If there was kinetic joy in the camps of Iowa caucus victors Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee last night, it was nothing compared to the hyperbole-burbling, earnest elbow-leaning glee of the political commentators. For one brief and electronically shining moment, the folks at CNN, MSNBC and even Fox News found common ground -- an Upset in Iowa, with the long-predicted favorites taking it on the chin. (Hillary Rodham Clinton came in third!)
Never mind that the people who had been using their best authoritative baritones to call Republican Mitt Romney and Democratic Sen. Clinton the favorites all these weeks were the same people now taking such obvious pleasure in their downfall -- the 350,000 or so souls who voted in the caucus have turned the 2008 presidential campaign into a genuine horse race. And who doesn't love a horse race?
Depending on whom you were watching -- and really it didn't matter because they all blurred together in one big (mostly male) rally of wonder and amazement -- it was unprecedented, revolutionary, a watershed in American politics. One commentator, apparently jacked up on too many viewings of "It's a Wonderful Life," compared former Arkansas Gov. Huckabee to Jimmy Stewart, while over at MSNBC, Chris Matthews was conducting an experiment to establish if it was possible to explode with political metaphor. Iowa was Lexington and Concord, William McKinley versus William Jennings Bryan, Coke versus Pepsi. OK, not the last, but you get the picture.
It was a culmination of a growing air of almost childlike excitement among political reporters and pundits, a group not normally known for their giddiness. Crankiness, yes; giddiness, not so much. For those covering politics, this year's primary race really does look like a big shiny present from whatever deity and/or holiday figure one happens to acknowledge. Just look at the candidates -- the Democrats' front-runners are a black man, a former first lady and a handsome senator whose wife is bravely battling cancer, while the Republicans, who invented the boring rich WASP template, have a Mormon, a former Baptist preacher who plays the guitar, and Sen. John McCain, who is many things but never boring.
You really have to wonder if the casting directors over at Showtime were involved. I mean, how surprised will we be when Mary-Louise Parker throws her hat in the ring for v.p.? A single mom! There's a long-overlooked demographic.
With so many colorful characters, so much shifting ground, reporters in all outlets are riding high -- here are people with stories worth telling. Elizabeth Edwards scheduling her chemo treatments around the campaign, Huckabee crossing a picket line he says he didn't expect to jam on Jay Leno -- no wonder old-guard stiffs like Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Christopher J. Dodd dropped out. They are so "been there, done that."
Now, I am certainly not going to begrudge any political reporter or commentator the opportunity to effervesce -- heaven knows they have few enough opportunities these days. I myself went a bit googly-eyed over Sen. Obama's speech and wondered what it would be like to look forward to hearing the president speak publicly. Despite their political differences (McKinley versus Bryan!), the rhetorical talents of Obama and Huckabee alone will no doubt continue to lift ratings all over the place.
As the Writers Guild of America strike grinds on, putting our favorite shows in reruns, this may be a rare and valuable opportunity for American politics to recapture the populace's attention. Imagine a country in which presidential candidates had the same kind of name-recognition as Paris and Britney, or even McDreamy and House. Or where primaries drew the same numbers as "American Idol" or "The Biggest Loser." Now that would be a change.
Still, at the risk of being a wet blanket, I would like to point out that amid all the cork popping and exclamations of "unprecedented," it's important we all keep our heads. Reality TV, not to mention way too many award shows, has conditioned us to predict success in a strange, slightly scripted way, based on an arbitrary yet heady brew of poignant back story, physical appearance and lovable ruthlessness. And while it is tempting to make jokes about candidates voting each other off the island, or even comparisons to this year's similarly "unprecedented" New England Patriots, it is important to remember that it really does matter who wins this race. If the last eight years have taught us nothing else, they have been a grim reminder that no matter what the pop culture mavens may argue, the president of the United States is still the most powerful person in the country, possibly the world. YouTube hits notwithstanding.