The autopsies of the McCain campaign are now appearing, and some reporters who were lapdogs while it lasted are beginning to tell tales. But the pundit who best provided a backdrop for this year's Republican contest was one who died in 1995 after a 70-year career.
The late Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud and the founder of modern public relations in the 1920s, could have predicted the appeal of John McCain in a nation looking for God in all the wrong places. "We cannot have chaos," Bernays insisted: "We have no being in the air to watch over us." Bernays thought belief in God foolish, but believed that journalists can be of great service "by making the public believe that human gods are watching over us." He knew that man has a religious nature and the need for "sacred dances."
Bernays argued in his most audacious book, Propaganda (he used the term positively), that "manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society." Folks possessed of ordinary logic might consider such manipulation undemocratic, but Bernays thought it "a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society."
When I interviewed Bernays in 1984 in his house not far from Harvard, with pictures of those he had counseled over 60 years (such as Franklin D. Roosevelt) spread lavishly on each wall, he bemoaned the tendency of politicians to go by polls. "What we lack in this country now," he said, "are sound people who will pay no attention to the polls, and instead will apply the principles of social psychology." When such leaders show people what they truly desire, "the people will believe, our sacred dances will be intact, social chaos will be avoided, and public salvation will be here."
Enter John McCain. He and his campaign staff ignored the polls in 1999 where the Arizona senator hardly registered. They saw the psychological need of many journalists to have someone in whom they could believe, someone with a larger-than-life story, someone who had risen above the temptations of ordinary human beings. As top McCain strategist Mike Murphy acknowledged to The Wall Street Journal, his candidate's base was the media-so Bernays-style manipulation of mass emotion was a campaign weapon.
Curiously, cynics sometimes disparage as "true believers" those who believe in God, but it's those without such faith who are ready to grab onto some human god. Network journalists are a mixed bag theologically, but many of them became true believers in John McCain. Dan Rather on Feb. 22 spoke of Sen. McCain's "truly special" talent. Brian Williams on MSNBC on Feb. 23 said that voters normally are faced with a choice of evils, but "not this time." Not this time: The garden of Eden was just around the corner.
For the true believers, the frequent hypocrisy of politics (for example, attack special interests except those in which the candidate is specially interested) did not apply to their chosen senator. The common pseudo-courage of politics (for example, win plaudits for attacking ethanol production when the decision to skip the Iowa caucuses already had been made) was supposedly alien to the McCain campaign.
"Maybe our long national nightmare is over," McCain supporter David Brooks of The Weekly Standard concluded at the height of the craze. But providentially, this particular nightmare ended, as the McCain campaign self-destructed in its last two weeks, with ill-considered direct assaults on conservative Christians.
That's hardly the end of religion in this campaign. Democrats and their press allies would like either a Republican Party purged of the Religious Right or one left to Christian conservatives only, with non-Christians fleeing from the new pariahs. This makes it all the more critical for evangelical leaders today-like Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, and other Christian right-wingers from the American Revolution-to work to build bridges with conservative Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and others. We need a coalition of those who already have a firm faith and are not likely to become true believers in whatever human god journalists offer us.