Behind The Lines: The faster they rise...

When the alternatives are the same old, tired, recycled hacks, you can easily understand how Tzipi Livni seemed like the new star.

livni 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
livni 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A few weeks ago in this column, I suggested that perhaps we should know a bit more about the person who is slated to be our next premier. Well, that issue is no longer on the table. Tzipi Livni isn't going to be prime minister, at least not judging by this week's coverage of her. Indeed, the media have withdrawn their resounding endorsement of her candidacy as quickly and unexplicably as they originally granted it. How ironic that in the same week as her fall from local grace, she was the only Israeli among Time magazine's list of the 100 people who shape our world - with a glowing testimonial written by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. What a stark contrast to the way her name became mud almost instantaneously last Wednesday afternoon, when it became known that she would not be resigning over the findings of the Winograd Committee and was launching her campaign to replace Ehud Olmert. To cite but two examples of the scorn directed at her by the mainstream media, Channel 2 diplomatic correspondent Udi Segal, reporting live from the Foreign Ministry, termed her decision "hismartetut," which, literally translated, means the act of becoming a dishrag. The next morning, the headline of political commentator Sima Kadmon's column on the front page of Yediot Aharonot was "Tzipitput," the name of a children's TV show from the 1970s, whose title can be translated as "blather-mouth Tzipi." This sudden reversal of fate begs the question: Why was the press so eager to put her on a pedestal and idealize her as the perfect prime minister-in-waiting, only to knock her down so abruptly? After all, her reluctance to resign is hardly out of character for a senior Israeli politician. Yet, the very same consensus that over the last few months was busy anointing her, automatically reverted to dragging her through the mud. Livni, at least, went to Olmert to tell him he ought to resign, and then gave a press conference; her potential rivals for the Kadima leadership, on the other hand - ministers Shaul Mofaz, Meir Sheetrit and the eternal Shimon Peres - all kept their counsel, Sheetrit and Peres even backing Olmert publicly, while privately planning their own presumptive bids for power. All three are now being mentioned as viable candidates, while Livni has been labeled overnight a has-been. Why were these three gentlemen regarded a week and a half ago as less worthy or less likely candidates than Livni, and why have they now all become favorites? There are many explanations as to why the press was so hot to trot for Livni but, at the base of it, we have to admit that political journalism is a lot like sports writing. There are players and teams who are regularly feted by the media, while others are routinely overlooked and belittled. This attitude isn't always backed by statistics and tangible achievements, but sports is about image and personality just as much as it is about rankings and averages. Ultimately it's all a game, and partisanship and mythology are as much part of sports journalism as objective reporting. Politics is supposed to be a more serious business, but in reality we allow ourselves to be swept away and captivated by the star of the moment in much the same way. Livni might have had few discernible achievements in the quick series of ministries she inhabited; she might be lacking a clear agenda or any identifiable convictions, but she's a fresh face, well-mannered and soft-spoken, who rose to the top in a remarkably short time. When the alternatives are the same old, tired, recycled hacks, you can easily understand how she seemed like the new star. That she's a woman obviously adds to her attraction. Granted, women are underrepresented in our public life - the fact the IDF is the largest single contributor of political "talent" automatically puts them at a disadvantage. It would also be fair to argue that female politicians - from Shulamit Aloni to Limor Livnat - were judged much more harshly than their male counterparts, but in some cases, it's a distinct advantage. One has only to look to France and the way that a hollow candidate like Segolene Royal managed to get so close to the presidency simply due to the novelty of her being a woman. Livni enjoyed the same springboard; as the first woman since Golda Meir to be regarded as a viable candidate, she offered the media what they love most, something different for a change. That doesn't mean that she got a fair deal over the last week and a half. A few lone voices were heard above the chorus of scorn. One was broadcaster Ilana Dayan's, who said last Thursday on Army Radio that perhaps the problem is not with Livni but with the press, which can't accept a politician who holds back, hesitates and thinks, instead of going instinctively for the jugular. Was Livni simply being punished for not rising to our expectations, in the way that Dan Meridor was eternally branded a coward for not standing up to Binyamin Netanyahu 10 years ago? Or was it a more personal disappointment with the woman that so many were eager to believe was the next mother of the nation? Perhaps the disappointment derived also from the anti-Olmert current sweeping the land and the hopes pinned on Livni that she would lead the insurrection. Whatever the explanation, Livni has little reason to complain. Her swift descent in the media ratings was first of all a result of her much-too-rapid rise. Now that the hot air has escaped from the balloon, she will have to build her comeback on a more solid platform. At least she has learned a valuable lesson on the fickleness of the press's affections.