Every four years it’s the same thing – a presidential election where Americans are told they have a real choice. Of course they do, even if on many matters both candidate agree – the United States is wonderful, motherhood sacred, apple pie is tasty and all the rest.
Ralph Nader, a third candidate over the years, got whatever votes he got by saying there wasn’t a whole lot of difference between the candidates the Democrats and Republicans ran, whatever the year. Both were in the pocket of big business and tools of the major corporations, so no matter what they said they would be more than happy to screw us all. They knew who financed their rise to power, after all.
Nader made his case, such as it is, but the last eight years of the Bush administration took the wind out of his sails – Bush was not like Gore, or like Kerry, even if they all three attended to the health of big business. This time we got something different. We got a preemptive war sold to us on false pretenses – or honest mistakes, depending on your point of view – and we officially endorsed what international law regards as torture, and we all got used to the idea that everyone could be wiretapped with no probable cause, no matter what the Constitution said, and we got used to the idea that the Justice Department and the military existed to further the aims of evangelical Christians and to insure permanent Republican majority rule. And we shrugged and accepted that, like Rome way back when, we were the imperial power tasked with ruling the world. It hardly made news that the Pentagon all along was studying how successful empires worked – looking back to the empires of Alexander the Great, Imperial Rome, Genghis Khan, and Napoleonic France. There’s a full discussion of that here – the guys at the Pentagon decided we should probably be like the Romans, pretty much, who did have a good run. The last eight years have been quite a trip.
But that’s not what we thought we were signing up for. Bush seemed like an amiable but somewhat dimwitted cut-up and Gore an insufferable prig. We made our choice. Only political junkies and policy wonks saw that a Bush administration would be packed with the zealots from Project of the New American Century and we’d be living through an eight-year-long episode of Pinky and the Brain:
Pinky: “Gee Brain, what do you want to do tonight?”
The Brain: “The same thing we do every night, Pinky – try to take over the world.”
Damn, you do think of Bush and Cheney when you see this. Life becomes a cartoon. And four years later, John Kerry, the decorated war-hero, became a sneaking coward and a cartoon Frenchman. And now we get our place in the world – we don’t want allies and we certainly don’t want people to like us, or even respect us. We want people to fear us. We all got in touch with our inner Dick Cheney – or felt that is what we were supposed to do.
So here we go again – another presidential election. Far fewer than half of Americans eligible to vote ever actually do that – the rest lie or say it doesn’t matter. We’ll have a new president, one way or another.
So the question becomes, for the few who actually vote, what we are being asked to sign up for – you don’t want to be fooled again. That means from August through early November each of the two candidates will be saying he is not like the other guy at all. Even if Ralph Nader persists in saying there not a tinker’s damn worth of difference between the two, we will be told there is. And we’ll be told in cartoon terms. That’s what they seem to think of our ability to think things through. Political junkies and policy wonks are such a small part of the subset of people who do get around to voting that they hardly matter.
So to see what’s happening it is useful to live out here in Hollywood and have what’s left of the once respectable Los Angeles Times land with a thump on your doorstep each morning. And on Saturday, August 9, the Times ran an item from Neal Gabler, the author of many books, including Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination and Life: The Movie – How Entertainment Conquered Reality (entertainment is now “the most pervasive, powerful and ineluctable force of our time”).
All campaigns are movies now, consisting of competing narratives with competing stars. Part of Obama’s appeal, as it was for the Kennedys, is that he has what all rising stars have. He has youth. He has good looks. He has charisma. He has an ability to spellbind. He has had a rapid ascent that makes him new and unfamiliar. He has, in this McLuhanesque age, unflappability that plays especially well on television. And as the biracial son of a single mother, he has a great personal story that provides a terrific vehicle for his role.
But, above all, Obama has something else that all great stars have – he embodies a theme. Every great star is a walking idea. James Cagney demonstrated the power of sheer energy early in his career, and the way that energy could curdle later in his career. Cary Grant demonstrated the force of charm and quick-wittedness. Paul Newman demonstrated the limitations of self-interest and the redemption that comes with engagement outside oneself. Robert Redford demonstrated the deception of appearances. Barbra Streisand, in the immortal words of critic Pauline Kael, demonstrated that talent was beauty. That is what made these individuals stars. They incorporated ideas that mattered to us, that resonated with us.
Obama is a star in this sense too. As he reiterates endlessly, Obama brings idealism at a time when many Americans are despairing of making any headway against the problems the nation faces. Drawing on his own personal story of disadvantage that led to Columbia University, Harvard Law School and now to the Democratic nomination, Obama in his every gesture and utterance suggests that “Yes We Can.” This idealism isn’t inspiring adulation because Obama is already a star. Obama is a star precisely because he is inspiring. He is the anti-Bush, and what he’s selling is hope.
Neal Gabler says this is potent:
Whether one buys into it or not, he promises to cross divides – political, ideological, racial, geographic – and to transcend the old politics of fear and hate that has commandeered recent elections. He believes that America can – and should – be the moral beacon for the world by returning to its core values. In analyzing his own appeal, Obama says he has become a symbol – which, again, is exactly what all stars are. He is providing a really good, uplifting movie.
And of course that’s what the McCain folks say is the problem. It’s just a movie, people. That’s not real life.
Neal Gabler suggests that may not be the best approach:
… this misses the point of what Obama has tapped into, as well as the point of movie stardom itself. Yes, politicians can declaim themes, and Obama is doing that. Yet Obama is not just declaiming his theme the way most politicians have. He has lived it, which is why it has been so effective.
Of course McCain is a hero in his own right, but that narrative is just too familiar – Gabler notes it’s just a war movie. And “his feat is that of having survived, which in a Hollywood film is not the same thing as having led the rescue.”
That means McCain is just not a star – just a secondary character, the guy who plays the upright and solid survivor, dutifully plodding along, sucking it up and doing what is necessary. And of course his campaign has now settled on emphasizing that. McCain is a superbly effective politician – there’s no glitz there, and you don’t want glitz anyway.
Gabler ends with this:
What this election may finally come down to is a choice between politics and movie stardom, between the safety of what we think we know and the expansiveness of what we dream, or, in more prosaic terms, between good old John Wayne and the less predictable but more exciting Will Smith.
That’s one way of looking at it, if you’re ignoring Ralph Nader and making differentiations.
That would explain the difference in the campaign ads – this from Obama – all inspiration and hope and not a word about McCain – and this from McCain that will cycle into the his campaign’s ongoing buy in eleven battleground states – “Life in the spotlight must be grand,” the spot says, “but for the rest of us, times are tough.” The ad says Obama once voted to raise taxes on people earning less the forty-two grand a year, which isn’t quite so.
The Obama folks respond:
This ad is a lie, and it is part of the old, tired politics of a party in Washington that has run out of ideas and run out of steam. Even though a host of independent, nonpartisan organizations have said this attack isn’t true, Senator McCain continues to lie about Senator Obama’s plan to give 95% of all families a tax cut of $1,000, and not raise taxes for those making under $250,000 a single dime. The reason so many families are hurting today is because we’ve had eight years of failed Bush policies that Senator McCain wants to continue for another four, and that’s what Barack Obama will change as President.
Yes, they called McCain a liar – for the first time. But what does lying have to do with cartoons?
In the New York Times, Paul Krugman ripped into all this in his August 8 column, Know-Nothing Politics:
So the GOP has found its issue for the 2008 election. For the next three months the party plans to keep chanting: “Drill here! Drill now! Drill here! Drill now! Four legs good, two legs bad!” Okay, I added that last part.
And the debate on energy policy has helped me find the words for something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Republicans, once hailed as the “party of ideas,” have become the party of stupid.
Now, I don’t mean that GOP politicians are, on average, any dumber than their Democratic counterparts. And I certainly don’t mean to question the often frightening smarts of Republican political operatives.
What I mean, instead, is that know-nothingism – the insistence that there are simple, brute-force, instant-gratification answers to every problem, and that there’s something effeminate and weak about anyone who suggests otherwise – has become the core of Republican policy and political strategy. The party’s de facto slogan has become: “Real men don’t think things through.”
Who thinks things through in a Roadrunner cartoon? The anvil falls on the coyote and he’s not hurt at all and tries again. It’s like that. You accept the absence of logic.
The Republicans don’t:
In the case of oil, this takes the form of pretending that more drilling would produce fast relief at the gas pump. In fact, earlier this week Republicans in Congress actually claimed credit for the recent fall in oil prices: “The market is responding to the fact that we are here talking,” said Representative John Shadegg.
What about the experts at the Department of Energy who say that it would take years before offshore drilling would yield any oil at all, and that even then the effect on prices at the pump would be “insignificant”? Presumably they’re just a bunch of wimps, probably Democrats. And the Democrats, as Representative Michele Bachmann assures us, “want Americans to move to the urban core, live in tenements, take light rail to their government jobs.”
Sure, it is stupid, but Krugman argues it may just work:
Remember how the Iraq war was sold. The stuff about aluminum tubes and mushroom clouds was just window dressing. The main political argument was, “They attacked us, and we’re going to strike back” – and anyone who tried to point out that Saddam and Osama weren’t the same person was an effete snob who hated America, and probably looked French.
Let’s also not forget that for years President Bush was the center of a cult of personality that lionized him as a real-world Forrest Gump, a simple man who prevails through his gut instincts and moral superiority. “Mr. Bush is the triumph of the seemingly average American man,” declared Peggy Noonan, writing in The Wall Street Journal in 2004. “He’s not an intellectual. Intellectuals start all the trouble in the world.”
That about sums it up – it’s another Hollywood movie, Forrest Gump, which might as well have been a cartoon. Thinking just gets you in trouble. The whole point of that movie – its charm, such as it was – was that the whole thing was wildly improbable, a wish-fulfillment fantasy for those who seethed with resentment of those dorks who got good grades in junior high and when on to college to finally get good jobs and all the goodies of life.
Krugman does note, regarding the Iraq war, this idea that not thinking was good was also shared by people who should have known better:
Bear in mind that members of the political and media elites were more pro-war than the public at large in the fall of 2002, even though the flimsiness of the case for invading Iraq should have been even more obvious to those paying close attention to the issue than it was to the average voter.
Why were the elite so hawkish? Well, I heard a number of people express privately the argument that some influential commentators made publicly – that the war was a good idea, not because Iraq posed a real threat, but because beating up someone in the Middle East, never mind who, would show Muslims that we mean business. In other words, even alleged wise men bought into the idea of macho posturing as policy.
Well, that’s a differentiation this time around. Obama is saying, quite directly, that macho posturing is crappy policy – it doesn’t work, and makes things worse. This is a break from the past eight years, and McCain seems big on macho posturing – wanting to bomb Iran and kick Russia out of the G-8 and all the rest.
Tom Tomorrow making the same point in visual form here – one of the best political cartoons of the last eight years.
But, as reported by Politico, you see where this is headed:
Even as Barack Obama takes eight days off from the campaign trail to vacation in Hawaii, where he lived for much of his youth, the Republican National Committee is again attempting to paint the Democrat as an out-of-touch elitist, this time in a mock “Barack Obama’s Hawaii Travel Guide” tweaking the Democrat for having attended an elite prep school there.
“Barack Obama’s Hawaii Travel Guide,” e-mailed to reporters on Friday, lists four “destinations,” among them the beach locals claim is the one where Obama was photographed in his swim trunks in a shot that ran in People magazine early last year, and “Punahou School, a coeducational college preparatory day school” that Obama attended “from 1971 to 1979. The school campus covers 76 acres at the edge of the Manoa Valley.”
He’s one of those prep school snots! No matter that, as Politico notes, Obama, raised by a single mother, entered that prestigious school at age ten on a scholarship.
But this is cute:
Obama’s elite schooling may prove a risky topic for McCain, who attended St. Stephen’s, an exclusive school in Alexandria, Va., and then Episcopal High, a private boarding school in the same city, in the 1950s. The son and grandson of Navy admirals, he ended up at the Naval Academy, where, as he often reminds voters, he finished near the bottom of his graduating class.
McCain can say that, yes, he did attend exclusive schools – but like Bush he was an awful student, there because of family ties, and learned nothing much at all. That’s a different thing. As Peggy Noonan said in the Wall Street Journal – “Intellectuals start all the trouble in the world.”
Does that idea still have traction? Bush may have discredited it – he caused enough trouble hating thinking things through. We shall see.
But we have the cartoonish characterizations flooding the airways to help us decide.
The odd thing is that sometimes you get actual reporting of the facts, not character notes in the margin of the storyboard. Now that Dow Jones is owned by Rupert Murdoch, you really would not expect their MarketWatch to carry something like this from Rex Nutting, Why McCain Would Be a Mediocre President.
What? But Nutting just notes what he sees as a lack of accomplishments:
Like the current occupant of the White House, McCain got his first career breaks from the connections and money of his family, not from hard work.
The son and grandson of Navy admirals, he attended Annapolis where he did poorly. Nevertheless, he was commissioned as a pilot, where he performed poorly, crashing three planes before he failed to evade a North Vietnamese missile that destroyed his plane. McCain spent more than five years in a prison camp.
After his release, McCain knew his weak military record meant he’d never make admiral, so he turned his sights to a career in politics. With the help of his new wife’s wealth, his new father-in-law’s business connections and some powerful friends had made as a lobbyist for the Navy, he was elected in 1982 to a Congress in a district that he didn’t reside in until the day the seat opened up. A few years later, he succeeded Barry Goldwater as a senator.
McCain hasn’t accomplished much in the Senate. Even his own campaign doesn’t trumpet his successes, probably because the few victories he’s had still rankle Republicans.
His campaign finance law failed to significantly reduce the role of money in politics. He failed to get a big tobacco bill through the Senate. He’s failed to change the way Congress spends money; his bill to give the president a line-item veto was declared unconstitutional, and the system of pork and earmarks continues unabated. He failed to reform the immigration system.
Every senator who runs for president misses votes back in Washington, so it’s no surprise that McCain and all the others who ran in the primaries have missed a lot of votes in the past year. But between the beginning of 2005 and mid-2007, no senator missed more roll-call votes than McCain did, except Tim Johnson, who was recovering from a near-fatal brain aneurysm.
So the cartoon says he’s a great leader. Then there’s real life.
And although most of us have moved on, McCain seems to have got himself stuck in the sixties:
McCain is still fighting the Vietnam War. But he’s not fighting the real historic war, which taught us the folly of injecting ourselves into a civil war that was none of our business. We learned that, in a world where even peasants have guns, explosives and radios, a determined and popular guerrilla force can defeat a modern army equipped with the mightiest technology if that army has no vital national interest to protect.
Instead, McCain is fighting an imaginary Vietnam War, where a sure victory could have been achieved with just a little more bombing, just a little more “pacification,” just a little more will to win at home. This fantasy clouds McCain’s judgment on foreign policy.
Most of the other high-profile politicians who fought in Vietnam – Colin Powell, Chuck Hegel, John Kerry, and Jim Webb – aren’t stuck in the past, and they don’t view the Iraq War as a chance to get Vietnam right.
Nutting concludes with this:
Successful presidents come from two molds: visionaries, or mechanics. The visionaries – think Reagan or FDR – see what others can’t and say “Why not?” to inspire the country. The mechanics – think LBJ or Eisenhower – know the ins and outs of government and are able to harness the power of millions of humans to accomplish great things, or at least keep the wheels from coming off.
McCain fits neither style. He’s neither a dreamer, nor a detail guy. His major accomplishment, in Vietnam and in the Senate, has been merely to survive.
Just surviving doesn’t make you’re a hero, or a decent president. America needs to do more than survive the next four years.
So Neal Gabler was onto something – he’s a bit player, the long-suffering guy who gets rescued.
But that’s not the cartoon we have been offered.