Washington Week

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Gwen’s Take: Of Handshakes, Selfies and Budget Deals

Sens. Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan
Sen. Marco Rubio (left) expressed his disapproval with the budget compromise negotiated by fellow Republican Rep. Paul Ryan [Photo: CNN].

You’ve got to hand it to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. He’s consistent. No wishy-washy budget deals for him. Only all or nothing will do.

So he and another half dozen conservatives denounced the budget compromise reached by fellow Republican Rep. Paul Ryan and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray because, although it reduces spending, it doesn’t do enough.

“We are going to have a debt crisis in this country,” he told FOX News the day the $85 billion compromise was announced. “It is going to continue to destroy jobs. It’s going to disrupt the function of our government.”

Wait, isn’t that what happened when the government shut down because there was no compromise?

Republicans like Ryan and House Speaker John Boehner and the nearly 170 other GOP members who voted to pass the budget plan Thursday evening suggested that the opposition is losing sight of the bigger picture. (“Read the deal and get back to me,” Ryan said dismissively on MSNBC to critics of the plan.) Boehner snapped that outside conservative activists who oppose the agreement are “using our members and they’re using the American people for their own goals.”

But this will not be the first time we’ve lost sight of the bigger picture. This week’s memorials for the great South African leader Nelson Mandela provided three glaring cases in point.

President Obama at Mandela's memorial
President Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in South Africa Tuesday [Photo: CNN].

The first wave of foggy coverage occurred when President Obama shared a passing polite handshake with Cuban leader Raul Castro. The world did not shake. Communism did not end. Cuban émigrés in Miami did not take to the streets. Yet, the greeting dominated coverage and analysis (overshadowing an actual kiss the president accorded Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who had canceled a state visit to Washington earlier this year over a national security spying dispute).

The Obama-Castro handwringing also ignored what the president actually said in his Mandela tribute.  “There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people,” the president said, in pointed comments that could have been directed at Castro or any of at least a half dozen leaders crowded on stage that day.

The other non-story that overwhelmed coverage of a historic day was fun but excessive. I admit I shared the picture of the president posing for a “selfie” with the Prime Ministers of Great Britain and Denmark on Twitter. It was cute. It was funny, especially because Michelle Obama seemed so unamused.

But never in a million years did I think it would consume (and obscure) so much of the Mandela coverage. Is it because we can’t resist a caption contest?

Thamsanqa Jantjie

Thamsanqa Jantjie angered the deaf community in South Africa when he provided fake sign language interpretation during the memorial service for Nelson Mandela [Photo: CNN].

And then there was the story of the fake interpreter. There is no question it was an insult to the world’s deaf and an international security threat to have a man on stage whose defense for not knowing sign language was that he could be violently schizophrenic.

But did that deserve more attention on a day when thousands gathered in Pretoria -- in long lines that reminded me of the first free South African elections -- to pay final tribute to Mandela?

I never cease to marvel how efficiently we can minimize real news – whether it be rare proof that Washington has a little bipartisanship left, or history unfolding on another continent.

I’d feel a little better if we could at least try to remember the big picture.