no" story, and it pointed out to me both the futility of the "man on the street" story and the fickleness of the news media. Biden dropped out of the presidential race and served on in the Senate.

Here we are, 20 years later, and Biden has made no serious gaffes, and what little ones he has made (calling Obama "articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy") have obviously been forgotten and forgiven. And now he is the No. 2 on the Democratic ticket, which isn't a bad thing--there are plenty of worse choices Obama could have made.

My feelings on Biden are that he's strong on foreign policy, he's a fighter, he's as regular a guy as you'll find in the millionaire's club that is the U.S. Senate, and he might loosen Obama up a bit on the campaign trail. Biden was the guy who pointed out the crushing truth about Rudy Giuliani, that the only three things that came out of his mouth on the stump were "a noun, a verb, and 9-11," and with any luck, he'll be the attack dog that points out that John McCain is doing the same thing with the "prisoner of war" line.

In the modern era's super-thorough candidate vetting, it's a rarity that a vice-presidential pick sinks a ticket. Dan Quayle was probably the weakest VP pick in the last 30 years, but even he didn't scupper George H.W. Bush in the general election, despite getting pulverized by Lloyd Bentsen in the 1988 vice-presidential debate. (Adm. James Stockdale doesn't count, since Ross Perot in 1992 never stood a chance of winning.)

During a campaign, the veep is the guy who is "surrogate No. 1" for the top of the ticket--he (or she) is the one who throws the sharper elbows if the fight gets dirty. Biden, with his years of foreign-policy experience, will be able to stand toe to toe with whoever McCain picks, especially when it comes to the issue of the Iraq war, where he or she will have to defend the Arizona senator's "maybe a hundred [years]" policy.

The signs are pointing to an ugly fall campaign, after last week's episode where McCain couldn't recall exactly how many houses he and his wife own. In an economy where untold numbers of Americans stand to lose their homes due to the mortgage crisis, rising unemployment, and the Chinese sitting on a mountain of U.S. debt, McCain isn't going to come off looking good if the debate centers on economics--so his camp will fight dirty.

If the issue is Iraq, polls have shown for more than three years that Americans want out, so that means the only road the McCain campaign can travel is to wrap its candidate in the flag, impugn Obama's patriotism, and try and keep Bush's shadow as far away as possible.

The summer games are over, and the fall games are beginning. Biden may not be the perfect candidate, but "perfect" is rarely necessary when "good" will do just fine. Fasten your seat belts, folks--it's going to be a bumpy ride to November.

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Tags: barack obama, joe biden

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