My new book, "American Bombshell: A Tale of Domestic and International Invasion," has just been published almost in lockstep with poor Texas Gov. Rick Perry's Republican-primary debate gaffe. It's convenient timing, because both of these things depict the emphasis on buzz and style over substance in today's media and politics.
Best described as a roman à clef, "American Bombshell" mixes fact and fiction in telling the story of Catherine Carson, a right-wing television news star and former Republican Iraq War spin doctor who moves to France and becomes a backroom adviser to French President Nicolai Kuvasz. In this new role, she spends her time putting out so many fires caused by her boss and his entourage's poor behavior that he never gets around to accomplishing the reforms he was elected to implement. First, there's the government minister who quietly kidnaps an underage illegal immigrant to help around the house, only to be busted when he muses about it in a novel. Then, some ministers are caught couch-surfing in the palatial homes of various Third World dictators, even as the Arab Spring gets under way. Little actual work gets accomplished, and the French economy quickly goes pear-shaped, along with the president's ratings.
As in real life, politicians, voters and the media all get caught up with entertaining but petty nonsense. Case in point: Rick Perry stuck his cowboy boot in his mouth during a recent debate performance, unable to recall one of the three agencies of government he'd euthanize if he were to become president. Turns out it was the Department of Energy -- which for a Texas governor to forget about would be a bit like the prime minister of Great Britain forgetting about Buckingham Palace. OK, funny -- but really, so what?
For at least 24 hours, the mishap represented arguably the single most globally widespread American news item. I even saw it broadcast and translated on French television in Paris. This is the media and political culture of today -- all about stagecraft, showmanship and ratings.
As a political strategist, let me tell you a little secret: Debates are easy to fake. All you need to succeed is a good policy-prep team, a competent spin doctor to distill that policy material down to snappy bite-sized talking points, and the memory and delivery capabilities of a C-list Hollywood actor. Perry just didn't remember his lines. That's all.
But what about the other guys who lucked out and did remember all their lines this time? Isn't it the job of media moderators to recognize boilerplate spin and slice through it on the fly? There's one reliable way to do this, but it's rarely seen: In response to a candidate's prepared take, a media moderator need ask only one question: "What precise action in your background or experience illustrates this principle?" In other words, when a candidate says that he would do something, what has he previously done in his career to demonstrate that value through tangible action? Do you know who any of these candidates really is beyond what he or she claims to be? If not, then thank the style-over-substance media.
In my novel, the heroine is initially a co-host on a television news network, BUX News, and is constantly reminded by her bosses which news topics get the best audience ratings. Despite being convinced that even innately uninteresting newsworthy events can always be covered in a provocative way, management overrules her, ordering her to steer clear of themes that get poor ratings -- such as war. And when she asks tough, provocative questions of a high-profile political guest, she's admonished for jeopardizing the politician's return visit. She's told to sit there in her short skirt, crossing and uncrossing her long legs, giving viewers what management perceives that they want.
But like I said, it's just a novel. Although it might make you think twice about what you see and hear.