February 2008

Fun With Elections

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

My first presidential election was 1972, when I voted for George McGovern. In that election and the next one, in which I campaigned for Congressman Morris Udall, I felt there were lots of choices; the world seemed to be full of people who could be President, and you simply had to choose among them. Later, in the 90's and whatever this present decade is called (the zeroes?) I began to believe that only two types of people ran for President: the stupid but sane (George Bush, Sr., Dan Quayle) and the stupid but crazy (George W. Bush). The presidency became a job only lightweight people wanted. I was not the only one to comment that there didn't seem to be any more Jeffersons or Madisons--at least none who would brave the electoral process.

This election is a welcome relief from that trend. For the first time, the field seems to be full of people who seem sane and presidential: people who are actually smart enough to lead the country. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards (who just dropped out but who would make a great VP, with an eye to 2016), John McCain and possibly even Mitt Romney (who I don't know enough about yet) all seem really smart and, well, not crazy.

I actually feel like there is nothing to lose. Although I'd rather have a Democratic President, a moderate Republican will do in a pinch. I will go to the New York primary polls on Tuesday the 5th with a glowing sensation that however it comes out, I don't need to be terrified. Unlike the last two elections.

Here are some fairly random thoughts inspired by the candidates and their campaigns.

Rudy, Don't Let the Door Hit You

I have rarely hated a politician as much as Rudy Giuliani. As Ed Koch observed in a book of that name, Giuliani is a very mean man. He is vindictive and obsessed with his enemies, much like Richard Nixon, who heads the pantheon just joined by Bush of the 20th century's worst, most dangerous Presidents. To list just a couple of my pet concerns about him (I could go on for hours), Giuiliani justified police killings of unarmed black men, instigated a police riot in his first mayoral campaign, defunded nonprofits which opposed any of his initiatives or policies, and tried to kill the Brooklyn Museum when it showed art he didn't like. He also, against police department advice, put the city's emergency coordination center above-ground at 7 World Trade Center, with an external fuel tank attached. Despite an unearned reputation for rectitude, he hired, promoted and protected the corrupt and unqualified. He abused callers to his weekly radio show, and even (as the Times reported last week) sent police to the door of one to take him away in handcuffs. He violated confidentiality by releasing the juvenile criminal record of one man killed by the police, and of the caller described in the previous sentence.

Giuliani floated the idea of a charter amendment to suspend term limits and keep him in office after September 11th. He would have been the kind of President who one has reason to fear will attempt a coup, like Nixon. (As we now know, Nixon's own secretary of defense ordered the military not to obey a direct order from the President, unless they checked with him first.) Giuliani, who had no respect for persons, privacy, the First Amendment, the law, term limits, black people, or anything else, is not a man I would want to see controlling our nuclear arsenal. The last thing we need is an arrogant, angry President.

Fittingly, Rudy's own arrogance brought him down. He avoided people with national campaign experience, surrounded himself with cronies, didn't bother campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire, and spent more money on direct mail than organization-building. More significantly, I think Americans in general are smart enough, and inured to spin, that they understood who he really was. Even the cops and firefighters didn't like him any more, because he didn't protect them from the environment at Ground Zero.

I devoutly hope this is Rudy's last dance, and that he now fades away into permanent retirement--eventually to be one of those people you are always surprised to find out is still alive, like Henry Kissinger.

A sidelight to Rudy's backflip is the strenuous campaign of the New York Times to make sure he tanked. Journalistic impartiality is a crock, not because newspapers never try for it, but because humans are neurologically incapable of impartiality. Every statement of fact is simultaneously a statement of opinion. But the accumulation of aggressive headlines in the Times about Rudy's faults and problems was highly entertaining, even amusing; there was one every day. Here are a few:

"In Matters Big and Small, Crossing Giuliani Had Price; Even at Home, Backers Worry About Giuliani; Bronx Jeers for Giuliani, Now Rooting for the Red Sox; Less of a Draw, a Subdued Giuliani Stays Upbeat; Giuliani Will Return Diminished, but Not Finished, Associates Say; For Giuliani, a Dizzying Free-Fall;" and my favorite, "Citing Statistics, Giuliani Misses Time and Again". Each of these articles was substantial, and based on hard fact, but the cumulative effect across all these headlines was of the ex-mayor being pecked to death by a duck.

I enjoyed every minute.

Tears, Gender and Leadership

When I first heard that Hillary cried, or more properly, "teared up" or sounded emotional, my first reaction was: She is finished. I remembered how Edmund Muskie sank himself in 1972 by generating a few tears of frustration in front of journalists.

I was wrong. Hillary seems a lot more in control of herself than her husband, and I have a strong suspicion that the incident was really a planned moment, to show the candidate has that human element that she is often accused of lacking. Since she is arguably the smartest, most careful person in the race, I am glad she is still around. However, the whole issue of whether a Presidential hopeful should cry remains a lively one. It is really the issue of whether we want a crying President. It begins as a gender-related question, raising issues of sexism and misogyny. But the further you look into it, the more it transcends gender.

Edmund Muskie was a man, and hastened his own exit from the race due to what was perceived as unmanly behavior. We are not really applying a double standard, which would only be the case if men in politics were permitted to cry and women weren't.

You could I suppose argue that politics is a testerone-infused environment in which tears should be acceptable, and that it is sexist to regard as weak emotion in men or women politicians.

The more I think about it, however, the more it seems to me that I really don't want a crying President, male or female. In his last novel, I Am Charlotte Simmonds, Tom Wolfe has an amusing passage about one character's theory that tears are a tool the weak use to obtain protection. Of course, Wolfe himself is a dinosaur, and might be accused of being at least old fashioned, if not actually testerone-poisoned.

The irreducible minimum statement I can make about tears (speaking as a man who has cried in his life, with frustration, self pity and several times with grief) is that they are something we do instead of taking action. Regardless of gender, when the secretary of defense runs into the room shouting that the latest intelligence indicates that a terrorist with a dirty bomb is about to detonate it in New York City, I really don't want the President to sit down and weep instead of acting. Its impossible to forgive George Bush for reading a children's book for twenty minutes after being informed of the September 11 attacks. Would it have been better if he spent that time weeping uncontrollably?


If I ran the universe, I wouldn't have wanted the Democrats to field the first mainstream female and black candidates in this election. The country is staggering politically as a result of the catastrophic Iraq invasion, and starting to falter economically as a result of the housing bubble. The Democrats have a historic tendency to blow off their own feet with a cannon, to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. After eight years in a painful exile, no disrespect to anybody, but I would have been happy with a Gore comeback, or an Edwards candidacy.

The real question is whether enough people in the heartland can vote for a woman, or a black man, for the Democrats to win this time.

On the other hand, a woman and a black man will someday lead this country; its just a question of whether it happens in 2009 aor in 2300. Declining to vote for a qualified candidate, because you are afraid other people won't, creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Kantian imperative states we should act as we would want everyone else to. Therefore, we should vote for Hillary or Barack in order to set the tone.

Other countries, including Britain, India and Israel, are decades ahead of the U.S. in electing female leaders. And these are not necessarily countries where sexism doesn't exist. Women such as Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, and Margaret Thatcher get elected when they manipulate the system (I don't mean this in any pejorative sense) as effectively as the men, and make themselves inevitable. I hope this will be that year for either Hillary or Barack.

The Show

For years, the meta-pundits (those who watch and critique the pundits) have complained that election coverage is all about process, appearance and spin, and never about substance. This is true. We can rarely remember significant ways in which the candidates differ from one another, but we can always remember who stuttered or cried, who got angry or sounded crazy, as opposed to who did the best imitation of a President. A major reason why we are so comfortable electing entertainers such as Ronald Reagan or Arnold Schwarzenegger to high office is because they are better than most people at the performance element of politics, which has become so important.

I tried to watch the last debate (I kept dozing off) and there is remarkably little real difference between Barack and Hillary's views. We are also highly acclimatized to the idea that nothing a politician says matters, because it is not binding in any sense and will be ignored or contradicted in her very next speech.

It is interesting that there was more real difference on the Republican side, between the pragmatist-moderates and the born-again element. McCain has been vilified for years because he is not Christian enough, not anti-gay enough, not anti-tax enough. It particularly fascinates me that, with the latest results in Florida, the Republican electorate has definitively said that after eight years of Bush, a pragmatist but not a moderate, they are ready for both.

Who I Will Vote For

I will probably vote for Barack. Hillary is very smart and decisive, but there is a slight whiff of dishonesty that comes off her: in the Arkansas days, she seems to have shared Bill's easygoing ethics, not in sexual matters but in financial. I am most bothered by the incident in which she allowed a supporter to open a commodities account for her with his own money, trade it up over a hundred thousand dollars, and give her the proceeds. It looks too much like a bribe. Barack is possibly squeaky clean in large part because he is so new to the system, which eventually drags everybody down. He has already seen at least one contributor get indicated, and I remember a mini-scandal about how blind an investment account really was. Its a very close race right now. I will decide by Tuesday morning the 5th. And if ultimately I have to live with a McCain presidency, I can do that.