Oh Beautiful for Specious Highs…
And ambushed waves of brain? With the candidates up and down, the pundits making too much of too little, and the b.s. meter on overdose, the '08 race wheezes on.
By Mary Beth Crain
It’s often been said that there’s not much difference between politics and theater, and indeed, the current race for the presidency has all the earmarks of bad theater. Ham acting, the worst clichés, and absurd plots that require so much suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience that we might as well be on one big acid trip. It seems like the candidates are, anyway, trumpeting wild claims and promises that nobody in their right mind could take seriously.
There’s John McCain, thundering, “And I vow that I will get Osama Bin Laden if I have to go to the gates of hell to do it!” (That’s Osama, not Obama, right?) There’s John Edwards, the big loser, still vowing that he’ll be victorious in November. There’s Barack, making speeches so lofty they seem to come from Mount Olympus, and the Clinton Machine, hitting him with blows so low the mud looks like high ground.
And let’s not forget good old Mitt Romney, lulling everybody in Michigan into a platitude-drugged trance with the big fairytale that he’s going to get them back all the jobs they lost and return their state to its former glory as America’s industrial mecca—while in the same breath extolling George Herbert Walker Bush and Ronald Reagan, the two biggest enemies of the working class, as his heroes!
Oh, and here’s a great one—John Kerry endorsing Barack Obama. What an ouch for his 2004 running mate! Or maybe not—the pundits had a field day gleefully wondering if a Kerry endorsement was a good thing or a death blow. Then there’s Pat Richardson—Pat who?—pulling out of the race after his dismal showing in New Hampshire and engendering ruminations about whom he might endorse. As if anybody gives a you-know-what! Yeah, I really care about the endorsement of the guy who came in 87th!
My personal favorite, though, is Fred Thompson, under the happy delusions that A) he’s got a rat’s ass chance of being nominated and B) Mike Huckabee, Southern Baptist minister and anti-gay darling of the far-out right, is a liberal. And Huckabee, dismissing Thompson with the snotty remark that it’s too bad the Writer’s Guild strike is still going on because Thompson needs better lines—proving indeed that he’s no liberal, according, anyway, to Robert Frost’s definition: “A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.”
Speaking of Huckabee, how about his proclamation that it’s time to change the Constitution of the United States to conform to “God’s standards,” not man’s? "I believe it's a lot easier to change the constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God, and that's what we need to do is to amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards rather than try to change God's standards," this self-crowned arbiter of morality asserted, advocating a constitutional human life amendment and an amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Wow—at least you’ve got to give the guy credit for daring to propose that, as 40 is the new 30, so theocracy is the new democracy. Now that’s liberalism, all right!
A particularly tacky display of character bashing occurred when Hillary got emotional on camera and choked up. Now, I for one believed her sincerity. She was finally letting her guard down and revealing her true depth of feeling. But the media, as usual, had a feeding frenzy. Was she genuine, or just trying on a new persona? After all, she’d just lost Iowa to Barack, who, they said, was as accessible and personable as she’d been stand-offish and cool. And was it a bad thing for a presidential candidate to tear up? John Edwards, of course, responded to that one with devious Southern gentility. “Oh, I don’t want to say anything about it,” he demurred, adding oh so delicately that one would have to be very tough and not given to emotional breakdowns to be President.
While the candidates have taken the expected pot shots at each other, the overall mud slinging has been fairly mild compared to the dirt dishing that’s characterized political campaigns since the beginning of time. It’s in the finest American tradition to resort to whatever it takes to win. In 1800, the year of the country’s first contested presidential election, Thomas Jefferson duked it out with incumbent John Adams, proposing the amazing theory that that Adams was secretly engineering a union between his son and King George III’s daughter with the intention of creating an American monarchy under British rule. Adams supporters in turn smeared Jefferson as everything from a coward and a thief to “the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”
In his book, “Anything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots and October Surprises in U.S. Presidential Elections,” author Joseph Cummings describes a Republican pamphlet circulated during the 1828 election that accused Democrat Andrew Jackson of being “a gambler, a cock fighter, a slave trader and the husband of a really fat wife.” And we think they’re being rude to each other today!
No, it’s not so much the cheap shots as the endless meaningless blather that’s the hallmark of the 2008 campaign. What the raucous caucuses and prime-time pandering primaries amount to is an insult to that indefinable entity so patronizingly referred to as “the American people.” As all of these battlegrounds have shown so far, the citizens of the United States are such a diverse crowd that, with shameless transparency, the candidates immediately change their tune depending on which state they’re campaigning in. Oh, their basic message is the same. But they’ll emphasize some things and downplay others depending on which voters have them by the balls. Or, they’ll just flip flop away, taking one stance here and another there, secure in the belief that the ensuing confusion will eventually obscure their hypocrisy. Or, like Mitt Romney, they’ll harp on one buzz phrase until you’re ready to cast a vote for their assassination. If I hear “Washington’s broken and we’re going to fix it” one more time…! This record is broken, Mitt, and someone better fix it!
Perhaps you know the great old joke about the political candidate who’s stumping on a Native American reservation, promising everybody the moon. Food and aid for all the kids, new trucks for every family, blah blah blah. And after every promise, his audience applauds heartily and yells “Oompah!” The candidate is very self-satisfied and thinks he’s gone over great. As he’s walking back to his car with one of the tribe elders, he says, “Well, I think I made a very good impression, don’t you?”
The elder nods, taking the candidate’s arm just as they come up on a big cow pie. “Be careful,” he says. “You almost stepped in the oompah.”
Polls, the blogosphere and many interviews indicate that a whole lot of us are sick and tired of the oompah. As that most fearless of commentators, Lou Dobbs, remarked the other night on CNN, voters deserve more than the “partisan nonsense and predictable platitudes” that have permeated this campaign. McCain’s going to “get” Osama? Romney’s going to fix Washington? Obama’s going to unify the world? And all of them are going to jump start the economy, revitalize public education, save social security, get American jobs back, assure universal health care, bring our troops home, end terrorism and put a chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage? Yeah. Right. Maybe if they’ve got Harry Potter as a running mate. Pass me the magic wand, kid.
It was Aesop who said, “We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office.” Perhaps the most sobering thing about the 2008 campaign is that, when all is said and done, nothing has changed in some 2500 years. When it comes to politics, there’s very little difference between the rough roads of Ancient Greece and the super-sophisticated highways of the 21st century. Corruption inevitably rears its ugly head; ego dominates, money talks and lies rule. Nobody’s a saint, nobody’s immune. And it isn’t just Washington that’s broken—it’s all of us who have acquiesced in our government’s behavior, by either approving of it or doing nothing about it.
It was sheer stupidity that got an imbecile like George W. Bush anywhere near the White House, let alone in it. Will the tradition continue, with a Huckabee or a Romney or even a Thompson the next occupant? I pray not, although, like Albert Einstein, I don’t hold out a lot of hope. “There are only two truly infinite things,” he observed, “the universe and stupidity. And I am unsure about the universe.”
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Senior editor Mary Beth Crain's last essay for SoMA was New Year's Irresolutions?
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