I’ve always considered myself something of a political animal, but I think this time I’ve wandered into the wrong zoo.
I admit that there’s a tendency, at my age, to find all kinds of unfavorable comparisons between life today and in my youth: the movies are not as exciting, the music is not as original, the tomatoes are not as tomato-ey — and the politicians I see today all seem to have come right out of the same factory somewhere on the outskirts of Shanghai.
About the movies and the music I could be mistaken — the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre has not aged well, and these days I keep my Emerson, Lake and Palmer albums to myself — but as regards tomatoes and politicians, I’m afraid my instincts may be right on the money.
Republican Dwight David Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander during the Second World War (and President in the year of my birth), was also the first major figure to warn Americans about the dangers of allowing a collusion of corporate and military interests to dominate the political process.
Lyndon Johnson was, by many accounts, a pretty reprehensible human being: he was racist, domineering, a manipulator in politics and a bully in his private life; he escalated the US involvement in Vietnam to its peak. He also brought about passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and pushed through the legislative initiatives that gave us programs such as Head Start, Medicare, and Medicaid. The apparent contradictions between who he was and the work that he did were enormous, but ultimately irrelevant to his political career.
George McGovern, called a coward by the public and the press for his anti-war stance in the 1972 presidential elections, served as a pilot during World War II, flying thirty-five missions into Nazi-occupied territory — winning, among other commendations, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with three oak-leaf clusters. His opponent, Richard Nixon — viewed as a champion of American military power by that same public — had been a conscientious objector during the war.
Edward Kennedy, a child of wealth and prestige who lived a life notable for its dissipation, extravagance, and self-indulgence, was the greatest champion the poor and the powerless had in Washington during the last decades of the twentieth century.
Dick Cheney, who promoted the use of the US military as the principal tool of foreign policy throughout his long career, never served in the military himself — in fact he rode out the entire Vietnam era on a succession of deferments (five in all) until he was finally too old for military duty.
If today’s tomatoes seem to taste more and more like last month’s phone bill, there’s a reason: ripe tomatoes are soft and squishy and don’t take well to being slammed around in boxes on the back of a truck, so they are usually picked green and allowed to ripen en route — in the dark, in a box. In addition, most shoppers buy produce according to how pretty it looks, so breeders have produced tomatoes that can take a lot of abuse without showing any marks. They’re basically stunt tomatoes: they fill in when the action is just too intense for the real thing.
These days, politicians seem to all be cut from a pretty bland cloth: even when they say or do outrageous things, they’re predictable about it. The cast list on cable news requires that we have a philanderer who espouses family values, and a black politician who decries the evils of Affirmative Action, and a Republican who used to be a Democrat, and a Democrat who used to be an “activist” of some kind — the list goes on. None of these characters, unfortunately, seems to be any more than just that: characters, people playing their assigned parts; almost embarrassed much of the time by the banality of the role and the dialogue they’ve been assigned. There’s none of the depth, none of the powerful inherent contradictions that ultimately serve to make us human.
I believe that Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are both basically nice guys. I think they both love their families, would rather be well-off than poor, and like spending time in the public eye. Is either of them the Darth Vader that his opponent paints? Not likely. Is either of them the Messiah that his supporters are hoping to sell? The way our political system is constructed, that would be impossible, even if we could believe it. Is either of them original in any way? Not so far as I can see. Barack Obama’s activism seems somehow dilute — he’s the Billy Dee Williams of the political arena. Mitt Romney’s money sits on him like a very comfortable but extremely unflattering hat; he can’t easily embrace his wealth, any more than he can leave home without it. They both have negatives, but nothing jaw-dropping; they both have positives, but nothing that makes you fly out of your chair choking with emotion every time they deliver a speech.
I hated Jesse Helms, back in the day, and because of that, I listened to every word he said. He was evil, he was dangerous: he was important. Mitch McConnell, by contrast, always appears a bit bewildered by it all — he seems angry, but also a little pitiful; I dislike him and feel sorry for him at the same time. Harry Reid is somebody you knew in your home town, but whose name you could never remember; John Boehner has a spray-on tan nicer than Snooki’s; Nancy Pelosi strikes me as someone who doesn’t tip well; if Newt Gingrich wasn’t bullied in high school, he should have been.
This sad state of affairs may well be a side effect of our rejection of the “professional politician” during the 1980’s. We’re sending coaches, ophthalmologists, football players, and accountants to write our laws and shape our future. I would not dream of calling a plumber to come over and take out my appendix; why do I want to send a comedian, a cattle rancher, and no fewer than two unsuccessful screenwriters to make the important decisions about my economic survival?
I’m going to say it: I miss the days of politicians who worked hard, played hard, and made headlines in the National Enquirer. We’re suffering from a kind of inverse global warming in Washington: every year our elected officials do a little less, and spend a little less time on the job, and the muddy water gets a little higher up on our boots.
When I go to the zoo, I want to see lions and zebras and really big snakes — I want to see something exceptional — and all I’m getting on this trip is cage after cage of well-groomed poodles.
(And tomatoes that just don’t taste like anything.)
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