Let's Not Confuse Showmanship for Transparency
The film Creed II hit theaters a few weeks ago, and those who've seen it were treated to a smorgasbord of Rocky IV nostalgia that included everything from a satisfying one-on-one table conversation between Rocky Balboa and Ivan Drago, to an amusing cameo from an eccentric actress we haven't seen on the big screen in over 30 years.
But it was the world of American politics that got me thinking about the fourth Rocky film again yesterday, particularly the press conference scene between Apollo Creed and Ivan Drago:
As many of us will remember from the scene, there's a lot of showboating and loud trash-talking from Apollo (played by Carl Weathers) that leads to an animated argument. Finger-pointing and hurled insults eventually provoke a reaction from Apollo's stoic soviet opponent (played by Dolph Lundgren). Apollo shouts out threats as frenzied reporters snap pictures and audience members egg on the confrontation. Apollo is restrained and finally escorted off the stage.
The second Apollo turns away, however, he breaks character and calmly asks Sly Stallone's Rocky, "How did I do?"
Rocky, who throughout the press conference expressed silent dissatisfaction with Apollo's conduct, answers, "A little loud for my taste."
"But good?" Apollo asks.
"Oh yeah. Very good," Rocky replies.
One has to wonder if President Trump and Vice President Pence shared a similar exchange as they left yesterday's contentious Oval Office meeting with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. After all, the display was cut from the same cloth — an overblown, theatrical performance that served only as a self-gratifying media spectacle for the participants.
Well, I suppose it additionally offered a little something to partisan supporters on both sides of the aisle. Trump, once again, got to present himself as "fighter," while the Dems got to call out the president on some fibs and even baited him into a politically dumb comment about shutting down the government.
Also, Pence managed to fit in a nap while wishing he was somewhere else, so the get-together wasn't entirely unproductive:
Seriously though, the meeting was largely pointless. What surprised me, however, was that a number of people latched onto a particular remark from Trump.
When Schumer and Pelosi suggested that the three of them (four if you include poor Mike Pence) move their discussion on the border wall to behind closed doors, Trump said, "It’s not bad, Nancy," referring to their public exchange. "It’s called transparency."
I laughed when I heard the comment. I mean, the notion that people watching the discussion at home were witnessing governmental "transparency" was as silly as framing the Creed/Drago press conference as an intimate look into U.S. relations with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Let's be clear. Showmanship is not transparency. It's just performance art.
While there certainly have been examples of Trump commendably granting transparency into the inner workings of his administration, this wasn't one of them. Yet, a number of people on the political right took Trump's words seriously and even managed to lend the narrative credibility.
"I would think that at the very least, people who don't like Trump, and don't like the stuff that he says, would at least applaud the fact that he is... shall we say transparent," said Charles Hurt on Fox News's Special Report. "He doesn't mind the press in these meetings."
Memo to Mr. Hurt: Trump more than "doesn't mind" grandstanding in front of the cameras. He lives for it, and not as a public service.
The Washington Examiner's Philip Klein wrote that Trump had the "right response." Klein explained:
"Too often, political leaders in pitched battles will appear before cameras ahead of high-profile meetings and have nothing but kind words to say, which obscures actual tension, political differences, and real policy disputes. Pelosi, Trump, and Schumer have very real differences over funding for a border wall that could lead to a government shutdown. As those differences played out in front of the national media that was on hand for what is typically nothing more than a photo op, those differences became apparent."
While I think Klein's point is valid in theory, I'm not sure how the clown-show that played out on national television could have been mistaken for a "real policy" dispute. Tossing recycled platitudes back and forth (many of which had nothing to do with the issue) and pointing fingers at each other certainly wasn't a traditional "photo op," but that doesn't mean it wasn't any less phony.
And of course, Trump's biggest supporters on social media ran with the theme:
As a conservative, I want a good amount of transparency from our governing leaders. I would love to hear all kinds of open debates on border security and a variety of other issues. I like town hall events where constituents get to grill their reps. I think such things are good.
But expecting anything other than showmanship to come out of a televised meeting between seasoned performers like Trump, Schumer, and Pelosi is like watching Rocky IV for the hundredth time and expecting Apollo to miraculously rebound from his injuries and knock out the Russian.
It's just not going to happen, and we shouldn't pretend that it happened yesterday, just to prop up our political narrative of choice.