: a small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion and that has beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous
: a situation in which people admire and care about something or someone very much or too much
If you pay close attention to the cult of American political reporting -- "cult" in the second definition shown above -- you know that it has its own unique rituals that are repeated time and time again. This is especially true during its high holy days, which are the two years that precede a presidential election.
One of the cult's most important rites comes whenever a relatively unknown individual suddenly pops out of a pack of candidates -- usually through a strong performance in a debate, or a surprisingly solid showing in a poll or primary -- and emerges as a "frontrunner." Of course, the priests of the political-reporting cult are in charge of determining whether said candidate has or has not achieved "frontrunner" status.
This rite of passage immediately leads to the next, crucial, ritual in which the candidate -- Carly Fiorina in this case -- is placed under a much more intense spotlight in order to judge his or her worthiness in the eyes of the priesthood. This is especially important in Fiorina's case because (a) she is a Republican, (b) she is a woman and (c) her ascent is linked to taking a strong stand in opposition to an institution held sacred by the cult (as in Planned Parenthood).
You know, beyond all doubt, that this rite has begun when something bizarre happens -- such as a Washington Post Style section reporter heading deep into the American South to observe this candidate in the wild. (However, in this case Fiorina was in Charleston, S.C., so the reporter may have been able to do an architecture or food feature on the same trip.)
The key question in this piece appears to be: Can this lady project warmth, especially when television cameras are aimed at her? This leads to the following Style-section style parable at the opening of the piece:
CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Carly Fiorina swept into this key primary state last week with momentum in her favor, a shining new face rising above the fray of the GOP primary slog thanks to a fresh and forceful performance in two national debates.
She had killed on TV. But how would she do in a room?
At the Citadel military college, a poised Fiorina dazzled a packed audience as she held forth on military spending priorities, rattled off the names of world leaders and strategic locales, and name-checked “my good friend Bibi Netanyahu,” a firm nod of the head to emphasize each point. It was as if she had a teleprompter in her brain.
“Are you reading the cards over my shoulder?” asked the clearly impressed moderator, a think tanker named Arthur Herman. “I do not want to play poker with you.”
It was a little joke, of course, and a well-timed one -- finally, a comic breather from a discussion that could have been titled “Our Tragic and Dangerous World” -- and the audience began to chuckle. Until Fiorina chimed back in.
“You know, honestly, Christians are being driven from the Middle East,” she said leaning forward, looking grimly around the room. “And this administration is silent.”
So was the crowd.
Now stop and think about this for a moment.
When Republican candidates head into the Bible Belt at this stage of a campaign, what is their primary (no pun intended) goal? Who are the core voters with whom they are attempting to bond?
For the most part, that would be Christian conservatives and evangelical Protestants in particular, primarily Anglo but also some crucial African-American (think U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, for example) and Latino conservatives.
So, has Fiorina stunned her audience in a good way or a bad way, with her remark about the destruction of the ancient Christian communities in Iraq and Syria?
At that point in the story, I really wanted an answer to that question from some of the people in the room. Perhaps a leader in a campus religious organization? You just have to know that there were several folks of that kind in the room, after all. That's part of campaigning in the wilds of the South.
Later in the piece there was a similar strange encounter between the candidate and the natives, once again with the journalistic priest paying close attention. The setting was an "an anti-abortion pregnancy center in Spartanburg" -- the church-going locals and the center volunteers would call this a crisis pregnancy center.
This rite was a "photo-op," since you don't hold meet-and-greet sessions in rooms in which women are meeting with counselors to discuss a wide range of difficult and personal subjects.
Still, there was at least one voter in the room: the young woman with an exposed and gelled-up belly whose ultrasound Fiorina was there to witness. Ushered into the examination room, Fiorina deferred any small talk, turning away from the patient and smiling motionless for the cameras.
It was only after the photographers left and the network cameras came in that the small talk began. Fiorina asked the woman what she planned to name her baby, how well formed it looked at just 17 weeks.
It was a brisk exchange, but the pregnant woman, Lacey Thomas, was impressed. She said she would like to see a female president. Fiorina exited to address a crowd in another room: “The character of this nation cannot be about the butchery of babies for body parts,” she proclaimed with palpable anger.
So what happened this time around?
Once again, Fiorina failed to play her proper role in the campaign ritual by projecting adequate warmth -- with the cameras present. Of course, if she had been glowing and chatty with the patient on camera, might that have been judged to have been invasive and insensitive?
Note the crucial political and thus journalistic question here: Is the primary goal to connect with people through the camera or to connect with the woman facing the crisis pregnancy and the circle of leaders at the center that is helping her?
Stay tuned. We are nowhere near the highest of high holy days in this cult, the time of maximum scrutiny from this political priesthood.