Last night, journalist Howard Fineman gave a lecture at Pitt’s Alumni Hall on the timely subject of “Down to the Wire: The 2012 Presidential Election.” Fineman worked for more than 30 years at the soon-to-be-late Newsweek and is now editorial director at The Huffington Post and a political analyst for NBC and MSNBC; he has covered every presidential campaign since 1984.
Being a Pittsburgh native addressing a Pittsburgh crowd, Fineman knew to start strong — and local. He riffed about how Pittsburgh had influenced him, and how the city was representative of significant moments in U.S. history — from the tax challenge of the Whiskey Rebellion and the early capital-vs.-labor struggles to the Pittsburgh’s various renaissances. “There’s nothing wrong [today] with America that the example of Pittsburgh can’t solve.”
Fineman spoke for an hour about the 2012 presidential campaign, sounding mostly gloomy notes about the process; the parties (“no longer facilitators of [useful] argument, [but] now presenters of argument”); the news coverage (“the media is in silos”); and the outcome (“a very, very close race”). Then, he apologized for the downbeat tone, and recounted a joke Sen. Bob Dole made about Ford, Nixon, Carter and Reagan.
Former Pennsylvania governor and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh then took the stage — which caused Fineman to promptly fall off it. He recovered by telling another joke about how one-time presidential candidate Gary Bauer once fell off a stage while flipping pancakes.
Thornburgh’s job was to moderate the Q&A, choosing questions from the dozens submitted on cards from the audience. These prompted erudite digressions on the changing nature of candidate debates; the role of new media and the need for stewardship (“If news is strictly a matter of what’s popular, then cat videos will be the future of democracy”); and how young people might get started in media.
Then Thornburgh elicited gales of knowing laughter by asking: “When in Pittsburgh, Mineo’s or Aiello’s?” (Full disclosure: This was my question. I submitted it as a joke, and was surprised as anybody that such an esteemed moderator would choose it from a stack of questions that were presumably more thoughtful.)
Fineman cited his book, The Thirteen American Arguments, and added, “This is number 14.” He reminisced about walking past Mineo’s on his way to Allerdice High School; recounted what he believed to be the origins of the dispute, jokingly comparing it to Shia-Sunni conflicts; and gave an unequivocal answer: “Being a traditionalist, I still go to Mineo’s.”