As a true American hero, Robert Mueller deserves better than to be judged by the wretched reality-show standards that now define modern politics.
But before his testimony on Wednesday, much of the media acted as if the special counsel was about to star in a special crossover episode of Survivor and The Bachelor. Could he outwit, outlast and outplay his interrogators? Would he give his final rose to the Democrats? Would he deliver shocking lines that would leave viewers around the world on the edge of their seats?
Mueller was cast in a role he had no intention of playing.
And, tellingly, what he actually said was lost in a style-over-substance fog as the media quickly turned into one big TV critic to condemn the star of this one-man show as “underwhelming,” “doddering,” “frail” and “unpolished.”
Mueller is no leading man! Zero stars and no thumbs up!
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NBC’s Chuck Todd accidentally revealed the real danger of political coverage in this age of entertainment when he tweeted: “On substance, Democrats got what they wanted: that Mueller didn’t charge Pres. Trump because of the OLC guidance, that he could be indicted after he leaves office, among other things. But on optics, this was a disaster.”
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Optics? Disaster? Really? A decorated Marine, former head of the FBI and leader of an exhaustive investigation concluded that Russia helped Trump win the 2016 election with the approval of his campaign — and that Moscow is still meddling now — but instead of heeding this alarm bell we should rip him to shreds for failing to produce sound bites and boffo ratings and jaw-dropping moments?
The attacks on Mueller from across the political spectrum was something to behold. Conservative gadfly and all-around kook Mark Levin told Fox News, ominously, “Look, I’ve seen people with onset dementia …”
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Right. I’d like to see an MRI of Levin’s brain. I have a hunch the image would include an angry squirrel juggling tiny chainsaws. Meanwhile, liberal firebrand Michael Moore, a socialist who has made a capitalist fortune and is hardly a shining example of good health, called Mueller a “frail old man, unable to remember things, stumbling, refusing to answer basic questions.”
One of the only things I truly despise about Western society is the ageism.
Actually, Mueller was clear on what he would and would not answer.
This was not insightful analysis. It was character assassination.
Were there fleeting moments when Mueller seemed like he might make a good spokesperson for Centrum Silver or Starkey Hearing Aids? Sure. Were there times when his one-word answers made me feel a bit sorry for his wife? Yup.
“Bob, how was your day?”
“I was thinking we could go to Olive Garden tonight?”
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“So you’re in the mood for pasta?”
But this fixation on botched spectacle is exactly what’s wrong with politics.
Instead of focusing on what Mueller said, the media got obsessed with the way he said it. His testimony was actually profoundly damaging to the president. But rather that follow the threads from a man who is always above the fray, the media chose to set his suit on fire. Just count the number of times the word “performance” made it into a headline, as if Mueller was on Love Island.
The Washington Post: “On Mueller’s Final Day on the National Stage, a Halting, Faltering Performance.” The New York Times: “Mueller’s Performance Was a Departure From His Much-Fabled Stamina.”
What a disgrace — to the media, not Mr. Mueller.
The truth is, he was never going to be a willing accomplice in any made-for-TV pyrotechnics. Mueller, a man who has devoted most of his 74 years to public service, calls balls and strikes. He does not showboat and speculate on the next pitch. If anything, he deserves credit for disappointing Democrats and Republicans alike.
The Dems, in their protracted fever dream, expected him to fly into that hearing like an Avenger and talk about Trump as if he were Thanos. The GOP, inside their boiling pot of conspiracies, thought they might burn Mueller as a deep-state menace who oversaw a politically motivated witch hunt.
But none of that happened.
Instead, Mueller was concise in his responses and clear in his intent: truth and justice. He did not deviate from his report, which most people have clearly not read. He confirmed facts — sitting president of the United States of America lied to the public and obstructed justice after a foreign adversary interfered with the last election and hopes to do so again — that at any other time in U.S. history would have led to a revolt from sea to shining sea.
But instead of echoing his words and amplifying his message, the media treated his testimony like it was a bunch of silly outtakes from Keeping Up with the Kardashians. They called the hearing a “dud,” “bust” and “letdown.” They tried to frame Mueller as a washed-up celebrity, well past his Best Before date. They trampled on his reputation and bizarrely held him to the standards of a showman.
The media owes Robert Mueller an apology.
But that won’t happen when the search for the next spectacle is already underway.
Vinay Menon is the Star’s pop culture columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @vinaymenon