Sunday, July 27, 2008

A Question of Character

If you've surfed the web at all over the past two weeks, you are probably aware of the hot new rumor about a well-known Democratic politician, his mistress, and their secret love child. The National Enquirer has been riding this horse for several months now, and bottom feeders like Matt Drudge and Mickey Kaus (of have now taken their turns wading into the sewage. Right-wing blogs are indignant about the fact that the traditional media have yet to find the story worthy of their attention. If this had been a Republican, they caterwaul, it would be a Page 1 story on every newspaper in the country and Katie Couric would be doing a victory dance around her teleprompter.

Except, of course, that a similar story (sans baby) actually did involve a GOP presidential nominee a generation or so earlier. There was no internet at the time, of course, but the Enquirer and its competitors took their turns rummaging through the underwear drawer, making accusations and naming names. Finally, in desperation, one high-level Democratic operative blurted out the rumor in a roomfull of reporters and was immediately relieved of her duties. The supposedly liberal media then let the whole thing die.

And that is as it should be. The personal and sexual lives of candidates are generally not newsworthy. Indeed, until 1987 everyone agreed on that. It was then that Gary Hart, Democratic frontrunner for president, stupidly told the working press not only that he was not philandering, but that he had no objection if they followed him around 24/7 to satisfy their curiosity. They did, and the result was that Gary Hart ceased being the Democratic frontrunner shortly thereafter.

From that moment on, we have been forced to weight the "character issue" when judging our presidential candidates. This has been enormously destructive in multiple ways. First, it deprives us of the services of men and women who, but for irrelevant personal weaknesses, might be outstanding presidents. Gary Hart was and is a bright and creative thinker. He almost certainly would have been a better candidate than Michael Dukakis and a better president than George H.W. Bush (with the added advantage that the defeat of the father would likely have ensured that the arrogant, reckless, and incompetent son would never have entered the White House again without a visitor's pass).

But it's not just Hart. Outstanding people, unwilling to endure the full body cavity search of today's presidential politics, simply pass up the opportunity to run. This, in turn, leaves us with only the hyper-ambitious, the sixth-grade class president types who are willing to crawl through broken glass to satisfy their craving for power and affirmation. Surely, out of 300 million people, we ought to be able to do better than John McCain and--sorry--Barack Obama.

The other problem with the character issue is that it causes voters to elevate truly immaterial portions of a candidate's biography and turn them into decisive criteria. Wesley Clark, for example, spoke an undeniable truth when he pointed out that John McCain's POW experience had no bearing on his qualifications for the presidency. There is, in fact, no time during the next four years in which the Commander-in-Chief will be required to languish in prison and be subjected to brutal torture.

Oh, but wait! Doesn't this show what kind of man John McCain is? Well, I suppose it shows what kind of man he was forty years ago, but it's still irrelevant to the task at hand. The job he is currently applying for requires no particular physical courage. Indeed, it is possible to be heroic in one context and hopelessly venal in another. Just as former Top Gun pilot Duke Cunningham.

The same John McCain who refused early release from the Hanoi Hilton also aided and abetted (and won favors from) Charles Keating, one of the nastiest swindlers of the Savings and Loan Era. Doesn't that also speak to the issue of character? Indeed, doesn't it speak quite a bit louder, since it happened more recently and involved the conduct of his public, elected office?

So getting back to the question of extra-marital sexual activity, the rules seem pretty clear. The only time it should be considered newsworthy is when it intersects--or potentially intersects--with a politician's day job or involves violation of the law. Larry Craig fits both categories, having been arrested for conduct that he regularly condemned on the Senate floor. Likewise, if you choose to ambush a sitting president at deposition with questions about his sex life and then impeach him when he lies, you better keep your zipper locked and in the upright position. There was, in that sense, nothing wrong with exposing the hypocrisy of Newt Gingrich and Henry Hyde back in 1998.

Also, the JFK rule: if you're shtupping the girlfriend of an organized crime boss, that, too, should be made public.

But otherwise, public people ought to be allowed private lives. And we should stop pretending we have any insight as to the "character" of our public officials. First of all, we don't. Second of all, despite our desire to pigeon-hole and summarize, "character" is not some trait that is greater than the some of its parts. Character is the sum of its parts, nothing more, nothing less. We all have people that we know and love who are wonderful in hundreds of ways who nevertheless occasionally make terrible, hurtful choices in their private lives. If we can understand that about our friends, we should be able to understand it about our politicians as well.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Latest Fox News Democrat

Susan Estrich, who once managed Michael Dukakis's campaign from a 17-point post-convention lead to a one-sided loss to George H.W. Bush, is now employed by the Fox News Network. Her job, of course, is to play Washington Generals to Brit Hume's and Sean Hannity's Globetrotters. With her grating voice and generally wimpy defense of all things Democratic, she makes Hannity's designated piƱata, Alan Colmes, sound like Keith Olbermann.

Anyway, she has an opinion piece up at entitled, "Arrogance Won't Win the Election." You already know what it's about and you already know which candidate it's directed at. All Fox News house Democrats know how to use Republican talking points when writing supposedly pro-Democratic articles.

But, hey, Suzy, as long as you're dispensing advice to the Obama campaign about how to win elections, I have a great suggestion: Why don't you tell him to strap on an oversized helmet, jump in a tank, and ride around in circles while the media and public laugh incredulously?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

I'm Back, Sort of...

So here I am again, after a hiatus of a good month or so, during which I lost all ten of my regular readers. For a while, the day job simply demanded too much of my time; after that I just kind of hit the wall. But there was something else, too.

With the death of George Carlin a couple of weeks ago, I was reminded of one of his less celebrated comments. I think it came from one of his books. He said (and I'm taking this from memory, so it may not be exactly right), "Whenever I hear someone propose a political solution to a problem, I know I am not dealing with a serious person."

Obviously, I don't entirely agree with Carlin. I teach political science, so it wouldn't make much sense for me to argue that politics is meaningless. Some problems demand political solutions; I suspect that even George understood this.

But I think Carlin was making a deeper point, one with which I do agree: people who expect politicians to rescue us from ourselves are almost certain to be disappointed. I say this not as some sort of libertarian rant, but as a simple statement of truth. It's not that we don't need government, because we do. Indeed, we need more government than we have now. The current economic and social meltdown in health care, environmental degradation, and rapacious capitalism cries out for greater regulation in any number of areas. If the past quarter century has taught us anything, it is the simple fact that unregulated or barely regulated markets will never lead us to peace and prosperity, much less justice and human decency.

Rather, my point is that politics will always be a blunt instrument and politicians will always be unreliable heroes. Take Barack Obama, for example. His recent desperate, amateurish lurch toward the center has been a keen disappointment to those lefty bloggers who honestly thought that he was something other than a hyper-ambitious politician willing to do whatever it takes to satisfy his burning need for power and personal validation. This, of course, is only a dress rehearsal for the disappointments to come should Obama win the presidency in four months. (In this sense, of course, John McCain is not one bit better. He now embraces nearly everything he once rejected, groveling before the same vicious theocrats and scorched-earth reactionaries who were once willing to destroy him and slander his family. It is difficult for those who don't burn with the single-minded ambition of a top-tier presidential candidate to understand that nothing--issues, principles, or even basic personal integrity--matters more than the quest.)

In my lifetime, I have seen politics and politicians do far more harm than good. And that's not just because the Oval Office has been filled mostly with Republicans for the past two generations. The Democrats may have done less harm, but they also accomplished very little of lasting merit. Seriously, what do we have to show for twelve years of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton? Camp David, I guess, and maybe a decent economic run during the 1990s.

This is not to say that politics doesn't matter. The past eight years have certainly shown us that politicians, willing to lie, ignore the law, and place lockstep party support over all other principles, can overwhelm and render moot James Madison's brilliant constitutional design. Today, yet another White House alumnus brazenly defied a congressional subpoena, knowing that nothing bad would happen to him as a result. Yesterday, a craven Congress once again gave a power-mad administration still more power to intrude on the lives of innocent Americans and overturn decades of civil liberties. Politics retains the ability to visit enormous harm on people at home and abroad. Perhaps the best we can hope for in any election is to limit the damage that our ballots can wreak.

Sure, there have been some rare shining moments of progress. But even these exceptions prove the general futility of hoping for political solutions. It took the assassination of a president to move Congress, decades too late, to extend basic rights to its African American citizens. It took a complete economic meltdown to give Franklin Roosevelt the tools to trasform American society. And even then, much of his success depended on the onset of a cataclysmic world war.

The most pressing concern of the moment is health care. Our system doesn't work, is ridiculously expensive, makes American industry less competitive, and--worst of all--causes, both directly and indirectly, the untimely deaths of thousands of Americans. Yet, even Hillary Clinton's timid, inadequate work toward a solution in 1993 was shot down by a powerful industry and its political enablers who easily convinced an ignorant nation that they already had the best health care system in the world, even as families were being ruined by the sort of catastrophic illnesses that would never force Canadians or Britons into the poorhouse.

Anyway, all of this makes it a little depressing to blog about the 2008 presidential election. If we choose Door Number 1, we get four more years of dangerous and destructive foreign entanglements, four more years of tax cuts for the wealthy and trickle-down misery for everyone else, and, with the likely forthcoming changes at the Supreme Court, twenty years of backsliding toward unchecked police power and unshackled corporate dominance. If we choose Door Number 2, we get an untested rookie politician, obsessed with re-election from Day 1, who, when not triangulating on a Clintonesque scale, will find himself hamstrung by the take-no-prisoners tactics of a fanatical minority and the cowardly careerism of a majority that has already internalized an unwillingness to stand up to bullies. Oh, and there is no Door Number 3.

I'll choose Door Number 2, of course, but without a lot of enthusiasm.

In the meantime, forgive me if my blogging is sporadic and if I talk less about the election than I have previously.