Wednesday, October 15, 2008

I didn't see the debate, but I'll bet Young Johnny McCranky lied his fool head off. Lee Atwater would have understood, and applauded


Outside the Hofstra University student center students championed their favorites Wednesday. Tonight's debate is said to have cost the school in the neighborhood of $3.5 million.

by Ken

I'm not going to kid you. I didn't watch the debate. (It is over, isn't it?) I may watch Keith Olbermann's post-debate wrap-up on MSNBC, or then again, I may not. The problem is, it's going to be all about, you know, the debate

As I've said a number of times, basically I don't watch debates. You know as well as I do that you hardly ever learn anything about what the candidates would actually do if they're elected. What you learn is mostly how well coached they were, and perhaps how coachable. What's more, ind in the end it never matters what I think. It only matters what some mass of people out there -- usually known as the "middle" or the "undecideds" -- take away, and that may or may not have much to do with what really happened.

And of course I will inescapably see, many times over, the "highlights" of the debate, the things I'm supposed to need to have seen.

It makes me if anything less interested in this debate, coming as it does mere days after I followed through on my announced intent and saw the documentary Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story.

I don't want to write about the film in detail without the benefit of a transcript or a DVD or a second viewing. But a couple of things popped out at me. First was the reminder of how young the "boogie man" was. His ambition was limitless, as was his willingness to do absolutely anything to win an election.

We are reminded of this forcefully by Ed Rollins, who managed Ronald Reagan's presidential reelection campaign in 1984 and afterward took the audacious step of hiring Atwater, with his bare minimum of experience, as his deputy. Rollins tells us that people warned him seriously not to hire Atwater, that he couldn't be trusted, and sure enough, Atwater almost immediately repaid the man who gave him this extraordinary opportunity by attempting to ruin him. Rollins provides a vivid description of their ensuing conversation, in which he informed the young man that if he ever did anything like that again, he would kill him. There is a strong suggestion that Rollins wasn't speaking metaphorically.

(Footnote: During the second Reagan term, Rollins says, Atwater used his office to ingratiate himself with Vice President Bush and his people and to bad-mouth Rollins, thus ensuring that Bush wouldn't turn to Rollins to manage his presidential run, turning instead to -- imagine that! -- Lee Atwater.)

I've also had to replace my image of Atwater as a master strategist with one as a master innovator. Give him a set of circumstances, and he could come up with a stratagem that probably nobody else would have thought of -- or would have had the gall to actually do. Polls, apparently, were an Atwater specialty. Somebody in the film points out that if Lee needed a poll, he would just go in the next room, and half an hour later he had the poll he needed.

Related to this is the point I wanted to get to: the casual acceptance of lying in campaigns. As several commenters in the film point out, there is really only one standard in campaigns: winning. And the stakes don't get any higher than the presidential level, where Atwater found himself competing at such a remarkable age. But when it looked like he had blown the 1988 Bush campaign, he was on his way to becoming a pariah. We're told that GHWB was perilously close to firing him.

It's not surprising to learn that the patrician Bushes didn't take to a loudmouth cracker like Atwater. But they were happy to let him do their dirty work, as along as it showed signs of winning for them.

GHWB himself certainly understood the etiquette of public lying. We see longtime White House correspondent Sam Donaldson watching videotape of Bush browbeating Dan Rather, who's attempting to get actual answers to interview questions and is punked by Bush. Donaldson laughingly makes clear that Bush was just plain lying his head off. But, he says, you just can't say that when it comes to presidential politics.

My first reaction was, why not? But I think I'm beginning to understand. Once you point out that so-and-so is lying, so-and-so is forced to come back at you with a bigger and better arsenal of destructive weapons.

Now it wasn't news to me that politicians lie. What was news is that everybody involved on the inside of the electoral game understands that people lie all the time. It's so normal that it's taken for granted. Only we poor schlubs on the receiving end of the TV feed aren't in on the game, and are left parsing each statement, as if the candidate meant it to be taken seriously rather than to create some sort of emotional effect.

Very likely the ease of lying has been undermined somewhat by the present-day existence of such extensive and readily searchable political archives -- in a matter of seconds any nerd sitting in his living room or den can call up not just accounts but actual video of candidate X -- let's call him Young Johnny McCranky -- contradicting everything he just said. In fact, as Rachel Maddow among others has pointed out, this is an odd and hard-to-explain feature of the McCranky campaign. Maybe it's because of his famous unfamiliarity with modern technology like "the Google," but he still doesn't seem to understand how accessible the historical record is now.

Now I don't believe that all political candidates lie, or that even the ones who do all lie to the same degree. On the one hand, while I'm sure there have been misstatements of fact out of the Obama campaign, I do believe that the campaign managers and strategists have accepted an obligation to truth as the standard against which their claims are to be measured.

Whereas, as I've noted more than once, I've not only never seen but never imagined a spectacle like the McCranky campaign, in which every word, inflection, and indeed blink of the eye has to be assumed to be wholly unrelated to truth.

I guess now I understand better. There is an assumption inside campaigns that voters are morons, and clearly Senator McCranky thinks the people who might vote for him are barely even that. Is it possible that McCranky-Palin sympathizers don't realize that their guy thinks they're dumber than doody?

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At 11:05 PM, Blogger SPiHC said...

The biggest thing you missed was Obama letting the softball question asking him to compare Palin vs. Biden float right by him.

This woman should be a punchline.
Just take 10 seconds to look at her biography. --

At 2:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"There is an assumption inside campaigns that voters are morons"

I regret that I cannot disagree.


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