Everyone has had the experience, even if few want to admit it. You’re with a group of fascinating people – say, at a party – and the lively talk amazes you. These people know so much, and speak with such authority – from actual experience – and you hang on every word. You learn things, you find yourself thinking in new ways – and that fellow really does run that company, and that woman is joking about something funny that happened to her backstage at La Scala, and the other fellow says, really, if you go to the Olympics in Beijing you actually can find Mexican food in that city (well, you can). And the talk of current events isn’t the usual clever variations on something Keith Olbermann or Rush Limbaugh said – they’re quoting scholars, and thoughtful books, and not pretending the thoughts are their own, but building logical arguments based on what they have seemingly carefully considered. Some talk of Iraq and Vietnam – the parallels – and then the elegant Frenchwoman in her fifties reluctantly describes what it was like to be a dazed teenager from a privileged family on the last Air France flight out of Saigon, the day Saigon fell, on her way to Thailand. Or there is talk of the arts – someone mentions their last gallery show, or yes, their daughter did sing back-up on that French pop mega-hit recorded down on Sunset. And there’s the travel talk, but not the usual try-and-top-this tales. Did that fellow say when he ran that press office for years in Moscow he really missed Cleveland and the Indians? Perhaps you misheard him.
You try to figure out if some of them, or all of them, are frauds – and if it’s all bullshit – but it doesn’t seems so. And they’re all impeccably dressed, with that graceful casualness you could never pull off, and too damned attractive. And then the language shifts – the long bits of French, the German, the Italian, and someone makes a joke in what you think is Russian, or Ukrainian – but you really don’t know. You smile politely.
You feel outclassed – a bit of a first day in the seventh grade at a new school thing – and know you should say nothing. Your opinions seem to you, now, second-hand and shallow – what you picked up here and there and now you may or may not actually believe. You obviously need to think some more. And all the jokes and quips in your usual arsenal… well, you know they would all fall flat. Oh sure, these people would be polite and smile, but they’d know. You’re empty.
The worst part is that they’re all nice to you, and want to draw you out. They really do want to know what you think – and they’re not kidding. You want to hide. You’re not one of those embarrassing people who try to bluster and bluff their way, demanding acceptance, getting louder and more and more defensive – or you don’t want to be. That’s so George Bush. You do have some self-awareness, after all. You start on that third scotch.
But they’re interested in you, and concerned for you, even if you suspect they know you are, in essence, as yet unformed. They do want to include you, somehow.
That’s always a problem, even in families – you know, you have that weird bachelor uncle everyone likes a lot but no one know what to do with at Christmas dinner. You try to find a place for the retired old coot.
All this comes to mind when, at the pro-Bush and very Republican National Review Online, you read this from Kathryn-Jean Lopez:
A totally crazy Saturday-morning thought: Wouldn’t George W. Bush make an awesome high-school government teacher? Wouldn’t it be something if his post-presidential life would up being that kind of post-service service? How’s that for a model? Who needs Harvard visiting chairs and high-end lectures? How about Crawford High? (Or wherever?) Reach out and touch the young before they are jaded, or break them of the cynicism pop culture and possibly their parents have passed down to them. Whatever you think of President Bush, he’s a likable guy in love with his country with some history and experience to share.
Those poor kids! That is one cringe-inducing thought, which Matthew Yglesias dismantles:
The best part will be when he explains to kids that the president does not, in fact, have an obligation to follow the law and can just order arbitrary detention and torture willy-nilly because, hey, we’re a nation at (undeclared, never-ending) war. “That’s right kids, if President Obama wants to have your testicles crushed no law and no treaty can stop him – that’s what the constitution says!” But of course if those kind of opinions are good enough for Berkeley Law School then why not high school civics?
By way of reference, John Yoo, now on the faculty of Berkeley Law School, did testify to congress that if the president thought it would be useful, he could order that a parent be forced watch his child’s testicles being crushed, right in front of his eyes, if it would get a reluctant detainee to reveal something we thought he might know about any danger to America – and it would be lawful, constitutional and the moral thing to do. If it turned out that the detainee really didn’t know anything, and was the wrong guy entirely, picked up by mistake – well, the decision would still be the right one. The president has the legal and moral right to order the kid’s testicle be crushed. You might not want to send your kid to Crawford High.
But what to do with this Bush fellow now is a question. For example, there’s the upcoming Republican convention in Minneapolis, and like the seating at the family dinner at Christmas, there’s a problem:
This year, of course, Mr. McCain is trying to escape from Mr. Bush’s shadow. Most Republicans say Mr. Bush should play whatever role Mr. McCain wants him to. Some, like Representative Dana Rohrabacher of California, simply wish Mr. Bush would keep out of it, though few would say so openly.
“I don’t think there are a lot of people who want to see him at the convention,” said Mr. Rohrabacher, who is especially irked with Mr. Bush for his stance on immigration. He said the president “should stay home from the Republican convention, and everybody would be better off.”
Out here Dana Rohrabacher is well known – he speaks his mind, such as it is (many of us find his views a bit primitive, veering toward Neanderthal). But he’s ticked off.
The same New York Times item, from Sheryl Gay Stolberg, offers historical contrast:
The last time Republicans dealt with the passing-of-the-torch question, in 1988, the circumstances were very different. President Ronald Reagan was surging in popularity, and the big fear was that he would overshadow the nominee, the first George Bush, at the convention in New Orleans. So their aides worked out a plan intended to let Mr. Reagan “give oomph to the Bush candidacy,” without stealing the show, said Kenneth W. Duberstein, Mr. Reagan’s chief of staff.
You can go to the link for details of how that was stage-managed, but things this year will be a bit more awkward:
In St. Paul, Mr. Bush will speak on the convention’s opening night, said Dana Perino, the White House press secretary – a tiny bit of news from an administration that typically keeps a close hold on the president’s schedule. The White House and the McCain campaign said the details were still being worked out. But one Republican close to Mr. McCain and Mr. Bush, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the president would give “an important speech” but that a joint appearance was “highly unlikely.”
You want to include the guy – it’s the right thing to do, the decent thing to do – but he’s the weird uncle now, the odd man out. Or it’s much like that party, where everyone is talking up a storm about important matters, and you’d like his thoughts – but you really wouldn’t. You sense what you’d get. When someone is empty, they’re empty.
The question for the Republicans is whether the new guy, McCain, is just as empty. He now and then mutters that everyone knows far too much about things these days, as you can see in this YouTube clip – a Town Hall Meeting in Merrimack, New Hampshire, from late last December:
JOHN MCCAIN: Now we’ve got the cables. We’ve got talk radio. We’ve got the bloggers. I hate the bloggers. We’ve got all kinds of sources of information.
That seems to bug the hell out of him, but aren’t we supposed to be informed citizens and all that sort of thing? And the blogs help, if only in a minor way.
There is some dispute about that, of course. See this interview where a blogger confronts Washington journalist Gwen Ifill:
Question: Many people believe the press failed to do its job in the run up to the Iraq war. Has Beltway reporting changed as a result?
Gwen Ifill: I am not sure what you mean by “Beltway reporting.” Do you mean the New York Times reporting that exposed the Justice Department’s wireless wiretapping? The Washington Post reporting that exposed the poor conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center? Or do you mean the reporting done by Pentagon reporters from the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan? I continue to maintain that, on balance, reporters tell us more than we would otherwise know, and that the breadth and importance of the stories we break, easily outnumber the ones we miss.
The blogger who flagged this, the widely-read Digby at Hullabaloo, argues back:
Uh, no. He’s asking about the embarrassing cheerleading for that cretinous moron George W. Bush and suppression of dissent that got us into that misbegotten hellhole of a war, you preening twit.
There are a few villagers who commonly spout more conventional wisdom with more arrogance and superiority than Ifill, but not many. That’s why she’s on everybody who’s anybody’s short list to run Meet the Press. She wouldn’t destroy it quite as dramatically as she’s destroyed Washington Week in Review, but that’s only because the show is already such a gossipy, insider, shallow circle jerk that she can’t do much more damage than Russert already did.
But Ifill isn’t unusual. In fact, she’s saying what they all think: because there are great reporters out there like Dana Priest and James Risen, there is no need to even question whether the other 99% of what passes for political journalism is even worth wrapping a dead fish in. Why should they? It’s clear that you can have an incredibly lucrative and successful career as a celebrity gasbag without ever having an original thought in your head. In fact, it’s a requirement.
That’s a bit bitter, and you can see why McCain hates bloggers – too much information, presented too boldly.
But even the AP sometimes – but not often – picks on McCain. See Liz Sidoti with this:
The GOP presidential candidate trails Democrat Barack Obama in polls, organization and money while trying to succeed a deeply unpopular fellow Republican in a year that favors Democrats. McCain also doesn’t seem to have a coherent message let alone much of a strategy despite securing the nomination three months earlier than Obama.
The rest of the analysis seems to describe the awkward guy at that party mentioned up top – the odd man out. It’s that emptiness:
“The frustration is there’s no big theme around which to build a winning campaign,” said Steve Lombardo, a Republican pollster. “They need a big strategic message that will show the differences between the two campaigns, and allow for a win.”
The key passage seems to be this:
When it comes to message and strategy, McCain has appeared to flounder.
He hasn’t settled on one theme and can’t seem to stick with a particular line of argument in favor of his candidacy for more than a couple days. His attempts to derail Obama are scattershot; the campaign simply takes advantages of openings Obama creates rather than creating a negative narrative against the Democrat. And, McCain’s fundraising events have driven his campaign schedule, often putting him in solid Republican states instead of swing states likely to decide the election.
So now he has a new campaign czar, that Schmidt fellow, a protégé of Karl Rove who ran the Bush 2004 campaign, and is only now hiring a national political director and a national field director, and considering adding hundreds more field staff and opening more local Republican offices. It’s a bit late. Ask Hillary Clinton what happens when you organize late – and you’re outspent two or three to one.
And McCain is already at that party – Bush is in the corner blustering while everyone tries to remain polite – and as much as McCain is a former fighter pilot in love with risk-taking and relishes coming from behind and surprising people, he may not get invited to another. It happens.