Living as we do in what seems at times a second Middle Ages – complete with Christian crusades against Islam – we inevitably find our struggles centered on myths rather than on facts and competing philosophies. For the past quarter century – ever since we elected the our first fully fictional president, Ronald Reagan, we have bounced from legend to legend increasingly indifferent to their effects or costs until we find ourselves today engaged in a war that we can’t afford, nobody wants and nobody knows how to end.
At first, it just seemed like another problem with Republicans, but with the rise of the Vichy Democrats under Bill Clinton, it became clear that our absorption with fantasy had become not only bipartisan but omnicultural. Neither politician nor media, intellectual nor ordinary citizen, appeared all that interested in reality any more. We had permanently entered a land of make believe. And so now we find ourselves facing an election in which no one really knows what any of the leading candidates in either party stand for or what they would do – and with not all that many seeming even to care.
It isn’t all that surprising given that America, once known for making things, has become a nation obsessed with selling them or gambling in fiscal markets on how well they will sell. From factory to TV commercial, from farm to hedge fund, from Rosie the Riveter to Willie Loman and Ken Lay, it is a new America.
It is hard for reality to hold its own in such an environment and as Americans increasingly became preoccupied with selling and speculating, our collective psyches became ever more removed from substance and our language, our minds and our souls ever more trapped in the syntax, style and morals of the pitch.
It is small wonder that our politics has followed suit. Or that the media has lost interest in lowly facts, preferring instead to deconstruct propaganda, images, semiotics and efforts to manipulate the same – becoming critics of spin rather than as narrators of reality. Or that the public has come to see politics increasingly as a religion based on faith rather than philosophy, and sustained by conviction rather than true self-interest.
The shift probably had its roots in the advent of television. Since TV had an enormous capacity to turn all of existence into a puppet show, it is not surprising that politicians – long accustomed to responding to the tension of attached strings – should be among those adapting most readily to it or that a movie star should be one of the first beneficiaries.
To be sure, there had been quasi-fictional presidents earlier such as Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and John F Kennedy. But typically their myths at least revolved something as real as military heroism – Rough Riders, World War II, PT 109 – rather than being concocted of whole cloth. Of the current leaders in the 2008 campaign, only John McCain fits this earlier model. The rest are beneficiaries of heavily rewritten or suppressed history (Clinton and Giuliani) or, in Obama’s case, the audacity of using hope as a trademarked campaign gimmick. Even McCain’s reputation for common sense and moderation is completely out of sync with his voting record.
Perhaps most striking is the fact that the leading candidates in each party – Clinton and Giuiani – had close friends and major business partners who ran into serious problems with the law – the Mcdougals of Whitewater ending up in prison and Giuliani’s pal Bernie Kerick pleading guilty to accepting $165,000 worth of home renovations from a contractor who was later convicted in the case as well. This is not the normal stuff of legend for a leader of the free world.
But an actor is a person who learns someone else’s lines so convincingly that the audience thinks they are that other person. This has been, since Reagan, the primary goal of our major politicians. All of the current leading presidential candidates are pretending to be people they are not.
To be sure, after Reagan, the country did momentarily slide back into traditional ways with the inalterable George Bush the elder, but with Bill Clinton, politics as fiction became institutionalized.
Although not a professional actor, he certainly did audition for the part. It may have happened as early as his college years. Clinton, according to several agency sources interviewed by biographer Roger Morris, worked as a CIA informer while briefly and erratically a Rhodes Scholar in England.
By the time in the 1980s that he was the young governor of an insignificant state (except for its drug trade), Clinton had already attracted campaign funding from Goldman Sachs, Payne Webber, Salomon Brothers and Merrill Lynch. He was also scoring points with the Washington establishment by cooperating with the Reagan administration’s covert Contra activities emanating from the tiny Arkansas town of Mena.
A few years later, conservative Democrats began holding strategy meetings at the home of party fund-raiser Pamela Harriman. The meetings — eventually nearly a hundred of them — were aimed at ending years of populist insurrection within the party. They were regularly moderated by Clark Clifford and Robert Strauss, the Mr. Fixits of the Democratic mainstream. Democratic donors paid $1,000 to take part in the sessions and by the time it was all over, Mrs. Harriman had raised about $12 million for her kind of Democrats. It was at these meetings that Clinton was anointed.
By the 1992 New Hampshire primary, the establishment press would be overwhelmingly in the Clinton camp. Hendrik Hertzberg in the New Republic reported he had surveyed several dozen journalists and found that all of them, had they been a New Hampshire voter, would have chosen Clinton.
In other words, Clinton didn’t really campaign for the presidency; he auditioned for it. He proved to the producers and directors that he could play the part.
This shift was in some ways even more dramatic than that which accompanied Reagan. After all, for the better part of a century, the Republicans had traditionally been mired in self-serving myths and Reagan merely took them to a new level. The Democrats and those to their left had been responsible for nearly all the political progress that America had enjoyed. With Clinton that all changed. Neither party was interested in real change any longer. The two parties now got both their money and their politics from the same sources.
And so it has been ever since. No more Jimmy Carter or Michael Dukakis to foul things up. When a wild card like Howard Dean appears, you dump him like Simon Cowell would, complaining of his poor stage presence one lone night in Iowa. If a rejected former auditioner, John Edwards, decides to go his own way, you just turn off the mikes and the lights of the campaign – aka news coverage – and reduce the election to the acceptables. A Gene McCarthy-like candidate can’t even get off the ground.
Now, instead, we are offered the choice in the GOP of competing heroes – 9/11 vs. Vietnam – and in the Democratic Party of competing sociological icons – woman vs. black. In fact, Giuliani was no hero in 9/11, John McCain has learned little from being one in Vietnam, Hillary Clinton offers nothing to the waitress or the stay-at-home grandmother raising her daughter’s kids, and Barack Obama has no plan for the millions of young blacks and latinos deserted for decades by both parties. None among them has a way out of Iraq or misbegotten empire nor a way towards economic decency and social justice. But it doesn’t matter for we are not choosing a president but selecting a myth.
This poses a problem for a journalist. Journalists are supposed to either ignore or expose myth and help the reader find the way back to reality. But once political positions have more in common with evangelical fundamentalism into which one is born again than with philosophical differences that demand logical arguments and defenses, skepticism and exposure become the political equivalent of heresy and invite excommunication.
Although I had written critically of every president since Lyndon Johnson, it wasn’t until the Clinton years that I was told – directly and by inference – that this was no longer permissible. The Clintons had helped create this climate by inventing the notion that to criticize them made you into a “hater” – sort of like a Nazi or member of the KKK. Once two friends – one of them a journalist – told me I should stop writing articles critical of the Clinton. “Even if they are true?” I asked. Yes, they replied. I knew I had entered a different time.
This tone has become increasingly familiar in some of the letters I receive. Leave Obama’s 15 unpaid parking tickets alone. Are Clinton’s anti-Jewish remarks the best you can come up with? In short: how dare you criticize people in whom we have put our faith?
The web has contributed to this aura by creating places that are more congregations than sites, internet cathedrals where people go for confirmation rather than information, and where the holy book is the game plan of one candidate or another.
To follow instead where the story leads one, to face the imperfectabilities of the world, to engage in the audacity of reality is just too uncomfortable for many these days.
For journalists, at least, it wasn’t always like that. Here, for example, is an except of HL Mencken’s coverage of the 1920 convention:
“No one but an idiot could argue seriously that either candidate is a first-rate man, or even a creditable specimen of second-rate man. Any State in the Union, at least above the Potomac, could produce a thousand men quite as good, and many States could produce a thousand a great deal better. Harding, intellectually, seems to be merely a benign blank — a decent, harmless, laborious hollow-headed mediocrity. . . Cox is quicker of wit, but a good deal less honest. He belongs to the cunning type; there is a touch of the shyster in him. His chicaneries in the matter of prohibition, both during the convention and since, show the kink in his mind. He is willing to do anything to cadge votes, and he includes in that anything the ready sacrifices of his good faith, of the national welfare, and of the hopes and confidence of those who honestly support him. Neither candidate reveals the slightest dignity of conviction. Neither cares a hoot for any discernible principle. Neither, in any intelligible sense, is a man of honor.”
One might be tempted to plagiarize some of the above to describe the leaders in the Democratic race, but it is largely myth and not morality that would prevent this. It is against the rules to even hint that there may be no good solution awaiting us, at least as far as the media is wiling to let us know. Try to think of a single contemporary establishment newspaper that would publish HL Mencken today and you can sense the problem.
It’s much like the Iraq war. No matter how bad or stupid it is, we must still support the troops by letting them get killed there another year or whatever. We are not allowed to say that the administration, the Washington establishment and the media have failed us as has happened seldom before.
The Columbia Journalism Review even ran an online piece criticizing those few publications (including the Review) that reported Obama’s unpaid parking tickets arguing, “This is a story that never should have made it beyond local Boston TV news, if that. It’s the kind of lazy, picayune nonsense that passes as a ‘character issue,’ but really adds nothing to our understanding of a candidate.”
If we can not even report that the “next JFK” had over a dozen parking tickets that he didn’t bother to pay until he was about to announce his presidential candidacy, then where do we get our clues of a candidate’s character, especially one about whom the media has told us so little?
I come from a school of journalism that said, to the contrary, that if you didn’t report the parking tickets you should turn in your press pass. What people did with the information was their business; reporting it was yours.
I also can remember a liberalism that assumed every good Democrat was fighting a two-front war: against the GOP on one hand and against the SOBs in the Democratic Party on the other. I suspect many of today’s liberal mythmakers would have wanted us to adapt to Carmine DeSapio, Richard Daley, Strom Thurmond and George Wallace in the interest of beating the Republicans and maintaining party unity. But the funny thing is that the party was stronger back when it lacked such phony unity.
Fundamentalism in religion or politics comes to no good end because life always contradicts itself. How else do you explain so many Democrats voting for No Child Left Behind, the Patriot Act and the Iraq War? What fundamental beliefs led them to such absurdly contradictory positions? Just when you think you’re among the faithful, someone betrays you.
Similarly, when you walk into the voting booth, artificially implanted illusions, false faith and naive hope won’t do you any good. It is far better to take some reality along, even if you have to take a barf bag as well. To be sure, you won’t have the exhilaration of delusional faith but you will be one more voter who knows how the magic really works and when you know that, the magic will no longer fool you and yours will be one more ballot cast for the real.
In the end, no matter who are our leaders are, we, at best, come in second place next to their own interests. Knowing this and why – and not pretending otherwise – may not be the meat of myth, but it is certainly at the core of our survival.