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29 July 2014 16:35 (South Africa)
Life, etc

The World According to Tabloids

  • J Brooks Spector
  • Life, etc
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The case of the mysterious disappearing Hillary Clinton Zimmer Frame and secret maps of Europe’s future according to Russian experts allows J. BROOKS SPECTOR to consider the impact of supermarket tabloids in both domestic politics and international relations. The result is... frightening.

Sometimes writing about international affairs (and especially American or America-related issues) can be a challenge from our vantage point in South Africa. Of course, the Internet gives quick access to thousands of newspapers, radio stations and online video feeds. Similarly, it is easy to subscribe to dozens of online newsletters and the output from armies of think tanks and public advocacy groups, and a commentator quickly develops a cadre of people around the world who can point one to crucial developments that are not always visible to a non-trained eye. But the one thing that sometimes seems missing in all this is a routine scanning of the wild world of supermarket checkout counter newspapers and magazines – beyond the editions or publications available regularly in South Africa. They may not provide serious news, but they assuredly offer a real window into what some people think about some things – or at least what editors think those people are interested in reading. And so, as a result, it seems we nearly missed the great contretemps over Hillary Clinton’s walker and her mysterious ailment that could – presumably – have ended up keeping her out of the 2016 presidential race. Mind you, she hasn’t yet announced she was going to seek the nomination, but never mind. Fortunately, in this day and age, someone is always eager to explain the news for the rest of us so that eventually we aren’t left out of knowing about practically anything.

In this case, Ruth Marcus at the Washington Post conveniently brought together the whole story, just in time to consider Hillary Clinton’s circumstances only days before her memoir about her State Department days goes on sale across the country to the resulting commentariat cacophony.

This book had already been given to a number of reviewers to read before its actual release, and in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani reviewed Hard Choices to say, “The rollout of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s new book, Hard Choices, as a prelude to a possible 2016 run for the White House, has had all the subtlety of a military operation ramping up to full speed: the leak of the Benghazi chapter to Politico late last month (presumably to get talk about that hot-button topic out of the way early), the cover story in the latest issue of People magazine, the wall-to-wall line-up of television interviews this week, a gruelling cross-country book tour.”

Kakutani went on to say, that unlike so many political memoirs, “The book itself, however, turns out to be a subtle, finely calibrated work that provides a portrait of the former secretary of state and former first lady as a heavy-duty policy wonk… this volume is very much the work of someone who is keeping all her political options open — and who would like to be known not only for mastering the art of diplomacy, but also for having the policy chops to become chooser-in-chief. Hard Choices, like Mrs. Clinton’s tenure at the State Department, does not evince a grand, overarching foreign policy vision, as Henry A. Kissinger’s 1994 book Diplomacy did. Rather, Mrs. Clinton displays a pragmatic, case-by-case modus operandi.”

Of course there probably would never have been a mystery ailment and that astonishing vanishing Zimmer Frame - if some people weren’t so absolutely desperate to undermine her potential candidacy for the presidency in the first place and try to advance a counter to the avalanche of free publicity that will come Hillary Clinton’s way from her memoirs. And so, the story about the mysterious walker begins, appropriately enough, with the cover of that new issue of People magazine, in giving birth to a new brouhaha over Clinton’s health, bona fides and stealth. (People magazine is, of course, well-known as a journal, no, a shrine of analytical public policy analysis.) Timed to coincide with the release of her new memoir, the cover showed Clinton on the garden patio of her house, out near the pool, hands leaning on a metal frame.

The thing, whatever it was, tantalisingly just visible – almost instantly gave rise to rumours from Matt Drudge and company that Clinton had some severe, unexplained physical issues (hint, hint: something that would make her unfit to stand for office). As a result, Matt Drudge of The Drudge Report muttered darkly, “PHOTO: IS CLINTON HOLDING A WALKER?” on Twitter. Perhaps they hoped to link this rumour to that blood clot last year – or something still more sinister – and so the hinting was that the mysterious object her hand was resting on was an artfully concealed walker – a Zimmer frame. “Oh shame, Mrs Clinton now has to depend on a walker to do her daily rounds, running for president would be far too strenuous”, in effect.

Almost instantaneously, the Twitter universe exploded on this topic. USA Today, itself no great lover of the Clintons, also reported on this vital national issue – including an actual video clip from the actual patio. USA Today wrote, “What is Hillary Rodham Clinton leaning on in her People magazine cover photo? Watch the video to see for yourself. It's not a walker, even though lots of tweets were asking exactly that. The former secretary of State just can't catch a break. It's a patio chair in her backyard. Hillary talked about 2016 and Monica Lewinsky in the interview, yet on Twitter, the Drudge Report and The Wall Street Journal were asking, ‘Is that a walker?’ And then the memes came: See them in the video above, and catch photos from New York Magazine's story about what else they've caught Clinton ‘leaning on.’ ”

The Post’s Marcus then went on to argue, “To buy this scenario would require you to believe that People [magazine] is implicated in a grand conspiracy to keep Clinton’s enervated physical state from American voters. And that People’s editors and Team Clinton are dumb enough, having hatched this scheme, to have her photographed with the walker cropped out, except not entirely. Rather than simply shooting Clinton seated on, say, the patio chair that she was actually holding in the photo. The fact that the phantom walker was even a topic of public debate says everything about the wacko media environment that uniquely surrounds Clinton.”

The Washington Free Beacon, a rather more conservative rag, then offered up what can only be described as an astonishingly bizarre semiotic analysis of People magazine’s cover. “The cover looks innocent enough, but a close analytical reading reveals what can only be interpreted as a deliberate effort to call attention to the former secretary of state and Goldman Sachs affiliate’s advanced age.” That publication’s then drew attention to the symbolically important proximity of the word “grandmother” next to Clinton’s hands and “what a layperson might reasonably assume to be an old person’s walker.”

Oh dear.

In fact, People’s denial — together with a picture that showed Clinton walking on her own – only got the Free Beacon further riled up, insisting the newest picture “is also inexplicably grainy, out of focus, and devoid of colour — unlikely to satisfy sceptics. What’s REALLY going on here?”

Well, what’s going on seems rather simple. Some people, noting Clinton’s remarkable popularity within the Democratic Party, her average ten-point lead over every conceivable Republican challenger, and that imminent tidal wave of publicity from the launch of her memoir, are now trying to poke some pre-emptive holes, semiotic or not, into her ratings. This would, presumably, soften up her reputation until the newest – is it the twelfth or thirteenth? – Congressional hearing fastening onto the four deaths at Benghazi in 2012 can, presumably, begin to dim her star for the 2016 race, as well as the prospects of various Democratic candidates in this year’s mid-term election races.

But that would actually be second best in the sweepstakes. The grand prize would be to make a candidacy for Hillary Clinton for the presidency so unpalatable for her personally that she just decides to stay home, tend to her social concerns, do good works, and be a loving grand-mom. It’s not like she hasn’t already had a full and eventful life, after all. Because the Democrats do not, at least at this date, have a very deep bench of potential candidates - beyond the former secretary of state/senator/first lady, pushing Hillary out of the race even before it fairly began would be a real boost to the eventual winner of the Republican nomination scramble and his chances to win in November 2016.

Not convinced? Well the New York Times’ own resident conservative columnist Ross Douthat, used his column over the weekend to assess Hillary’s position in holding the current fragile – his word - Democratic coalition together for yet one more presidential win. Douthat had said, “…She has the potential to embody a political coalition — its identities and self-conceptions, its nostalgias and aspirations — in ways that might just keep the whole thing hanging together. But without her, the deluge.” For the Democrats, at least, that is.

Of course, Russian President Vladimir Putin has even managed to get in his oar in on the subject of Hillary Clinton’s traits as a potential interlocutor in foreign discussions, i.e. as the next US president. In speaking to French journalists, Putin had said, “It’s better not to argue with women. But Ms. Clinton has never been too graceful in her statements. Still, we always met afterwards and had cordial conversations at various international events. When people push boundaries too far, it’s not because they are strong but because they are weak. But maybe weakness is not the worst quality for a woman.” But where would Putin’s disdain for Clinton fit into the Republican litany about her? And, going forward, would voters find Putin’s apparent misogynistic putdown make Clinton a more sympathetic, rather than a less sympathetic candidate? Answer: not clear yet.

But now staying with Russia, even if the debate over Russia’s longer intentions vis-à-vis Ukraine were not enough, Russia’s own equivalent of the screaming meanie supermarket checkout aisle tabloid has helped roil the waters about Russia’s long-term intentions in Europe, beyond even its recent Crimean and eastern Ukrainian manoeuvres. A series of maps initially printed in the Moscow-based Express Gazeta two years earlier has resurfaced and been widely reprinted. If Express Gazeta’s maps are to be believed, Russia’s plans can easily be interpreted as rather ominous – especially if supermarket checkout counters are one’s measuring stick.

According to the previously published maps and story, ferreted out by the Springtime of Nations blog – and then almost immediately picked up by more mainstream publications like Foreign Policy, by 2035, Russia will not only have annexed Crimea and the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, but also absorbed tsarist-era territories across the southern Ukraine to connect with Transdniestria, that renegade regime in an eastern sliver of Moldova that is loyal to Moscow. This, of course, would sever Ukraine’s connections to the Black Sea.

It's unlikely this is an actual expose of Vladimir Putin’s real, secret game plan, especially since the original publisher of the maps and text is usually cited as a sensationalist tabloid – sort of on the National Enquirer pattern. According to Foreign Policy, Express Gazeta “said unnamed ‘geopolitical experts’ drew the map based on ‘open source’ information from research institutes, as well as (oddly) from the works of strategists Alvin Toffler, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Samuel Huntington.”

Foreign Policy argues, “the map should be read as a cartographic illustration of Russian wish fulfilment, reflecting the hopes and frustrations of at least a small segment of Russian public opinion. Some in Russia, the map seems to say, hope Europe in 2035 looks fragmented [with new countries erupting from amidst older ones], is increasingly Islamised, and suffers under a resurgent Germany. None of this would happen, the article hints, if Russia were still the superpower it was before the 1991 Soviet collapse.” Now that, of course, does tie in rather neatly with Putin’s publicly acknowledged remark that the greatest tragedy of the 20th century was the breakup of the old Soviet Union, so perhaps there is a bit of channelling going on here too. As Foreign Policy argues, “This map is the daydream of a Russia frustrated with its diminished place in the world, exacting satisfaction from its European neighbours by acting out its geopolitical fantasies.”

Map 1: Western Europe in 2035 according to Express Gazetta

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Map 2: Central Europe in 2035 according to Express Gazetta

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Map 3: Eastern Europe in 2035 according to Express Gazetta

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Foreign Policy goes on to comment that the original publisher “wisely includes the caveat that ‘not everything’ on this map will happen exactly as predicted. Of course that's true; but it's also a bit disingenuous. Humans are conditioned to trust maps. This cartographic fantasy panders to Russia's foreign-policy frustrations by predicting future defeats for its ‘enemies’ and future victories for itself. If 2035 might seem a long time to wait, that too is par for the course: Predictions gain traction the further into the future they're placed.”

But like the Hillary Clinton mysterious vanishing Zimmer Frame on the eve of the launch of her memoirs as a likely lead-in to a campaign for the presidency, Russia’s Express Gazeta may be proffering the real politick daydreams of Vladimir Putin’s circle. As a result, the tabloids and their cyber-penumbra now seem increasingly entrenched as yet one more vehicle to fight both domestic political as well as international relations campaigns or to dig out deeper hopes.

Sadly, this means any serious analyst must also start reading the world’s sensationalist tabloids, along with more stolid political manifestos and policy journals, in order to understand what’s going on below the surface. But fortunately, we can still skip the articles about the truth about Area 51, alien abductions, or all those many different, competing conspiracies behind the death of John Kennedy or the secret laboratory where Aids was created. DM

Photo: Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attends a ceremony in the East Room of the White House before her husband, former President Bill Clinton, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in Washington DC, USA, 20 November 2013. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

Read more:

  • Hey people, Hillary Clinton is NOT using a walker in USA Today;
  • Hillary Clinton’s Book ‘Hard Choices’ Portrays a Tested Policy Wonk. in NYTimes;
  • Why Clinton will run, a column by Ruth Marcus at the Washington Post;
  • There Is No Alternative a column by Ross Douthat in the New York Times;
  • What Russia Could Look Like in 2035, if Putin Gets His Wish - Sorry, Europe: It ain't a pretty picture, in Foreign Policy;
  • Maps from Express Gazetta.
  • J Brooks Spector
  • Life, etc


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