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A Yankee Notebook

January 23, 2012


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – Every four years, when after the vaunted “First in the Nation!” primary, the mob of campaigning politicians departs New Hampshire in a thundering herd , a line of Kipling springs irresistibly to my mind: “The tumult and the shouting dies; the Captains and the Kings depart.” It’s a lot like an old-fashioned circus leaving town: the rattle of its wagon wheels and the memory of its calliope music slowly dying in the distance. We’re left behind with the bucolic sounds of northern winter – the whisper of snowflakes on a window and the rumble of a passing plow – and the inevitable question of our significance, if any, in that mad, noisy pursuit of delegates to the following summer’s nominating convention.

Not that I haven’t enjoyed it. During the 40 years we lived in New Hampshire, I occasionally got to interact with the major-leaguers. I went cross-country skiing with Bruce Babbitt and jogging (power-walking, really) with Pat Robertson and a phalanx of very sober-looking security guys; and I managed to get into a heated discussion with Bob Dole. who was standing all by himself in front of Robinson Hall on the Dartmouth campus. But now that we’re living in Vermont, where no Republican with national ambitions would waste any time or resources, the tumult and shouting pass us by, remarked only by news stories and vituperation on internet blogs.

A mention of blogs, most of which are simply venues for strongly held opinions that, when challenged, devolve almost instantly into abuse, evokes a comparison of them with the arguments and positions advanced and espoused by the primary campaign candidates – not to mention the volcanic eruptions of talk radio hosts. There’s not much difference. The unifying theme of them all is that there are simple solutions, invariably ideological, to the complicated problems of running a nation deeply in debt, overcommitted internationally, divided internally, and once again – as it was about 100 years ago – in thrall to powerful economic interests. Simple answers are pure fantasy; yet the traveling salesmen hawking them seem to be doing quite well at the moment.

Herman Cain’s “9-9-9” tax plan was beautifully simple, and catapulted him to the lead, until analysis revealed its implications for people who already feel themselves overtaxed. Rick Perry, by talkin’ Texas and packing a handgun when he jogged, also zoomed to the top – until we discovered he couldn’t remember a series of more than two. The substance of neither of these examples is nearly as important as it is to notice how wildly crowds reacted to those simplistic presentations. Consider the fate of Jon Huntsman, who in his arguments was noticeably longer on reason and shorter on red meat. He cost me ten bucks, by the way; that’s what I bet on him to round the last turn and overtake everybody else in the stretch. Surely, I thought, some conservatives would recall then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s comment that the White House feared Huntsman’s candidacy most of all, and would have an attack of strategic intelligence. No soap.

So the circus rumbles on, diminished weekly by the departure of candidates who’ve run out of steam, resources, or hope. We’re getting down to two now: poor Mitt “Please-love-me” Romney, whose desperately ingratiating smile makes me wish I could find a plastic shirt pocket protector to complete his ensemble; and Newt Gingrich, the embattled former leader of the adultery probe of President Clinton, but to whom I have to hand it for aggressive defenses. His swift, crowd-fueled attacks on “elitist media,” undocumented aliens (expect to hear less about that in Florida), and Mitt Romney’s “vulture capitalism” remind me of a very unhappy raccoon trapped in a Havahart. There’s no way anybody prudent would try to haul him out of there without a very good pair of gloves.

My beef isn’t so much with the candidates; they and their advisers know just what they’re doing when they dish simplistic baloney to the faithful. My problem is with their audiences, who eat that stuff up just as if it made sense, and are willing to overlook facts and gross character flaws if the candidate repeats one of their mantras – like “Shrink big Government!” or “No Obamacare!” Which is not to say that I’m voting for Obama because he does such a good riff on the Reverend Al Green. Well, not entirely, anyway.

One symptom of the universal dumbing-down of campaign rhetoric is the straight-faced question, “Is this the kind of guy you’d want to have a beer with?” What? are we looking for a drinking buddy, or a sharp and sophisticated chief executive? If I had to have brain surgery (which some have suggested I consider), I wouldn’t look for a buddy; I’d search for the best surgeon I could find and afford. Same with an investment manager, psychotherapist, or attorney.

Joe Klein, in the January 23 issue of Newsweek, writes: “The beer-buddy test, of course, can be filed under the category of ‘populist baloney,’ a metastasizing tendency in American politics. Authenticity is rapidly becoming a euphemism for simple ignorance. Cain was authentic; Sarah Palin was authentic. Elitists – people who have actually studied complicated stuff and become experts at it – are phonies. Just ask Rush Limbaugh.”

A close relative of mine in northern Minnesota firmly believes President Obama is Muslim, was born in Africa, and “is going to bring this country down unless somebody takes him out.” Bob Marshall, a Virginia delegate speaking recently against state funding for Planned Parenthood, was applauded by an approving crowd for stating the “fact” that children with disabilities are born to women as a punishment from God for having had an abortion. In the face of powerful beliefs like those, all you can do is pray for a massive improvement in the American education system.

Photo by Willem lange