News coverage of presidential campaigns used to follow Harold Ross's prime directive: If you can't be funny be interesting. I go back to Mencken's Archangel Woodrow and Thurber's Dewey, Dewey Fog, but I don't remember it rising to funny after Hunter Thompson on Jimmy Carter in 1976. It might've occasionally got up to interesting after that, but it's been pretty categorically dismal for at least 20 years now.
My own personal measure of the indifference that attends the latter-day coverage being this: that according to my in-depth field research, and also a hunch I had, there wasn't a single reporter on the press plane in either of Bill Clinton's presidential campaigns who, given the choice of getting an exclusive, no-holds barred, one-on-one personal interview with either the candidate or the candidate's embattled yang, wouldn't have been much happier and much more comfortable choosing to interview the latter.
And even that wouldn't have been funny.
One result of the dulled-down dumbed-down style of campaign coverage is that meaningful questions come to be considered impolite, and are avoided, and meaningless ones that cause nobody to squirm become obligatory. An example of the meaningless obligatory presidential campaign question is the one that came to dominate the 2012 campaign discourse last week. It was a question asked not of either candidate but of "likely voters," a mythical people like the Lilliputians, invented by pollsters. The question to them was, Are you better off than you were four years ago?
It's assumed that those who answer yes, that they are better off — financially, psychologically, health-wise, or in some other unspecified way — are more likely to vote for the incumbent seeking re-election; while those saying no, they are worse off, from slightly worse off to calamitously worse off, Madoff-victim worse off, Randy Travis worse off, drunk and naked on the riding mower on the way to rob the liquor store, are more likely to cast for the other guy.
But it's not really a revealing question; it's a damfool question, because any one of those likely voters who attempts to answer it accurately, honestly, earnestly is going to choose (c) neither of the above. Ol' Likely Voter is going to say yes and no. In some ways I'm better off; in some ways, not so much. And my answer depends, too, on which day you ask me. Monday Romster; Friday Big O. On the day after UA plays UL Monroe, you might be instructed to fold your questionnaire five ways and stick it where the moon don't shine.
Anyway, though I don't think it's a question worth pondering, I've been pondering it, and I've tried to fashion an answer that neither smirks nor jerks wildly at the knee. Here are some fragments of the answer.
Four years ago, it was Glenn Beck lunacy up with which we were obliged to put; lately, it's David Barton lunacy, so are we better off or worse?
Four years ago, along with other American taxpayers I was still paying for a pointless war that was costing us $8,000 a second to continue. No end in sight. But it did end, sort of, and though we're still paying it off, and will be, like, forever, you have to ring up the disengagement as a better off.
I'm about the same amount of sore from gas-pump gouging as I was four years ago, and don't see how you could deduce an (R) or a (D) from that. I reckon I'm better off knowing just how bad BP sucks.
They've got better night lighting at the trailer park, so I'm better off in that respect, absolutely.
Four years ago, I didn't win a single blue ribbon at the county fair. Or a red or purple one either, for second or third. I did bring home a couple of the white Honorable Mentions but they give those things to practically everybody who enters a competition, so they might as well be toilet paper for all the ego boost or sense of accomplishment you get out of "winning" one. Prospects for this year are no better. I'm bitterer about this than four years ago, as you can probably tell.
Four years ago, so many nuts with guns and grudges running around loose were a cause for concern; today they're a cause for panic.
There are more apologists for rapists than there were four years ago, and they're less ashamed of themselves. No good can come from that. Nor from the quantum increase in those who think it ought to be their right and responsibility to keep a watchful eye on your genitalia.
Pekoe stupidity is prouder of itself than it was four years ago, and more determined to extirpate shreds of good sense and common decency from the public sphere. Nobody's better off for that.
Old people having to subsist on dog food seemed far-fetched four years ago; a lot nearer fetched now. Some oldtimers might feel better off if it's name brand — Alpo, Ol' Roy — but then again, maybe not.
The blowhards blew just about as hard four years ago.
There was still one tomato fit for human consumption four years ago — one tomato, not one variety — and if you're bound and determined to play this game, go ahead and blame Obama that there hasn't been another one since.