Saturday, June 26, 2004

True Colors

It’s refreshing to see that the Republicans are just like everybody else, only more so. When they get caught in a lie or get frustrated by life, they have normal human reactions; they bluster, they obfuscate, and resort to profanity. It’s only when you’ve portrayed yourself as a paragon of virtue and wholesomeness when such reactions are hypocritical and worthy of scorn or laughable derision. This is why it’s so funny and, in a way, a relief to see the Republicans tripping over their tongues and behaving like ill-mannered adolescents.

Ever since the rise of Newt Gingrich and his “Contract With America,” there’s been a mean streak in the Republicans. Snide comments about President Clinton and his wife, egged on by the fratboy mentality on talk radio, became part of the talking points for every talking head. Granted, Bill Clinton left himself plenty of room to be attacked, but Bill Clinton never campaigned on the issue of “restoring honor and dignity to the Oval Office,” either. Anyone who examined his record knew what they were getting, and he was elected twice. We did the same for Richard Nixon, too, whose history was nothing out of a Frank Capra movie.

Getting mean and nasty is not new in American politics. The machinations of the last ten years pale in comparison to the free-for-alls that went on in the late 19th century. Grover Cleveland, twice elected president, fathered a child out of wedlock, which led to one of the more interesting campaign slogans: “Ma! Ma! Where’s My Pa?” (to which the Cleveland campaign responded, after the election, “Gone to the White House! Ha ha ha!”). Accusations of adultery, consorting with prostitutes, questions of parentage were all part of the game back in the 1890’s, and it was the “virtuous” Republicans who were supposed to rescue the country from debauchery with the election of the noble William McKinley. A quiet and dignified man from Ohio, he retored honor and dignity to the White House…and promptly started a war with Spain for no other reason than because he could. And when the Republicans weren’t fighting the Democrats, they fought among themselves. You think Ralph Nader is a threat? He is nothing compared to Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy left office in 1909, leaving it to his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft. Disappointed in Taft’s lackadaisical administration, Roosevelt ran in 1912 as a third-party candidate on the Bull Moose platform, viciously attacking his old friend, splitting the Republicans, and gave the White House to Democrat Woodrow Wilson for two terms. It wasn’t until 1920 that the Republicans offered another calm, cool man from Ohio – Warren G. Harding – that they won back the White House. But Harding had his little foibles: he had a mistress (and on occasion had sex with her in his private office right next to the Oval Office), he fathered a child by her, and he had a lot of cronies in the oil business who used their connections with the White House to get lucrative contracts with the government. Several people in the Harding administration, including the Secretary of the Interior, ended up going to jail. Harding, though, escaped that ignominy. He died three years into his term (some believe he was poisoned by his jealous wife) and was succeeded by calm, cool, and cadaverous Calvin Coolidge.

So it’s not news that politics is a tough business – there’s more honor and dignity in a New Mexico cockfight – but what is amusing to me is that we keep expecting it to get better and rise above this level of discourse. The Democrats are just as good as the Republicans at playing hardball. The difference with most Democrats, though, is that they don’t hide behind a veil of virtuosity, depicting themselves as the Knights of the Round Table who are bound to some nebulous standard of “honor and dignity,” whatever that is. That’s why it’s so funny to hear George W. Bush, running on a campaign sworn to restore this lost honor, refer to a reporter as a “major league asshole,” or to find out that one of their leading scolds against vice, William Bennett, is a whale in Vegas and, according to some rumors, is into a leather dominatrix. This is the party of Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, and Bob Barr, who collectively have more ex-wives than Henry VIII, pushing the Defense of Marriage Act. (It makes you wonder whose marriage they’re defending.) It’s not the sins that are funny – hell, everyone has their flaws – it’s the flaming hypocrisy of it that makes you wonder if they are either incredibly cynical about the mental capacity of the electorate, or we really are that shallow and sheeplike to fall for their line.

It requires a great deal of energy and rectitude to maintain a facade for a sustained period of time, and ten years of righteous indignation is a long time. It’s even longer if you count the quarter-century of the Republicans lining up with the evangelical Christian Religious Reich, who could teach the Republicans a thing or two about sanctimony and hypocrisy (vis. Jimmy Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker). So it was inevitable that the cracks would start to appear, especially when you have weak mortar holding it up. The justifications for the war in Iraq are gone. The war on terror has been turned from a uniting cause for all Americans and indeed all the world to a test of loyalty and lost opportunities.

And now for the capper – so far. The Bush/Cheney campaign has released an ad attacking John Kerry for being in league with a group of people that compared George W. Bush to Hitler.

The latest Bush-Cheney ’04 web video shows the “Faces of John Kerry’s Democratic Party,” and labels them the “Coalition of the Wild-Eyed.” This is surely the first time in his life Dick Gephardt has been labeled “wild-eyed” by anyone, and he is joined by Al Gore, Howard Dean, Michael Moore, and — who’s that, Adolf Hitler? The ad begins with a clip of Al Gore denouncing the Bush administration in his rousing speech at NYU a few weeks back, but then Hitler pops onto the screen. The words “Sponsored by” show up a few frames later — it’s an ad submitted to MoveOn’s Bush in 30 Seconds campaign from earlier this year. Did this ad submission using Hitler imagery really represent the views of “John Kerry’s Democratic Party”? Of course not. The ad was submitted by individuals not associated with John Kerry’s campaign to the MoveOn contest — and ultimately rejected. MoveOn said two ads that mentioned Nazis were in poor taste, and apologized, even though, again, MoveOn rejected the submissions as finalists. The ad that eventually won the contest was, in comparison, a subtle, moving critique of the impact of the Bush deficits on America’s children.

The MoveOn ad submissions were condemned at the time by the GOP. So why resuscitate the Hitler/Nazi imagery if it’s so harmful to the national discourse? One can only wonder, and a cynic is left to think that splicing the face of Adolf Hitler between images of leading Democrats was too irresistible for the creators of this web video, no matter how misleading and offensive the end result may be. []

As I noted in the beginning, it is refreshing to see that the Republicans can live up to their historical antecedents. It may not make the campaign any more palatable, but now we will not be surprised to find that their idea of how to restore honor and dignity to the Oval Office is just as mean and cynical as the methods they’ve complained about for forty years. It’s not necessarily an improvement, but it is at the least more honest.