"Gotcha journalism" John McCain called it Monday night in a high-pitched querulous voice as he sat next to his vice presidential nominee Gov. Sarah Palin. He was discussing with Katie Couric criticism of the woman he chose above all Americans, great and small, to be his No. 2. He seemed almost as annoyed that Couric continued to address questions to Palin while he was sitting just six inches to her right.
McCain and Palin were trying to stem the tide of criticism and mockery of Palin's near-universal grade of D-minus in her Couric test. (When writers for Conservative bastion National Review are urging you to step off the bus for the good of party and country, you're definitely in trouble.)
It didn't work. The decision was in. Whatever public recoveries Palin can make from now until Election Day, only the hardest of hard cores are likely to be thrilled that McCain plucked her from politics in Juneau.
But then, in a weird way, they may not have to be.
As I watched Palin, McCain and Couric on Monday night, it occurred to me that a diabolical anti-media strategy starring Palin -- call it the Orwell Strategy -- could still take McCain and Palin where they want to go. That's because as I watched McCain and Palin struggling in Couric's velvet grip, I kept remembering David Letterman's continuing two-night tirade against McCain for ditching his show in favor of an interview with Katie.
For those who missed it: in this wildly magnetic political year, remember the period when McCain theatrically suspended his campaign to rush to Washington for bailout politicking. In the middle of it, he called Letterman hours before a scheduled appearance on his show to beg off because the economy was "cratering" and all senators were needed in Washington.
When it turned out that McCain was, in fact, talking to Couric when he was supposedly winging his way to Washington to rescue us all, Letterman turned his comic blowtorch up to incineration level for two straight nights.
As justifiably dissed as Letterman felt, the obvious question that might have occurred to almost anyone is "who in God's name does Letterman think he is anyway? McCain's running for president, for pity's sake, not talk show sidekick."
It was all very funny to watch. But it also made me just as uncomfortable with Letterman as I already was with McCain's strategic transparency.
And that's where the Orwell argument gets interesting.
I think that there's a part of all of us -- even those of us in it, not to mention the biggest Letterman, Jon Stewart fans -- that hates the media.
A little bit anyway.
Who, after the Clinton impeachment, isn't more than a little sick of the way journalism -- and by implication our national political life -- has been folded into the Entertainment Industrial Complex?
And that's where every Couric interview, Letterman tirade, "Saturday Night Live" skit could be blended together and useful to anyone who wanted to take an anti-media strategy to its lunatic but logical conclusion -- the Orwell Strategy.
You have to go way beyond labeling every bit of opposition as a game of "gotcha."
You even have to go beyond defining words to mean their opposites (a la Orwell in his novels). You have to turn concepts themselves upside down.
Remember what has already been done to the word "liberal," which now means a money-wasting, elitist nincompoop in much of the country (listen to talk radio almost anywhere). Remember how much genuine mileage McCain also briefly got out of painting Obama's undeniable charisma and international celebrity as a bad thing (The Obama Equals Paris Hilton argument). In a popular election, they briefly succeeded in making popularity itself look corrupt.
Take that all the way. Make all media -- all newspapers, networks, blogs, whatever they do -- into the enemy. And you just might be able to sell a plurality of America on the idea that every interview exposing weakness is "gotcha journalism," that every late-night satirist is an infantile megalomaniac looking down on us "real Americans," that every bit of knowledge itself is evidence of elitism and every bit of competence is unearned privilege. Excellence in the Orwell plan would be just a nasty trick played on "Main Street" to steal its money, corrupt its children and foreclose its future.
Make sure you can put Florida in your pocket and you might ride American discontent with the media all the way to the White House after all.
After all, don't tell me it never happened before.