When the spectre arose
t’was not from a lie
but a truth that is told
when the jaw’s set awry.
The reap of what’s sown
is the natural way
and a fire so lit
may just go astray.
When the spectre arose
t’was not from a lie
but a truth that is told
when the jaw’s set awry.
The reap of what’s sown
is the natural way
and a fire so lit
may just go astray.
At the beginning of the presidential campaign, many pols and pundits in the know exuded a confident posture in the face of a large field of Republican candidates. They had a candidate with a resume that was tough to beat. Some said the man was modern history’s best prepared presidential candidate. His experience was relevant and varied, he came from a successful political family, and he appealed to a wide spectrum of primary and general election voters. He was a resume’ candidate. But as the race began, this candidate found his constituency usurped by someone with a gift of gab and a power to stir the apathetic into a political movement that he would captain. He was a personality candidate. Almost before the primary season was underway, the personality candidate seized the news cycle and kept it. The resume’ candidate lost early and often, and was incredulously out of the race soon thereafter.
These were the events of the first few months of 1980. The same story might now be written of the current campaign, and written without changing the surname of one of the candidates.
Prior to the 1980 New Hampsire primary, the flagging campaign of Ronald Reagan helped stage a candidates’ forum, from which Reagan and all candidates not named George H.W. Bush were later disinvited. Reagan showed up anyway, having assisted in funding the forum, and was greeted with knowing grins from the moderator and from Bush and his team. Bush was an insider’s favorite, a former congressman, CIA Director, Ambassador to China, and RNC Chairman. His father had been a well-respected moderate senator from Connecticut. His international business and political connections meant that the line of establishment support for his candidacy stretched around the globe. He was seated at the speakers table, seemingly lying in wait. Perhaps he knew what the moderators had in store. Reagan entered the event, pale and stark looking, all dark suit and slick hair on a New England winter evening. When he took the microphone to speak, the moderators asked him to stop. Bush did nothing. When Regan began speaking, the moderators asked that the candidate’s microphone be turned off. Bush did nothing. Other disinvited candidates gathered behind Reagan. Something changed in the room. Now, loudly and with fury, Reagan grabbed the mic, turned to the moderators and said “I am paying for this microphone!” The crowd cheered. Bush sank in his chair, but otherwise did… nothing. The race was effectively over shortly thereafter.
Reagan, the old movie actor, had stolen the scene, and with it any passion that voters had for Bush, and done it so quickly that the rest of the Bush campaign was spent wondering how it all happened.
Fast forward to 2016, and the parallels astound. Prior to the election season, Jeb Bush was the darling of the establishment and favorite to win the GOP nomination. Nice resume’. Donald Trump was best known as a wealthy businessman and reality TV star. Famous personality. Trump announced his candidacy the day after Jeb Bush did and immediately seized the news cycle with provocative comments. Jeb dismissed him entirely. Couple that with Trump’s immediate and unanswered onslaught of rhetoric meant to diminish Bush’s standing, popularity, and even manhood (he called him “low energy” and “weak” from the get go) and you can merge the images of Jeb and his father, George H.W., stooped shoulders and palms to heaven, without being able to tell the difference between them. Both Bushes made late attempts to argue policy, (Jeb was caught on video pleading with an audience to applaud his wonkish campaign speech), but were soon drowned out by popular chanting – remember: “U.S.A. – U.S.A.!” from the “Miracle on Ice” U.S. Olympic hockey team, a chant that was also heard at Regan rallies and is now a set piece at Trump events. Adding to the dissonance was popular sloganeering – Reagan: “America is Reagan Country”, and “America is a Shining City”. Trump: “Let’s make America Great Again”.
In the end, both Bushes found it impossible to heard on policy issues, and to defeat the soon accepted notions about the superiority of their opponents’ personalities – that these men, both outsiders to the establishment, were genuine American originals, destined to head movements away from established norms, away from established candidates. Get on board, folks, we’re the newest, biggest thing in politics.
It didn’t matter that both personality candidates lacked the tried and true pedigrees of GOP nominees and were themselves constructs of political opportunity. The Bushes lost the races in 1980 and 2016 before most of the country knew how the victors would govern. Jeb and his father were victims of their own passivity, conservative deportment, and of the changing times, though the Bushes, well liked as they both are and still stinging over being rebuked by their own in favor of outsiders, might call it separate instances of personality crime.
The current political campaign may seem to be overstaying its welcome, a Franklin fish past its three days, but we’ve a long way to go yet. Our four-year cycle uses up fully half that time in full-blown battle mode, and the rest of it in clandestine cajoling and fundraising among nascent super pacs. The long run to office is long bemoaned. Many have wishes to change the system to a more truncated, less expensive one, modeled on European elections. Campaigns over there are limited by the amounts and origins of money spent, and usually confined, as in the U.K., for instance, to publicly (and modestly) financed affairs of around six months in duration.
The removal of money as influence from politics, generally, has wide support and that is justly so. Even incremental changes in that direction would do wonders for American voters worried about the influence special interests might buy. Large contributions to politicians in need of cash to finance their candidacies leaves little room but for suspicion. The recent surges of the Trump and Sanders campaigns show how tolerance has lessened for candidates that are perceived as owing favors to corporate and institutional contributors. The disdain for this part of our system is decades old and shows no sign of ebbing.
The prospect of shorter campaigns, however, is one where voters’ attitudes might have evolved. This country is so big, so diverse and complex, and so wrought with responsibilities to its citizens and to the world, that candidates for its top offices are given second, third, and forth vetting by its voters. Through living room teas, and town hall meetings, through candidate forums and partisan debates, through caucuses and primaries, conventions, and nominee’s debates, countless questions are answered about the several men and women vying for a single office. This is, and needs to be, a particularly American sequence of events. The enormity of the American presidency means that the voters should be given every opportunity to get a long look at the candidates for that office.
The media age provides easy video access to even mundane political events. However, the voters’ ability to glean information about candidates is muted by the candidates’ knowledge of that ability. The modern, scripted candidate is built to withhold information, stay on message, defy the media accessibility that voters once thought would be a key to informed choices. Under the regime of the political handlers, more access often means less real information.
Because of the tension between the withholders of information and those who wish to be informed, the long run of American political campaigns has become a function unto itself. The extended period of exposure to media coverage and voter scrutiny is now the best tool the populace has against the tendency among the national campaigns to obfuscate or outright lie. Even without taking an investigative stance toward the candidates, a voter given time to think might change his or her mind, find a better fit, and do so before it is too late. To this end, it should be remembered that if elections were shorter affairs, Ed Muskie, John Connally, Rudi Guiliani, and Scott Walker might have reached the office they coveted. All of these candidates’ hopes faded as voters, over time, moved on to another. Without long campaigns, busy Americans might be forced to settle for their first suitors.
In 2008, Sarah Palin’s campaign staff wondered if their candidate was intellectually and emotionally prepared to be Vice President, and took great lengths to hide the truth of Palin’s limitations from the country. The long run of that campaign created space within which the truth could be searched for and exposed to public scrutiny. Without making judgments as to the fault for Palin’s limitations, it is clear that they predated her elevation, and that they were exposed simply because the voters had the time to see them.
So settle in, we haven’t even gotten to Super Tuesday yet…
– Danny Grosso
Simple messages, authentic instruments, genuine emotion… Sounds like the Ramones, right? When that group, and the Clash, and the Pistols, and the Damned stormed the world’s stages in the late seventies, they did so by giving audiences an experience that was raw, intense, and heartfelt. It seemed more real than whatever that thing was we were listening to yesterday. The aesthetic of what was acceptable changed immediately, and the engagement felt by listeners caused them to come out of their apathetic funk, wear words on their clothes, and follow a new sound into the relative unknown.
Now we have a political campaign that is banging out the same chords, with dual front men making it hard to remember what elections were like before this new branding of unvarnished personality became vogue. The sound of it carries an urgency and a sense of change, but it is not new. Lincoln’s folksy ways of communicating are said to have sounded like he’d “left the bark on” and plenty of people loved him for it. Countless politicians, even Reagan, have campaigned by promoting simplicity. What seems different now is that the leaders, from opposite parties and sometimes (but, importantly, not always) opposite policy stances, are meeting at the same time in this late-seventies new music aesthetic. It’s as if the world’s most acclaimed classical composer and the world’s most endearing folk singer decided, simultaneously but unknown to each other and on separate labels, to both record albums entitled Damn the Lovely History, Let’s Light the Pub Afire!
As the candidates move their campaigns to South Carolina, one might expect a militaristic tone among the endless professions of a better American future. South Carolina is a State wherein reside many active and former members of the military, and many bases and other installations call the Palmetto State home. Including war among talking points in this State is not only smart politics but also a tradition in the primary election system.
One might not expect, however, in an age of constant content, of disturbing video footage of carnage streaming in almost real time, that the desire for such carnage would be a primary fixture among the gathered contestants. The array on stage sometimes resembles the display of plumage among competing males in the wild, the calls louder and louder from one man to the next in an effort to exhibit attractiveness through perceived combat preparedness.
The talk of bombing until the sands glow, of shooting down the planes of our allies, and of unfettered tourture regimes, begs the question as to whether the candidates are considerate of the full effects of war. Aside from the fact that “carpet bombing” is an illegal activity under international law, the mere invocation of it and other atrocites as virtues is inappropriate even in a campaign setting. Winning a war brings collateral damage and an inevitable portion of some suffering. Conducting such operations by air, land, and sea are difficult enough and wrought with all kinds of moral anguish. If one leaves the argument there, one has enough opportunity for innocent victims and unintended consequences to last a lifetime – just ask those who without malice targeted a hospital in Yemen by mistake in 2015. To take the drumbeat further than this point, the point of actual combat ops gone awry, to intentional indiscriminate carnage, beckons the words of Mark Twain.
In Twain’s classic work “The War Prayer“, he writes of a gaunt man who rises from the back of a church to rebut a pastor’s prayer for victory in war. The man reminds the congregation that if one prays for rain to revive one’s crops, one might also be praying for the destruction of another’s crops that need no rain. He then drops the metaphors and tells the assembled that praying for victory means praying for many unmentionable results which must follow victory, such as turning soldiers to bloody shreds, and causing children to “wander unfriended through the wastes of their desolated land”, where they will “stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet.”
As heartening as it may sound to hear the candidates’ reverence for the defense of our way of life, it is also in the national interest to question the outcomes of policies that are bourne of hubris alone, policies that are, as my honorable friend and collegue Mark Fishbein likes to say, “All hat, no cattle. ” Twain knew this back in the beginning of the twentieth century, but he also knew how difficult such a stance can be in the milieu of a populace hungry for victory, battle, or even simple revenge. To that end, Twain left instructions that The War Prayer not be published until after he was dead, saying that “only dead men can tell the truth in this world”.
One hopes that in our modern age, where information from around the globe can be gathered in an instant, truth telling about the real effects of war policies is not left to solitary men biding their time in the backs of churches.
*from the right
by Mark Fishbein – Honorable Friend
The Democratic presidential candidates recently fielded debate questions from former Democratic operative Chuck Todd and honest progressive Rachel Maddow, who literally greeted them with hugs. The questions were on themes central to the Democratic primary. This weekend the Republican candidates also debated. As usual, they too took questions from the Democrat perspective.
ABC World News Tonight Anchor David Muir started the party. “Dr. Carson, last fall my friends and I reduced you to single digit rubble by vilifying your personal rise from poverty to brilliant neurosurgeon. But never mind that. Please share with America the tragic ways in which these horrible people up on stage are now trying to destroy you and your campaign.”
Next up was co-moderator Martha Raddatz, whose supply of air sickness bags was tucked conveniently beneath her desk. Yet she gathered her poise. “Senator Cruz, I hate you. Please give the American public one good reason why they should not hate you?” The senator began tapping his podium, “Well, Martha …” [Ringing bell]. “I’m sorry Senator, your time is up. Please stop speaking, forever.”
For a few moments, substance was allowed to prevail with questioning by Mary Katherine Ham. In her, viewers were touched by a true profile of courage juxtaposed with pop culture lectures about heroes defined in the grocery store line by images of a decathlete turned reality-tv fascination.
In the end, GOP voters pondered again why Reince Priebus is not an unemployment statistic.
As primary season now heats up things are getting rather nasty inside each family, but unification tends to find its way as distant as it now seems. Let us begin.
Senator Paul, your coherence and consistency will be missed. Your criticisms were sharp but substantive and there was no greater champion of individual liberties. You soberly assessed our economic predicament and interventionist overreach. You never sacrificed moral clarity in support of our allies or standing firm against enemies, despite accusations against you to the contrary. But in a time of ISIS and a nuclear Iran, it may not be your moment. The same may be true for Dr. Carson, whose kindness, brilliance and morality is exemplary.
Governors Bush and Christie have been solid conservative executives. News cycles may be short but voters’ memories aren’t. Both of you engaged in nakedly ambitious acts of love showered on liberals and their policies, going much further than you needed to. No romantic stroll with Obama was necessary on the Jersey Shore just before the 2012 election. Nor was a year-long premature triangulation where Jeb trashed conservatives to anyone who would listen just to have PBS call you the “adult in the room”. As for once relevant nice guy Gov. Kasich, he’s so far gone as to have fully metastasized Huntsman Disease. You reap what you sow. There’s a price that comes with chasing the approval of people who will never vote Republican and by bad mouthing the people who do.
Senator Rubio. Personable, bright, and once seeming to possess real vision. But the influx of consultants and donors has obscured it to such a degree that it’s no longer discernable and not even clear you know what you believe or should say from day to day, or minute to minute. So much promise and potential but you don’t seem ripe yet.
For decades, a 90% Democrat media has dictated the rules of conversation. Then came Trump. The media is not fond of you but lusts for your ratings bonanza. So now you alone decide the narrative. Game change. It’s vulgar yet so gloriously democratic and capitalistic. The Donald is equally charming and off-putting, but victory depends on the former. At least 65% of your own party is not with you. You’ll rabidly spurn Fox today and cozy up to CNN. But come summer, the Clinton News Network will likely give you the cold shoulder. You and your supporters will want and need the backers and viewers of Fox, Megyn, Cruz, Carly, Carson, Jeb, etc.. You know, the ones now being treated like mortal enemies. So start making nice or get ready to start groveling to Macys and Univision anew.
Senator Cruz, your understanding of government, history, and geopolitics is unmatched. You are the undisputed champion of limited government and social conservatism. You’re more pragmatic and shrewd than most realize. “Conservatism can’t win” is a myth perpetuated by those who fear its success. The GOP only tried it twice since Goldwater and won. It’s the “electable” moderates who habitually lose. Your true weakness is that nobody will mistake your self-aggrandizing sanctimony for Reagan’s warmth. Your good fortune, however, is that Hillary Clinton might be the only person on earth who can make you seem cuddly.
On to New Hampshire.
The network cut away from the debate broadcast just after an enticing view of the candidates approaching one another in seemingly casual conversation. As the lights dimmed for a commercial break, the candidates were left to speak without moderators, and the sounds of armor shedding preceded an exchange:
Donald: Jeb! How’s your mom?
Jeb: Very well, thanks big guy!
Donald: Please give her my best…
Jeb: You know, we’re all getting together up north this weekend, we don’t you ‘copter on up?
Donald: Better take a rain check until after Super Tuesday. Gotta keep up appearances you know…
Marco: (out loud to himself) There’s no one here to check my aggressive foreign policy anymore.
Jeb: (turning his back to Marco) Hello Governor John!
John: Hey fellas! I betcha I could even balance Bernie’s budget! (laughter all around, except…)
Ben: I need a vacation.
Marco: (out loud but not to himself this time) There’s no one here to check my aggressive foreign policy anymore.
Donald: Guys, are we missing somebody here?
Marco: Yes, there’s no one here to check my aggressive foreign policy anymore.
Chris: Oh boy Marco, you know I’m gonna have to hit you on that one.
Marco: That’s ok.
Marco: That’s ok.
Marco: (after a pause) That’s ok.
Moderator 1: Places everybody!
Donald: (intimately, to Jeb) You’re strong tonight, my friend, high energy. Drinks tonight? My treat.
Jeb: Ok, but don’t tell Marco. We’re not done with his initiation yet.
Donald: Fine. I’ll just send tweets to all the others.
Moderator 1: We’re on in three…two…
The relatively mild winter in New Hampshire has welcomed the mobs of press and campaign staffers ahead of next week’s first-in-the-nation (trademark pending, if the locals have their way) primary. The cause of the polite weather has been wryly attributed to the extra warmth generated by the crowds of transient pols and press, but the true cause of all this heat may be the anger bubbling up from the several campaigns and the fervor manifesting in followers of the front runners.
As of this writing, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are way ahead of their rivals in New Hamphire polling. This, in itself, is remarkable. Sanders is an Independent, and Trump has never run for elective office. However, like the mild weather, these two campaigners have defied expectations and, like a prolonged Santa Ana wind, are blowing lots of hot air into the campaign season. This is not a snark or a metaphor for ridicule – the cold, stiff manner of politicians and political gridlock needed changing, loosening, warming…and therein lies the recipe for what’s happening.
People have been clamoring for a genuine and unababashed personality to vie for their interest. Now each party has produced one. In some ways this is no surprise. The parties, particularly the GOP, have been lambasting the elected political class for decades. It is unlikely that this constant drumbeat would have produced anything other than disdain for established politicians. However, this year the effect is furthered by the important factor of the candidates’ personalities. Both are unafraid to offend expectations of what a politician should advocate for (social medicine, anyone? How about mass deportations?) and both could get along just fine with their lives without becoming president. The embrace of anger by the leading campaigns is the other important factor in this electoral mix. Anyone outside of a bubble knows that apathy toward political stagnation turned at some point to anger and caused people to become, unexpectedly, engaged in the process again. Obama hopers, and Tea Partiers are recent examples of this, and increased voter turnouts, though modest, are extremely important in an era of close elections.
People all over are acting on their anger with the status quo, and aware politicians are giving ’em what they want – the feeling that they are being heard, that their existence in the system matters, and that their anger can be put to good use. Of course, the savvier politicians are then gathering these people into their respective folds.
The genesis question may remain regarding this phenomenon – whether the anger brought about the politician or the politician brought about the anger, but it is largely moot now, or will be by this Tuesday night. When the votes come in from Dixville Notch, and Nashua, and Manchester, two politicians who rose from outside of their just recently chosen political parties will have ridden a wave of fed up voters into prominence and changed the way we forcast the political weather for the foreseeable future.
By Mark Fishbein – Honorable Friend
Oh if the customers like it then they’ll keep on paying
If they keep on drinking then they’ll end up staying…
Like a finger running down a seam
From a whisper to a scream
Elvis Costello, “From a Whisper to a Scream”
In the mid-1990’s, my buddies and I joked about “road rage” as a novelty term when it first entered the popular lexicon. Today it is an epidemic and not really a laughing matter. People gun each other down over slights and perceived slights. Manners and common courtesy come off as pleasant surprises instead of cultural expectations. A person with whom one disagrees is more likely to be de-friended on Facebook and socially ostracized than engaged in heartfelt discussion without deep personal animosity. This is an unflattering picture of our societal evolution, if it can be called that.
In the inseparable world of politics and media, information no longer filters through a few major networks and newspapers. The public wins big by having access to additional information and differing viewpoints it otherwise would not have. But in a free market, multiple cable news and opinion channels and dozens of print and Internet news and opinion sites must constantly battle for survival. If it sounds a bit like a reality show, in some ways it is. Sensationalism, one-upsmanship, trickery, and spotlight grabbing, however unseemly, is crucial to the formula for success. As much as we might say we don’t like the noise, we prefer kindness and manners, we wax nostalgic about a more genteel time… Do those programs survive? Do those papers sell? Do those people advance?
Do those candidates get noticed?
Our culture has coarsened in competition for attention. The Western virtue of reason is at times drowned out by natural human instincts of passion and emotion. All have a role to play, but hopefully we strike the right balance.
The artwork above graphically fuses Messers Sanders and Trump. Both know how to make noise and rattle the cage to be heard. They make it look easy, but it isn’t. Ask the nearly 20 other candidates who began this primary season screaming from mountain tops yet barely spitting into the wind. It’s not for lack of intellect, message, or substance. Some of these folks have been at it a very long time, probably speechifying since heading up their elementary school student councils.
We live in an age where loud is proud. Too often quiet confidence is deemed as no confidence. TR once said speak softly and carry a big stick. Now too many talk and talk in the hope that in the next news cycle nobody remembers what was said. I’m from 5 generations of Chicagoans but Texas educated. There they believe in action. “All hat, no cattle”, describes the empty talkers. But noise is playing well in 2016. I’m curious to see how Mr. Trump does down at the border in the Great Republic of Texas.
Have we become all about the scream? Or can a whispered message still be heard? Continue reading