Friday, September 26, 2008

Interesting Time

The Chinese curse about living in interesting times is indeed pretty apropos right now. With the largest financial institutions crumbling around our ears, we have the sight of one presidential candidate heading to Washington to attempt to alleviate the crisis--or so he says--and another reluctantly trailing along. The first debate between John McCain and Barack Obama is scheduled for tonight, but John McCain may not show up if a bailout agreement has not been reached. And at this writing, early Friday AM, conservative Republicans are fighting the government's 700 billion dollar package as "socialism."
Well....there are few parallels for this in American electoral history. One things of Herbert Hoover and his horrendous presidential campaign in 1932, as the Great Depression sunk deeply in, when crowds followed him shouting "We want bread!" But Hoover was the incumbent. John McCain has unilaterally "suspended campaigning"--of course, he is politicking vigorously--and the last time that happened during a presidential contest was after Teddy Roosevelt was shot in 1912.
McCain's stance at this point only highlights what a wild card he is--this is a huge gamble on his part, as was his choice of Sarah Palin (whose dreadful interview with Katie Couric is making the rounds of the Internet). Unless he can show he is actually helping the country make progress in this crisis, his involvement here will be seen as grandstanding. Barack Obama, for his part, seems to be attempting to take the calmer, higher road, but once again, he risks appearing uninvolved or unengaged.
Tomorrow I will provide omments on the Ole Miss debate, if it happens. It is certainly one I think no political junkie will want to miss. The topic is supposed to be foreign affairs, but the economy--more and more seeming like a foreign affair--will certainly come to the fore.
In the meantime, I am doing quite a bit of traveling this month, talking at colleges on Anything for a Vote and elections present and past. Below is a list of my appearances. They are open to the public, so if you live near a school in question, check their website for details and come on by.

Wittenburg University, Ohio- Sept. 29
Northern Kentucky KT– Sept 30
Middlesex and UMASS/Boston - October 6th...
University of Idaho-October 8
Auburn University/Montgomery – October 10th
University of Wyoming-October 15
Columbus State Community College (OH) - October 16th
Virginia Tech- October 20
Hofstra University – October 23rd

Monday, September 15, 2008

David Foster Wallace

I want to take a moment from campaign goings-on to comment on the tragically early death of the writer David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide on Friday on California, at the age of 46. Foster was a brilliant writer whose novels ("Infinite Jest" and "The Broom of the System") and collections of short stories and reportage were manic, multi-layered looks at contemporary society. Wallace was apparently deeply depressed. To show how politics never quite leaves us this election year, several commentators on Michiko Kakutani's appraisal of Wallace on the NY Times website claimed, not at all facetiously, that it was probably Sarah Palin's choice as vice-president which put Wallace over the edge. Poor taste, but somewhat understandable, since this was a writer who understood the bleak absurdity to be found in America's ability to turn anything into a brand, even a vice-presidential candidate.
Way back in 1989, as a copywriter at the Quality Paperback Book Club, I met Wallace when he was awarded QPB's "New Voices" Award for his story collection "The Girl With Curious Hair." He was so shy about receiving the $5,000 check that the editorial director had to present it to him in private. He did come to the luncheon. He was a rumple-haired young man with his arm in a sling from some mishap, and very reticent, but with a disarmingly sweet smile. In those days we had a lot of writers coming through for lunches at the book club, and many of them, from days of being on tour and answering interview questions, had become rather slick. But Foster seemed overwhelmed even by the attention paid to him by our little group of book club employees, so I can see how later acclaim may have been hard for him to handle. It's hard to hear of his death, however, because it's rare when you get such talent combined with such genuine humility.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Obama, Adlai and Reality

One of Barack Obama's worst tendencies, if you're a Democrat in this election season, is to turn into Adlai Stevenson, the two-time failed Democrat candidate for president in the 1950s. Stevenson, Illinois governor, was brilliant, cool, subtly ironic, wonkish, and cared deeply--and he got his ass handed to him on a platter twice by Dwight Eisenhower, the man of whom Claire Booth Luce gushingly said: "General Eisenhower exemplifies what the fair sex looks for in a man—a combination of husband, father and son!”
Not that John McCain is any Dwight Eisenhower, but when you put the two current candidates up next to each other, some of Obama's weaknesses as a campaigner, especially his inability to shout really loud, make themselves evident. The shouting factor has become even more important since McCain has chosen Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, whom many people love because she and her family remind them of characters on one of the long-running reality shows so popular today. They're all so easy to tag: The Special Needs Child, the Soldier, the Pregnant Teen (and Hunky Boyfriend), the Snowmobiler Husband, and, of course, the Pit Bull With Lipstick. Whereas Obama and Michelle's reality show would appear on PBS, early Sunday mornings....
Democrats can take heart, though. Obama sees the need to step it up a bit and yesterday wonderfully said that "you can put lipstick on a pig but it's still a pig." He said he was referring to John McCain, but we all know better and, up to this writing, he has refused to apologize.
A Dutch friend of mine who lives in this country and follows American politics closely asked me somewhat plaintively at the close of the Republican convention if all American presidential contests included such personal attacks and name-calling as we had just seen. Didn't candidates just talk about the issues? I was astonished, as if he had asked me whether fish need to swim in water. How do I respond? Since almost the very beginning--let's say since 1800--name-calling has been the premiere way to address the issues. It has always been personalities as a way into politics, in our reality show challenged Republic. Once we get a tag for everyone--from that "tall, skinny wretch" Abraham Lincoln to the "Bull Moose" Teddy Roosevelt to "Tricky Dick" Nixon, we start listening.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Ah, Vice-Presidential picks

...don't you love 'em? They really do so little--Sarah Palin was right to wonder last July just what the heck the office is all about--yet in campaigns they cause so much trouble. Even John Adams, our first vice-president, spent much of his time grumbling that he got no respect. And our second vice-president, Thomas Jefferson, spent most of his time undermining President John Adams.
Democrats should take care not to crow too much over Palin's family troubles, since backlash is a wonderful thing in America. But one cannot help but be reminded of George H.W. Bush's veep pick in 1988, Dan Quayle. Building on fears that vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle was not qualified to be president, the Democrats ran an ad with grainy footage of vice-presidents like Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson being sworn in as president. The overvoice intoned: “One out of five American vice-presidents has to rise to the duties of commander-in-chief. After five months of reflection, Bush’s choice: J. Danforth Quayle. Hopefully, we’ll never know how great a lapse of judgment that really was.” The soundtrack was an ominously thumping heartbeat.
Quayle's worst damage however was in Bush's 1992 contest against Bill Clinton. Searching for an issue, he picked the lack of “family values” in entertainment. The music of rapper Tupac Shakur, for instance, had “no place in our society,” according to Quayle. Shakur was a relatively easy target, but then the V-P made the mistake of going after the phenomenally popular television show Murphy Brown. In the show, Brown (played by actress Candace Bergen) was an anchorwoman who had decided to give birth to a child out of wedlock. Quayle thundered that bearing a child alone “mocks the importance of fathers” and was an example of the “poverty of values” that afflicted television.
This was not a smart move, since even Republicans loved to watch Murphy Brown and because Quayle, weirdly, was acting like this sitcom character was actually a real person. White House staffers now decided that Quayle should actually change his tune and praise Murphy Brown for her courage in having the baby (rather than, say, an abortion). Bush saved Quayle from this humiliation, and the whole situation died when, in early June, the Vice-President visited a New Jersey elementary school and corrected student William Figueroa’s spelling of “potato,” claiming it was “potatoe.”
One of my favorite vice-presidential stories seems to sum it all up. President William Howard Taft’s running mate in 1912 was his vice-president, James Sherman, who however died on October 30, just before Election Day. Columbia University president Nicholas Murray Butler agreed to replace him—but only, as he told Taft, on the condition that Taft not win. Taft solemnly assured him that he would not, and indeed he lost handily to Woodrow Wilson.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Welcome to Whackyville

Well, who said there wouldn't be any surprises in store for us, this convention season? (I guess me, below). Certainly John McCain's pick of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for veep is just what the (witch) doctor ordered to perk up this unusually dull presidential race. Although Hurricane Gustav heading, with just the right touch of apocaplyse, up the Gulf Coast as I write this, has also stirred things up. (Looks like the worst has missed New Orleans, but it is truly amusing to watch Republicans scramble to look appropriately solemn as they "curtail" their convention activities and also breathe a sigh of relief that Bush and Cheney have now found other things to do.)
But back to Palin. Since Friday people have been asking me if this was an inspired or dumb choice and the answer actually is both. She will energize that conservative base and possibly bring in some voters who just want to see a little sorely needed pizazz in McCain's operations, a little juice and life. She will re-establish, to some extent, his maverick credentials. But if this turns out to be a close race, which I think it will be, she has got to have a lot of people thinking, Christ, this inexperienced person is far too close to the presidency.
Palin, of course, has given joy to liberal pundits. Maureen Dowd has written her usual snarky column , replete with mooseburger jokes. Nastier have been the rumors flying around that Palin's young son with Down Syndrome actually belongs to her seventeen year old daughter, Bristol, that the good Governor faked her own pregnancy to cover up for her. Like any smear, this has a tiny kernel of truth--turns out Bristol is pregnant, as Palin's office announced today.
A McCain staffer (anonymously) said this about the rumor: "The despicable rumors that have been spread by liberal blogs, some even with Barack Obama's name in them, is a real anchor around the Democratic ticket, pulling them down in the mud in a way that certainly juxtaposes themselves against their 'campaign of change."
We'll ignore the difficulties with subject-verb tense agreement, this puzzling problem of having Obama's name "in" the blogs, and the exotic use of "juxtaposes"--it has been a bit of an overexciting time for the sleepy McCain campaign. But the statement is very amusing, coming from a member of a party that pushed as hard as it could to convince people Obama was a dangerous Muslim radical.
Will the American people want a White House that looks like a reality show? Pregnant teenagers, guys with guns, ladies with skinning knives, snowmobiles on the front lawn? Dammit, they just might.....Ladies and gents, we may just have ourselves a campaign, after all.