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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Plumbing New Depths

Posted By on Thu, Oct 16, 2008 at 4:43 PM

Immediately after last night's final presidential debate, the conventional wisdom was that the winner was ... Joe the Undecided Plumber. (And why not? A day later, there's already a fashion line dedicated to him.)

But the pundits might want to take a second look before giving Joe Wurzelbacher any more laurels.  By his own admission, he's "not even close" to earning the quarter-of-a-million dollars that would make him subject to Barack Obama's tax hikes. Which means that the question he posed to Obama last weekend -- and that prompted John McCain to mention Joe repeatedly last night -- was purely hypothetical. McCain rapped Obama for how his tax plan would supposedly affect Joe ... but in fact if Joe earns in the mid-40s (as the average plumber does), Joe would benefit from Obama's plan.

Oh, and Joe really isn't undecided. He's registered as a Republican, and he's made it pretty clear that he knows who he's going to vote for.

While we're at it, his first name really isn't Joe. It's Samuel.

Other than that, though, his story checks out.

I feel for this guy. The whole world now knows about stuff like the $1,000 tax lien Wurzelbacher apparently has. It's the kind of debt that happens to a lot of good people who are having a hard time making ends meet ... but most of their debts aren't subjected to the scrutiny of a national audience. And few of those people will ever know what it's like to have a bunch of anonymous bloggers try to rip them to shreds.

On the other hand, it's also a little disturbing to see how quickly a person can be elevated to national attention. Wurzelbacher doesn't deserve to have his domestic life picked over by a bunch of bloggers. But he probably doesn't deserve to be elevated to the status of national celebrity either. 

This whole phenomenon amazes me. It is to American politics what that lip-synching girl was to the Beijing Olympics. Considered in context, they are both utterly trivial non-events, sure ... but they reveal an entire machinery of bullshit just below the surface.  Both in China and here at home, you always knew that the politicians themselves couldn't be trusted, and that the media is pretty shaky as well. But stuff like this lets you know just how large the hall of mirrors really is.

I'm not alleging that Wurzelbacher is some sort of "plant" by the McCain campaign, as some suspect. For one thing, there's at least some evidence to suggest McCain may regret ever hearing Joe's name, let alone repeating it a couple dozen times during the debate. 

No, I think what's going on here is weirder than all that. A guy becomes an overnight celebrity, and then a morning-after villain, all for engaging in that most American of traditions: asking a question of a politician. For generations that would have been the start and end of it. But both McCain and the media were anxious to trumpet their ability to celebrate the "common man." (And McCain is apparently out-of-touch enough to think a $250k/year plumber is a common man.) In Wurzelbacher, they each saw a guy who could be exploited for a bump in ratings or the polls. Joe had everything reporters and candidates alike are looking for -- "gotcha" moments, faux-populism, a sort of lottery-winner "it can happen to you" quality ... the whole deal. And Joe went along with it. Which, why not? How else would he have gotten on the Today show? 

Unlike in China, this isn't some sort of top-down deception. Its more organic than that. Because fame is our culture's principal commodity, the lines between public and private have become almost completely blurred. We buy magazines to see celebrities acting just like us, and something as mundane as asking a question of a poiltician can make any of us a celebrity. And so a strange complicity sets in between the politicians, the press, and the people. All three of them join together to create this sort of endless spectacle, each of them using the others. 

I'm not even sure who the joke is on anymore.

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