Georgia pol Eugene Talmadge used to campaign on the theme, “Y’all only got three friends in the world: the Lord God Almighty, the Sears Roebuck catalog and Eugene Talmadge . . . And you can only vote for one of them.”
A fellow Chicago politician said of Alderman Jake Arvey, “Not a sparrow falls inside the boundaries of the 24th Ward without Arvey knowing of it. And even before it hits the ground there’s already a personal history at headquarters, complete to the moments of it tumble.”
And Boston mayor James Michael Curley summed up his career this way: “Where I found a muddy lane, I left a broad highway; where I found a barren waste, I left a hospital; where I found a disease-breeding row of tenement houses, I left a health center. . . Throughout life, wherever I have found a thistle I endeavored to replace it with a rose.”
Corrupt, yes, but not one of these pols earned a fraction of the benefits received by the average national politician of today through a variety of legalized bribery starting with campaign contributions.
Essential to this old style politics was the close connection between the politicians and those who elected them. It was, yes, a feudal relationship but it survived because of the service the politicians provided to ordinary citizens and it thrived on an spirit of empathy virtually invisible in American national politics these days.
Which is why I found myself squirming as I watched the second presidential debate. As Tom Shales wrote in the Washington Post: “The debate had the aura of an almost meaningless ritual being conducted in a soundproof room while outside, panic and calamity were spreading like giant cracks in the earth. The candidates seemed protected from reality rather than having met on the field of battle to confront it.”
There was McCain wandering around the stage obsessed with the ninth letter of the alphabet. Obama, equally self-absorbed, repeatedly pointing his finger at the undecided as if they were somehow to blame for all our problems. And the latter looking more like prisoners at a probation hearing than fully enfranchised U.S. citizens.
During the whole dreary debate there was not one moment of relief from a sense that both men saw salvation only in their own ascent to power and not a second of credible empathy for those who are suffering so badly these days – just more sloppy solutions, canned cliches and boring bromides. Spurred by a priggish Tom Brokaw they even lectured the public on its responsibilities while leaving their own only a vague prospect.
McCain and Obama are, of course, not alone in this inability of contemporary figures to get closer to the public than a handshake and a smile. They see the world from behind a TV camera and we are the ones behind the screen, even if we are in the same room.
Empathy between the powerful and those constitutionally entitled to empower them may be gone forever, a victim of television, modern propaganda, corrupt campaign financing and a country grown too big for its own good.
It is also a product of three decades of glorification of greed, including granting our leaders the right to declare their power an adequate symbol of our progress. Though of different generations both McCain and Obama deeply share this assumption.
It is embittering to think that in the midst the country’s worst economic crisis since the depression that all these two could offer was one more platitudinous puppet show. As we start to rebuild America out of the present wreckage, part of the job is to find leaders who offer us something more, closer and warmer, than that we sit passively in the audience, our hands carefully folded, accepting at best only a vicarious satisfaction in their personal success.