Sunday, April 01, 2007

Quote of the day: Frank Rich says you don't have to endorse John Edwards for president to appreciate the current ring of authenticity to his campaign


"In a political culture where nearly every act by every candidate and spouse is packaged to a fare-thee-well for the voters' consumption, the Edwardses' story by definition will play out unpredictably in real time, with a spontaneity that is beyond any consultant's or media guru's control."
--Frank Rich, in his NYT column today, "Elizabeth Edwards for President"

"Here is one continuing familial crisis," Rich continues, "that cannot be scored with soothing music to serve as a Hallmark homily in an inspirational infomercial at the next election-year convention. The Edwardses' unscripted human drama will be a novelty by the standards of our excessively stage-managed political theater and baffling to many in its permanent repertory company."

I've had the feeling for months already that I don't think I can stand to listen to one more political speech, whether it's from the good guys or the bad guys. I mean, It's all so completely prescripted, telling us only what the candidate wishes us at that moment to think he/she is pretending to believe. Fercrissakes, we can't even find out anymore what these bozos actually pretend to believe. There's no longer any hope of finding out what they might really believe."

Of course you could answer that it doesn't matter, that what pols pretend to believe matters more now than what, if anything, they actually believe, because increasingly when they get into power they also govern according to what they pretend to believe.

When it comes to political make-believe, Democrats are just as guilty as Republicans. It's just that Republicans are so much better at it. Karl Rove's famous prefabricated Republican Talking Points have the power of being: (a) monolithically accepted by the party loyalists, and (b) infinitely more finely calibrated to manipulate the "thinking" of the low-will suckers they target. Roveless Democrats rely instead on their band of roving consultants whose Beltway-addlled brains know no loyalty except to the status quo--or perhaps the percentage of their campaign "billings" they salt away.

As every campaign cycle gears up, we hear ritual exhortations that this campaign, unlike all those that came before, be conducted by debating matters of substance rather than slathering sleaze and innuendo.. And then we get even sludgier sleaze and more shameless innuendo, because the public--not least its supposed surrogates in the media--so clearly prefers it to (yawn) substance. This is not only a bad way to elect a government, but a bad strategy for progressives. Once we reduce both campaigns and government to talking points, all other things being equal the Talking Points Commandos are going to win. In 2006 those "other things" were so far from equal, what with the mess in Iraq and the growing obviousness of the corruption and misrule of both the Bush administration and the Republican Congress, that the GOP took a shellacking. If this is the sum total of the Democrats' electoral strategy, they're not likely to win many more elections.)

It's a pleasure and a relief to find Frank Rich today just as fed up with all this prepackaged political bilge. Even better, he mankes the point in combination with a well-aimed broadside at the shocking chorus of babble that attended news of the recurrence of Elizabeth Edwards's cancer and the Edwardses' decision to continue with John's presidential bid.

The ugliest specimen was Katie Couric's "some people say" inquisition on 60 Minutes. It would certainly have been acceptable to ask once about the Edwardses' thinking in committing this crucial chunk of Elizabeth's remaining time to a political campaign and how that will impact her family. Once. But this was, I gather, pretty much the only question our Katie could think of. She just kept on asking it, over and over, and then a few more times. She made it clear what she--er, some people--think: that Elizabeth Edwards is an evil, power-mad monster-bitch who doesn't give a damn about her children.

I didn't see the 60 Minutes interview. (This is a painful subject for me. 60 Minutes was once an indispensable part of my weekly routine, back when the correspondents spent most of their time fighting for the interests of the powerless victimized by the abuses and manipulation of the powerful. Somewhere along the line, though, I imagine in pursuit of the lofty ratings that had once come as an effortless byproduct of just doing their job, they in effect switched sides and became upholders of the status quo against the feeble potshots of the powerless.) But I got a heavy dose of it quick on an online political list that quickly overloaded with outrageover Katie's attack.

At first I felt some sympathy for poor Katie. For one thing, I got the distinct impression that the Kaatie-bashers were unaware that she'd gone through something like the Edwardses' situation with her late husband's illness. She and Jay had had to deal with his final time, including preparing their children for their father's death.

It's such a ghastly situation that there's an initial impulse to think that comment should be reserved to people who've been through it. Except that, on examination, Katie's assault on the Edwardses suggests that her own history has so disoriented her that she is unable to form coherent thoughts on the subject.

On the most obvious level, some list members pointed out that, as far as could be determined, Katie herself had continued working through her husband's illness. (Some people might want to know whether she now feels guilt about that decision, and whether this guilt accounts for the pummeling she--or rather some other people--unleashed on Elizabeth Edwards.) In the larger picture, there is astonishing presumption in dictating to other people how to make such delicate and personal decisions.

What if Elizabeth Edwards believes that her husband is the presidential candidate most qualified to oversee the monumental task of salvaging the wreckage to which two terms of Bush mis-administration have reduced the country? After all, he did try to sound a warning in the 2004 campaign. Sure, it would have been nice to hear straight talk from him more frequently and more vociferously, but then, it wasn't his campaign. The limits were set by the blood-sucking handlers to whom John Kerry entrusted his campaign.

Again, what if Elizabeth Edwards believes that the most meaningful way her family can occupy itself is by crusading for the issues that make John's campaign so important? Is it so hard to imagine that, after fully considering her options, she wishes to devote herself to, well, what she believes in, and even believes that this is the best example she can set for her children?

Some people would like to believe that our Katie was struck dumb by a siege of temporary insanity, and that she now wonders how she could have been so insensitive as well as so far off the mark in the 60 Minutes interview.

Anyway, here is the Rich take on these subjects:
April 1, 2007
Op-Ed Columnist

Elizabeth Edwards for President

ELIZABETH EDWARDS'S choice to stay in the political arena despite a Stage 4 cancer diagnosis didn't tell us anything we didn't already know about Elizabeth Edwards. People admired her before she was ill for the same reasons they admire her now. She comes across as honest, smart and unpretentious--as well as both devoted to and independent of her husband. But we have learned a great deal about the political arena from the hubbub that greeted her decision. For all the lip service Washington pays to valuing political players who are authentic and truthful, it turns out that real, honest-to-God straight talk about matters of life, death and, yes, political ambition, drives "some people" (to use Katie Couric's locution) nuts.

If you caught Elizabeth and John Edwards in the Couric interview on "60 Minutes" or at their joint news conference in Chapel Hill, you saw a couple speaking as couples chasing the presidency rarely do. When Ms. Couric gratuitously reminded Mrs. Edwards that she was "staring at possible death," Mrs. Edwards countered: "Aren't we all, though?" It's been a steady refrain of her public comments that "we're all going to die" and that she has the right to make her own choice to fight for her husband's candidacy even as she fights for her life. There are no euphemisms or equivocations in her language. There's no apologizing by either Edwards for the raw political calculus of their campaign plans. There's no sentimental public hand-wringing about the possible effect her choice might have on her children. The unpatronizing Mrs. Edwards sounds like an adult speaking to adults.

Americans understood. A CBS News poll found that by more than two to one, both women and men support the decision to move forward. So do prominent cancer survivors in the media establishment, regardless of where they fall on the ideological spectrum: Tony Snow (before his own rehospitalization), Laura Ingraham, Cokie Roberts and Barbara Ehrenreich all cheered on Mrs. Edwards. But others who muse on politics for a living responded with bafflement and implicit moral condemnation--and I don't mean just Rush Limbaugh, who ridiculed the Edwardses for dedicating themselves to their campaign instead of, as he would have it, "to God."

No less ludicrous were those pundits who presumed to bestow their own wisdom upon the Edwards household as it confronted terminal illness. A Washington correspondent for Time (a man) fretted that "Edwards's supporters, and surely many average Americans" will be wondering when his "duties as a husband and a father" will "trump his duty to his country and the cause of winning the White House." (Oh those benighted "average" Americans!) A former Los Angeles Times reporter (a woman) who covered the 2004 Edwards campaign suggested to USA Today that "this is a time when they would want to be home together savoring every moment that they've got." A Washington Post columnist, identifying herself as a fellow mother, faulted Mrs. Edwards for not being sufficiently protective of her children.

As Mrs. Edwards moves forward both to manage her cancer and to campaign for her husband, she'll roil more of the Beltway crowd. In a political culture where nearly every act by every candidate and spouse is packaged to a fare-thee-well for the voters' consumption, the Edwardses' story by definition will play out unpredictably in real time, with a spontaneity that is beyond any consultant's or media guru's control. Here is one continuing familial crisis that cannot be scored with soothing music to serve as a Hallmark homily in an inspirational infomercial at the next election-year convention. The Edwardses' unscripted human drama will be a novelty by the standards of our excessively stage-managed political theater and baffling to many in its permanent repertory company.

That's one reason it will be good for the country if Mr. Edwards can stay in this race for the duration, whether you believe he merits being president or not. (For me, the jury on that question is out.) The more Elizabeth Edwards is in the spotlight, the more everyone else in the arena will have to be judged against her. Next to her stark humanity, the slick playacting that passes for being "human" and "folksy" in a campaign is tinny. Though much has been said about how she is a model to others battling cancer, she is also a model (or should be) of personal transparency to everyone else in the presidential race.

This is especially true in a campaign where the presumptive (or at least once-presumptive) front-runners in both parties have made candor their calling card: John McCain is once again riding his Straight Talk Express and Hillary Clinton is staking her image on the rubric "Let the Conversation Begin!" They want us to believe that they are speaking in a direct, unfiltered manner, but so far their straight talking, even without Elizabeth Edwards as a yardstick, seems no more natural than Cheez Whiz.

Senator McCain's bus has skidded once more into a ditch since the Edwards news conference. He's so desperate to find the light at the end of the tunnel in Iraq that last week he told the radio jock Bill Bennett that "there are neighborhoods in Baghdad where you and I could walk." Yes, if they've signed a suicide pact. Even as the senator spoke, daily attacks were increasing in the safest of Baghdad neighborhoods, the fortified Green Zone, one of them killing two Americans. No one can safely "walk the streets of Baghdad, nor Mosul, nor Kirkuk, nor Basra, nor Tikrit, nor Najaf, nor Ramadi, without heavily armed protection," according to the retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who delivered an Iraq briefing (pdf) to the White House last week.

Mrs. Clinton's campaign "conversations" with the public have not stooped to the level of Mr. McCain's fictions. But they have been laced with the cautious constructions that make her stabs at spontaneity seem as contrived as her rigidly controlled Web "chats." This explains why a 74-second parody ad placed on YouTube by a Barack Obama supporter had enough resonance to earn (so far) nearly three million views. Reworking a famous Apple Macintosh commercial from 1984, the spot recasts Mrs. Clinton as an Orwellian Big Brother by making her seemingly innocuous campaign catchphrases ("I intend to keep telling you exactly where I stand on all the issues" and "We all need to be part of the discussion") sound like the hollow pronouncements of the Wizard of Oz rather than the invitations to honest interchange the words imply.

Since the Edwards storm broke, there have been unintended consequences for other campaigns, too. In an accident of timing, Judith Nathan picked the same day as the Edwards news conference to explain that she was only now, after six years in public life, correcting the inaccurate published record of the number of her pre-Giuliani marriages (two, not one). Juxtaposed with the Edwards headlines, the dishonesty unmasked by this confession looked even worse than it might have otherwise. In a less vulgar vein, the first major Democratic campaign event after the Edwards announcement, a forum on health care, prompted more than the usual sniping about Mr. Obama's substance when his policy prescription lacked the specifics in Mr. Edwards's plan.

The power of Elizabeth Edwards's persona is such that the husband at her side will be challenged to measure up to her, too, perhaps even more so than his opponents. No one may be labeling him "the Breck girl" anymore (the subject of another popular Web video parodying his coiffure maintenance), but should his campaign prove blow-dried when he moves beyond health care, he'll pay his own hefty political price for the inauthenticity.

Whatever Mr. Edwards's flaws as a candidate turn out to be, he is not guilty of the most persistent charge leveled since his wife's diagnosis. As Ms. Couric phrased it, "Even those who may be very empathetic to what you all are facing might question your ability to run the country at the same time you're dealing with a major health crisis in your family."

Would it be better if he instead ran the country at the same time he was clearing brush on a ranch? Polio informed rather than crippled the leadership of F.D.R.; Lincoln endured the sickness and death of a beloved 11-year-old son during the Civil War. In the wake of our congenitally insulated incumbent, who has given our troops neither proper armor nor medical care and tried to hide their coffins off camera, surely it can only be a blessing to have a president, whether Mr. Edwards or someone else, who knows intimately what it means to cope daily with the threat of mortality. It's hard to imagine such a president smiting stem-cell research or skipping the funerals of the fallen.

Indeed, of all the reasons to applaud Elizabeth Edwards's decision to stay in politics, the most important may be her insistence, by her very action, that we not compartmentalize the harsh reality of death and the imperatives of public policy, both at home and at war. Let the real conversation begin.


At 1:56 PM, Anonymous DeanOR said...

Sometimes Rich really nails it. This will be one of my all-time favorite quotes, comparing McCain and Hillary to Elizabeth Edwards:
"They want us to believe that they are speaking in a direct, unfiltered manner, but so far their straight talking, even without Elizabeth Edwards as a yardstick, seems no more natural than Cheez Whiz."
It's one of those times when humor is humorous because it speaks the truth. Thanks for your post.


Post a Comment

<< Home