When Great-Grandma Antonina wanted to reinforce her opinion on a point of political or social contention, the diminutive matriarch of a family friend would draw herself up to her full 4-feet-eleven-inches and declare with a dignified surety that would brook no doubt, “I read it in the newspaper!”
At other times, particularly during the Huntley-Brinkley heyday, Antonina would argue, “it must be true! They said it on the TV!”
For Antonina’s generation of early Twentieth-Century immigrants, the freedom of America’s press offered solid evidence that their faith in the young country’s promise and opportunity was well-founded. Having watched Mussolini’s goons apply pressure on La Stampa (until its publisher, Alfredo Frassati (father of Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati) sold to the more pliant Giovanni Agnelli) the ability of America’s papers to scream doubt in their headlines and offer critical analysis on their op-ed pages—and the government’s tolerance of same—were a reassuring balm to Antonina; if there was a depression, and everyone was struggling, at least she could trust the government, because the constitutionally protected press existed as a “fourth estate”—a citizens’ check and balance against governmental excess. Antonina and her contemporaries were happy to confer full credulity upon the press, and invest in its authority.
My parents and in-laws are children of the second-generation; born in America and raised in the last years of the depression, they inherited the immigrant’s unconditional passion for the new country, and happily melted into the pot—Americanizing their own names and Christening their children John instead of Gianni; Mary instead of Maria.
They also inherited their parents high-regard for journalism. As recently as 2000, senior citizens could be counted on to find the press credible; a quick look at the geriatric-friendly advertisers of our network nightly news broadcasts gives emphatic evidence of who is still watching by-appointment tv news.
Based entirely on anecdotal evidence, however, I believe the press’ credibility with senior citizens has taken a hit from which it is unlikely to recover, and it may be entirely due to the election of 2008, when the mainstream media utterly abandoned whatever responsibilities to the public trust to which it still felt obliged, tossed presumptive-nominee Hillary Clinton aside and—rejecting any-and-all discomfiting questions about his experience, background, past-operations, education, friendships or capabilities—hoisted candidate Barack Obama upon their shoulders and carried him into the White House in triumph.
At a large, multi-generational family gathering this past weekend, inevitable discussions arose about the economy, jobs, and the bleak outlook for the immediate future. The general consensus was that our president is a failure, the congress is a wreck, and there is no authenticity or originality in our leadership, nor in our press. A majority in attendance—both Democrats and Republicans—had voted for Barack Obama (a few grudgingly, as they had supported Clinton) but while everyone expressed disappointment (there was not a single voice raised in support of the president) the senior citizens confided a deep sense of betrayal—of their trust being shattered. When I asked one of them, a former “Reagan Democrat” who had voted for Dole, then Bush, then Kerry why she had pulled the lever for Obama, she threw up her hands helplessly, “all I knew was what I heard! That other guy seemed too hot-headed and that Sarah Palin; she just wanted to play dress-up!”
And that was the general response from that side of the room: “I paid attention; I read all the papers—they all loved this guy!”
“He was new! We needed change!”
But not, as it turns out, the kind of change we are currently experiencing. Asked if they regretted their vote, to a one they said “yes.” Most of them said they wished, in retrospect, that they had voted for Hillary Clinton who “at least understood that the economy…it’s the economy, right? Stupid?”
None of them will be cast a second vote for this president, nor will they be so quick to listen to a press that—absenting an Obama abdication—will cast the flop-sweat from its brow and once again lift him to their shoulders, chanting new slogans and dire warnings about the opposition, but no longer singing songs from The Student Prince.
If Bill Keller’s recent column is an indicator, it seems any Obama deficiencies in the election of ’12 will be again relegated to the shoulders of George W. Bush, but that won’t play with the seniors, this time, either. Bush, it turns out, wasn’t so bad. He was authentic, and worked hard, even if he made some mistakes, just like them. He kept his nose to the grindstone and never complained, just like them. He loved America nakedly, just like them.
And if those Weapons of Mass Destruction ended up not being where they were supposed to be, well, Bush believed what he had been told. Just like them.
So, no, demonizing Bush is not going to work in this election, and—as demonstrated in the recent special election in New York’s ninth congressional district—the seniors will no longer be swayed by dark warnings that the GOP will end medicare and social security—these older people realize that the programs of the New Deal and the Great Society have become unsustainable and that—somehow—a real and drastic change must happen, soon.
They realize it and they dread it; comfortably (though not lavishly) retired, they watch their own children work 60-hour weeks—120 hours per couple—in order to avoid becoming expendable, because at their age, being re-hired is unlikely. They see these children’s retirement plans get put on hold; they press a few dollars into the hands of their job-hunting grandchildren, who have moved back into the bedrooms of their adolescence because the economy has beaten them down, and they whisper, “to tide you over, take it,” encouragingly.
But they have no more illusions that every day in America is brighter than the one before. And if anecdotal evidence may be submitted, they don’t want to hear the press tell them anyone has all the answers.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.
Elderly and the Media
NY-09, Scaring Voters Unpersuasive
Keller in the Times
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