"Jesus Christ, you're like a fucking omnishambles, you are. You're like that coffee machine, you know? From bean to cup, you fuck up."
--Malcolm Tucker, The Thick of It, Series Three, Episode One (2009)
"So, Mr. Speaker, we're all keen to hear the Prime Minister's view as to why he thinks, four weeks on from the budget, even people within Downing Street are calling it an omnishambles budget."
--The Right Honorable Ed Miliband MP, April 18, 2012
Among the darkest implications of BBC Two political satire The Thick of It—and there are plenty—is that instantaneous media have dissolved the context in which a public error goes unpunished. Campaigning in Oregon in May of 2008, a tired Barack Obama mentioned the “fifty-seven” United States; this flub formed the basis of a popular chain email that claimed the senator from Illinois had referred to fifty-seven Islamic states that make up the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (there are sixty). Asinine as the charge is, it’s indicative of a battle for control of public perception in which every inch is fought to the bloody--and here The Thick of It’s spin doctor Malcolm Tucker would deploy a seething profanity--last.
The Thick of It, a half-hour long serial satire created by Armando Ianucci, premiered on BBC Four in 2005. Ianucci spun the series off into a critically acclaimed film, In the Loop, and has exported his savage mockery of political minutiae to the United States as Veep, HBO’s comedy series about a gaffe-prone Vice President and her supporting staff.
Both in the TV show and on our material plane, the fallible ministers, advisors and civil servants that make up bureaucratic ecosystems have the habit of speaking with complete vacuity: when downtrodden Hugh Abbot, the fictional Labour government’s Secretary of State for Social Affairs, is informed en route to an event that he may no longer mention the program that is the event’s raison d'être, he is forced to deliver a speech strategically bereft of substance. In so doing, Hugh follows the game’s one rule: keep your head above water. Better to say nothing than slip up by uttering something.
It’s this law of the jungle that gives tremendous insight into the nihilistic mode of twenty-first century western politics, all brinkmanship, deferrals and recess: for without a volley, there is no spin. Even mainstream news later picked up on Obama’s Taoist technique of non-engagement, crowning him “No Drama Obama.” His duel with Sen. John McCain was not unlike a ping-pong game in which the winner is bent exclusively on returning the ball: let the other guy overreach and trip himself up. And as long as senators are more preoccupied with staying out of bad headlines than generating good ones, we will always suffer a Congress that spends its days passing legislation that decides the national mammal (currently favored: bison).
But policy vacuums and suit-wearing ciphers allow the reactive press—and we may as well include Twitter here—to explode or twist what nuance has not already been drained from the dialogue. Witness Obama’s “you didn’t build that” adlib, instantly isolated and decontextualized. Or, in The Thick of It, take Nicola Murray, Hugh Abbot’s harried successor, who bungles a talking point regarding her party’s leader by substituting one preposition for another, thereby undermining the man she means to support. After the interview, Malcolm Tucker, the sharpest-tongued of the bunch, is characteristically furious at the misstatement:
Nicola: For fuck's sake, Malcolm!
Malcolm: Shouldn't that be "Of fuck's sake"?
Malcolm: Can I just quote it to you? “The Prime Minister is the right man for the moment.”
Nicola: Yeah, that's what you told me to say.
Malcolm: Of the moment! I said of the moment! There is a huge difference between me saying, “Nicola, I'd like to go for a walk with you” and “Nicola, I'm going to make a hat out of your entrails.”
The oratory has moved backstage. You get hypercautious, deer-in-headlights press conferences, where even a minor stumble is chum for the sharks; meanwhile, the powers that be are swearing baroquely in rooms that would be smoke-filled were it not for certain legislation. Ollie and Glenn, two fictional advisers in the Department of Social Affairs, a young backstabber and an obsolete drone, are ever one-upping each other’s put-downs. It’s clear that they relish the moments in which they need not be conciliating PR flacks with a phone glued to either ear, but they toggle schizophrenically between both modes as occasion demands, aiming to appear either merely competent or an alpha male.
David Slayden and Rita Kirk Whillock describe these cognitive realignments well in the introduction to Soundbite Culture: The Death of Discourse in a Wired World:
At a time when there are more means of facilitating discourse than ever before, less real communication is taking place, particularly if one assumes communication to be a reasoned exchange of views (reached through a process of thought and reflection) with a spirit of give-and-take, of point and counterpoint, characterized by a verbalized expression and representation of the self. Indeed, we would argue that discourse, as such, has been subsumed by ritualistic and stylistic performance, frequently dictated by the channels of discourse themselves, and that the conception and presentation of self have become increasingly fluid and imagistic, shaped by the demands of the mediated environments in which such performances take place.
Nowhere is this need for specialized styles and rituals more evident than The Thick of It’s two hour-long specials, "The Rise of the Nutters" and "Spinners and Losers", which follow a prime minister’s surprise resignation and the ripples that will determine a new leader, all in the space of one horrendous night. Watching these episodes is a bit like speed-reading Machiavelli: alliances are made and destroyed in minutes, and the hapless Daily Mail struggles to verify news that is too fluid to pin down. The political players, having no time but plenty of misinformation, are forced to bluff, play dumb, and outright lie. In the end, the story comes full circle: the original heir apparent ascends, and all we’ve seen was Sisyphean effort.
If The Thick of It is tender in its verbal savagery, if it makes us sympathize with the misguided souls who chose to, in theory, serve and guide the people, it is precisely in the revelation that they are not lazy or amoral per se; they must simply dedicate their scattered resources to staying ahead of the narrative. One notes the tragic embassy attack in Libya this fall, a sudden crisis that had Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign issuing forceful arguments before the nature of the event was fixed. Ethics just aren’t in the timetable. There is always a noble aspiration just around the next bit of damage control. For any of us who’ve smacked our heads and wondered how an elected official “could have said something so stupid,” the TV series answers belligerently that gaffes are born of mouths attempting to evade them.
What counts as a gaffe has little to do with a mistake in actual governance; in popular usage, it’s an accidental confession of some toxic belief, as Romney’s “corporations are people” and “47%” moments or Obama’s “bitter” comments illustrate. So perhaps Washington’s gaffe-prone elite, from Joe Biden to Bush II, are best understood as problematically honest. Likewise, it’s a minor apocalypse when hard data escapes the bureaucratic maze, but the accidentally broadcasted intel from The Thick of It—unconfirmed crime stats, a wayward (and obscene) inter-office email—are falsified in headlines. Surrogates have taken the falls. Most importantly, the granular data is suppressed. And so the rare flicker of transparency offers a view as distorted as any other; the truth may have gotten out, but it’s been tortured beyond recognition.
What progress stands to be made in this minefield of meanings? At best, there are useful methods for staying off the record. Malcolm Tucker gives vent to an avalanche of psychosexual abuse that can’t be quoted in the seediest tabloid, while his Conservative shadow cabinet counterpart, Stewart Pearson, envelops himself in a cloud of buzzwords that no one outside a think tank can hope to parse.
These coping mechanisms allow you to weather the summit and obfuscate your strategy, but to what ennobling purpose is unclear. Tucker refers to the “It” of the program’s title as “a war,” an attritional one in which you’re sure to see some “friendly fire.” Yet it’s always for the polis that he supposedly fights—an electorate he claims he cannot help unless he and his colleagues have total control. Give the ancient despots credit: at least their lust for power and contempt for the common man were naked. It’s modern rulers who have made long careers in claiming good intentions.
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Lincoln had an ear for entertaining, collecting anecdotes like the drunken hog-stealing tale and keeping them at the ready to make a point.