Christine O'Donnell, Made and Broken by TV
The Fox News poll in Delaware has parlous news for Republican senatorial nominee Christine O’Donnell — she’s 14 points behind, her opponent is well over 50 percent, and 60 percent of those polled say she is not fit to be a senator. Ninety-one percent of Delaware’s voters say their minds are made up. If this number is anywhere near right, O’Donnell needs a startling turnaround in her fortunes to win the race. Much of this, one presumes, is the fallout not only from the revelations of various irregularities in the week before the primary but also the media revelations since — her “witchcraft” comment, her remarks on masturbation, and so on.
Defenders hotly say that O’Donnell was speaking years ago, in the mid-1990s, and so some slack should be cut. Maybe. But here’s the thing: those media appearances in the mid-1990s were the jet fuel that propelled her later career, such as it has been. She was, at the time, an entirely new political creature: the kid TV pundit. This was an invention of the cable-TV explosion in the early 1990s, at the time of the creation of MSNBC, the Fox News Channel, and the expansion of Comedy Central. The Christian Science Monitor had a cable channel. There was even an all-conservative 24-hour channel, called National Empowerment Television (catchy, no?).
This being TV, however, a premium was placed by some on youth and looks. MSNBC in particular had a concept: it was going to have pundits who looked and acted like the cast of Friends. This is no joke — they were actually called the “Friends” by MSNBC. They were to sit around the set wearing youthful clothing and banter about the news. That didn’t last long, but the channels did, and their proliferation and importance in the wake, first, of the O.J. Simpson murders, Whitewater, and l’affaire Lewinsky suddenly made every single person in America who had ever written an op-ed a (largely free) commodity. There was such an inexhaustible maw of time that nearly any member of the national punditocracy could find himself or herself on television three times a week, sitting like a cast member of The Brady Bunch in a gigantic checkerboard, with nine people screaming at once.
It was in this context that Christine O’Donnell first started popping up. She was of particular value because she was young, pretty, and a raging extremist of the right. And, clearly, she was thrilled to be on TV. That’s why Bill Maher had her on his show Politically Incorrect so often, both on Comedy Central and when it migrated to ABC (as a late-night competitor to cable news). She could hold down the conservative chair and, to be blunt, say embarrassing, stupid, and excessive things that would discredit the very cause she was supposed to be there to represent. She even did so on programs that didn’t book her for that purpose, like The O’Reilly Factor, during which, in the course of a discussion of the important and complex issue of cloning, she began blathering dementedly about mice with human brains.
Her standing as a kid pundit is crucial to understanding the reasons why she became a sacrificial-lamb candidate for the Delaware GOP for two cycles before 2010 — because she had some kind of name and some kind of media experience. She was obscure but had a catchy resume. And as a result of that and other things, she was present to catch a wave against Mike Castle, the mainstream liberal Republican who was the perfect foe for an insurgent movement with passion and seriousness of purpose behind it.
Unfortunately, as O’Donnell’s behavior 15 years ago and now attest, there is little evidence of seriousness of purpose (like her workplace lawsuit in particular against the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, in which she demanded damages because she had trouble sleeping) and a great deal of evidence of her fundamental silliness. Booking and canceling television interviews and bouncing around confusedly in the wake of her victory have not inspired confidence in the voters of Delaware. After the election, assuming the tsunami doesn’t manage miraculously to carry her over, she will have a second career on the conservative circuit blaming the mainstream media for harming her candidacy.
But there would be no Christine O’Donnell without the mainstream media, and it will be to their precincts she will in all likelihood decamp in the wake of her sudden fame, turning the ideas she claims to embody into a dismissible caricature, just as she did in her youth. The same, by the way, will be true if she wins; she will be the first new senator liberal reporters turn to for a quote on something controversial, in hopes that she will step in it. The problem is not the ideas, or the Tea Party. The problem is O’Donnell and her path to the spotlight.
Now consider Sean Duffy, who is running for Congress in Wisconsin. Duffy first came to public attention as a member of the cast of MTV’s ur-reality show The Real World. He married a fellow Real World alum, Rachel Campos. (She spent years seeking and gaining employment as an all-purpose TV personality, and almost made it onto The View. She then seems to have had a kind of crisis of purpose before deciding that there were perhaps more important things in life.) They now have six children. And Duffy, who is 40, went to work. He graduated law school, became the district attorney of Ashland County, and years ago began the spade work to run a serious campaign against an established political figure — David Obey, the powerful Democratic House budgeteer — in a complex swing district. Duffy is a serious man in a tough race, and his is a serious candidacy.
Duffy’s story suggests that the problem is not the path, but the person — not the means by which someone achieves Warholian celebrity, but what the person who achieves it ends up using it for.