April might be the cruelest month, but August is the dumbest — at least if you have the misfortune to be watching TV. It's not just that the shows are mostly reruns and nothing much happens in the news (except, OK, the occasional release of journalists from a North Korean prison sentence, thanks to the diplomacy of an ex-president).
It's that, with relatively little else happening, the darndest people and causes tend to grab the spotlight. This time last year, we were hearing a lot about the Puma PAC, an obstreperous group of Hillary Rodham Clinton supporters who somehow believed that throwing their votes to John McCain showed more loyalty to Clinton and her issues than supporting the Democratic presidential nominee. The year before that, there was the opportunistic display surrounding the 10th anniversary of Princess Diana's death — that means you, Larry King. The year before that, Madonna fell off her horse and it seemed no one would shut up about it until Hurricane Katrina came along.
You've heard the term "august personage." This refers to an eminent or venerable figure. I am hereby coining a slight and notably downscale variation on this label: the August personality.
Neither eminent nor venerable, August personalities are the unopposed candidates of the public sphere. They gain traction because they're just nonsensical and bizarre enough to fit the "man bites dog" profile and, oh yes, no one else bothered to show up. August personalities tend to have both an ax to grind and a chip on their shoulders. Undaunted by the foolishness of their 15 minutes, they are thrilled to be in the national media, no matter how low the vacation ratings go.
At any other time of the year, they would be relegated to the outer limits of cable access and the Internet. But it being August, August personalities wind up on prime time. With all the shrinks out of town, the country goes a little bit crazy.
This year's August personality? Orly Taitz, the woman spearheading the campaign behind the apparently unvanquishable issue of President Obama's country of birth. A dentist/lawyer/real estate agent turned "eligibility activist" from Laguna Niguel, Calif., Taitz looks like a cross between Dr. Laura and Carol Channing and sounds like a 16-year-old Zsa Zsa Gabor fighting with her mom about her curfew. Her movement's mission, of course, is to show that the president was not born in Hawaii, as has been exhaustively proved by officials from that state, but in Kenya and is therefore ineligible to serve as commander in chief.
Were it any other month, you probably wouldn't be seeing so much of Taitz. You probably would have to seek out her Web site or go to the far-right news site World Net Daily, which is collecting signatures for an online petition related to the issue. (A "Where's the birth certificate?" billboard on a freeway near downtown Los Angeles is part of it.)
But in the past few weeks, Taitz has appeared on CNN, Fox News and "The Colbert Report," where she likened the Obama administration to Nazi Germany and apparently took her host seriously when he remarked how refreshing it was to hear someone make the comparison. "Really? I have even more information," Taitz said, before pointing to documents she claimed proved that the president's Social Security number was issued in Connecticut and showed him to be 190 years old.
OK, because everyone's such a stickler for details, I guess I should point that that some of these interviews, including the Colbert exchange, took place at the end of July, the official throat-clearing period for August personalities. But Taitz's true breakout moment came Monday, when she appeared on MSNBC. Revealing a debilitating strain of defensiveness straight out of the gate, Taitz responded to anchor David Shuster's first question — about the Obama birth announcement printed in two Honolulu newspapers — by asking how much time she would have to respond because she had "had a bad experience on CNN." She went on to tell Shuster that "you need to display some decency and integrity as a journalist" and that people are "sick of the lies coming from the mainstream media," which she referred to as "Obama brownshirts."
The interview unraveled into a shouting match between Taitz, Shuster and co-host Tamron Hall and within minutes was ricocheting around the blogosphere, amid a lot of cackling about Taitz's mental state.
Is she certifiable? Only a 190-year-old Connecticut man would know for sure. What is certain is that every August (come home, shrinks!), the public's wackadoo threshold reliably goes up. And although we can only hope that next year's August personality won't be quite as xenophobic as Taitz, you have to admit she's pretty entertaining, in a summer-disaster-movie kind of way.
But let it be said, she's not as enjoyable as a good book and an iced tea on the deck. That would be August minus the personality. Dare to dream, people.
Meghan Daum is an essayist and novelist in Los Angeles. E-mail her at email@example.com