Sam Smith – One of the things that attracted me to politics as a teenager – I stuffed my first campaign envelopes when I was 13 – was that politicians were interesting people. As I wrote of one of my early heroes:
Richardson Dilworth was an ex-Marine who had fought in both World Wars, including Guadacanal. With a quick temper and a towny accent, he never ducked combat or favored equivocation. Aboard the sinking Andrea Dora he helped other passengers including his wife. As Peeter & Jonathan Binzen describe in their biography, “Dilworth began pulling Ann across the deck, but she slammed into a glass door, bruising her right eye. He finally bundled his wife into a waiting lifeboat just after three a.m.” It was not until two and half hours later that the Dilworth, then the mayor of Philadelphia “was lowered to safety in a net.”
Dilworth’s Philadelphia mayoral race remains a classic. His most notable campaign technique was the street corner rally, which he developed to a degree probably unequalled since in American politics. Using the city’s only Democratic string band as a warm-up act, Dilworth would mount a sound truck and tick off the sins of the Republican administration. On one occasion he parked next to the mayor’s home and told his listeners: “Over there across the street is a house of prostitution and a numbers bank. And just a few doors further down this side of the street is the district police station.”
At first the crowds were small. But before long he was attracting hundreds with four or five appearances a night. One evening some 12,000 people jammed the streets to catch the man who would eventually become mayor.
Dilworth on another occasion got into a fist fight with a member of his audience. His wife once knocked an aggressive heckler off the platform with her handbag and, in a later campaign, his daughter picketed the office of the GOP candidate with a sign reading, “Why won’t you debate the issues with my father on TV?”
The Republicans responded with sneers, rumors and allegations about Dilworth’s liberalism and, in particular, his association with the liberal Americans for Democratic Action. The GOP city chairman, William Meade, called ADA communist-infiltrated and `inside pink’ and “Philadelphia members of that radical and destructive [Democratic] party have gone underground and joined the Dilworth ranks.”
Dilworth’s initial reaction was to call Meade a “liar” and to challenge him to a debate. But that wasn’t enough for Dilworth. To make his point, he marched into the offices of the Republican City Committee and, with press in tow, brushed past the receptionist, and barged into Meade’s private office where the chairman was conversing with two city officials. Dilworth challenged Meade to name one Communist in ADA. When Meade demurred, Dilworth said Meade had accused him of treason: “If you want to debate publicly, I’ll go before any organization you name. I’ll go before your ward leaders. I challenge you to produce evidence of a single Communist or Communist sympathizer in ADA. I say this as one who fought for his country in the Marine Corps. That’s more than you did, Mr. Meade.”
“Maybe I wasn’t physically fit,” replied Meade.
Dilworth continued the confrontation a few minutes longer and then stormed out. The red-baiting subsided and the central issue once more became corruption. Dilworth won and as I read the big black headlines, I thought it was my victory too.
By the time I hit Washington as a radio news reporter in the late 1950s, things hadn’t changed that much. On the right there was Everett Dirksen, in the south J Strom Thurmond or Sam Ervin and among Democrats the likes of Adam Clayton Powell, Wayne Morse, Gene McCarthy, and Lyndon Johnson. You loved some, hated others. But the thing they all had in common is that there was little boring about them. They had worked their way up in substantive politics and their supporters had come with them. And they were real people.
Television changed all that. Politicians increasingly got their support from big checks rather than little people, and they increasingly became more like those you saw on TV ads rather than in your neighborhood.
By the 1990s, reality and image could hardly be differentiated. One of the things that grimly fascinated me about the Clintons was that I had never before seen such a huge gap between the actual past of politicians and what was being reported about them. Now, an overwhelming portion of political reportage concerned itself with image, presentation, and voter conception of such factors. And it was called news. Who a candidate truly was no longer mattered that much.
And so now we find ourselves in a political campaign where one party has 17 underachieving and misreported candidates who collectively favor more damage to America’s progress than any group of significant politicians since the secessionists. Against them is a party with a leading candidate who has spent her whole life clumsily manipulating her image.
And with our nation’s future at a critical point, we have collectively accepted the notion that a presidential election is just another television show.
One way to get a handle on this is to forget the politics for a moment and just think about the candidates as human beings.
Donald Trump and Chris Christie, for example, are the sort of guys who, if you found yourself next to them a bar, you would quickly take your drink and go looking for a table at which to sit alone. So why does the media tell us we have to take them seriously?.
Jeb Bush and John Kasich are the sort of guys who you might share some conversation about last night’s ball game while waiting for a bus, but then look for a seat by yourself.
Mike Huckabee is the sort of blasphemous bully that any normal Christian would want to avoid
Meanwhile, the media and the Democratic establishment have selected as the opposition someone who, if she were applying for a role in a play, would be thanked and dismissed by the director in less than a few minutes. I have rarely seen a major politician so awkward and unconvincing at humor and repartee.
As for the man she wants to replace, Barack Obama remains strangely at odds as a real person from his media image. Consider, for example, that his total regular involvement with a black parent ended by the time he was three. Yet both racist critics and loyal liberals treated him as though he was entirely black. This raises the interesting question: what might Obama’s presidency been like if he and others had not relied solely on skin color but if he had led the country as the multi-cultural figure he actually was – not unlike what America was increasingly becoming?
In fact, the most revealing cultural factor in Obama’s life may not have been his skin color but his graduate degree, which apparently encouraged him to treat his constituents as though they were his students. I strongly suspect that if he been less professorial in tone, he would have had a happier time at the White House.
Such packages of subhuman (at least as they present themselves) politicians are, of course, promoted by the very media that created the subhuman culture in which they thrive. Our choice between candidates is often not even as rational as, say, the TV diabetes ads in which videos of smiling people playing games and cheerful music simultaneously include a list of things might make you sick or dead if you take the advertised substance. Perhaps we need something similar for our candidates.
And it could get worse. Of Kanye West’s plans to run for president in 2020, Time Magazine wrote, “It’s still unclear if he’s serious, but the rapper has the support of one of America’s most powerful families behind him: the Kardashian/Jenner clan (aka this generation’s Kennedys).”
If the Kardashians are truly this generation’s equivalent of the Kennedys, then I suppose we should not be surprised if Donald Trump or Kanye West become our president.
Still, there are a couple of real people running (or may be running): Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.
Biden is the possible presidential candidate with whom one probably would most like to have a drink. Part of this is personality, part of it is how life has confronted him. In 1972 his wife and one year old daughter were killed in an auto accident. And just recently, his son died prematurely.
You can’t talk your way out of such things in sixty seconds ads.
And true, Bernie Sanders’ view of reality tends to put economic issues ahead of what he thinks of Donald Trump or the last cop victim. But that’s not a carefully contrived presentation; that’s the way he is.
In an excellent profile in Mother Jones last May, Tim Murphy gave the feel:
Sometime in the late 1970s, after he’d had a kid, divorced his college sweetheart, lost four elections for statewide offices, and been evicted from his home on Maple Street in Burlington, Vermont, Bernie Sanders moved in with a friend named Richard Sugarman. Sanders, a restless political activist and armchair psychologist with a penchant for arguing his theories late into the night, found a sounding board in the young scholar, who taught philosophy at the nearby University of Vermont. At the time, Sanders was struggling to square his revolutionary zeal with his overwhelming rejection at the polls—and this was reflected in a regular ritual. Many mornings, Sanders would greet his roommate with a simple statement: “We’re not crazy.”
“I’d say, ‘Bernard, maybe the first thing you should say is “Good morning” or something,'” Sugarman recalls.
… Sanders has promised his old friend, who still teaches at the University of Vermont, the same position he held during the mayoral years in Burlington—an unpaid posting called “Secretary of Reality.”
Sanders has made some cosmetic adjustments too. “He’s much more conscious of his appearance than he was,” Sugarman says. “When he was first elected mayor we had to go out and buy him a couple of ties—he didn’t own any.”
Sanders had reason for introspection. He was struggling financially—a newspaper article during his 1974 race noted that he was running for office while on unemployment. His income came from sporadic carpentry and freelance articles, which made paying bills on time a constant struggle. Sanders, now single, was helping to raise a young son, and living in a city in which the working poor lacked access to daycare. Increasingly, Sanders’ political gaze was focusing on his own backyard.
Yes, we need to judge candidates’ records and their policies. But surely there is still time for us to recognize and rate their human character, their decency, their personal history and how they have handled that. If we continue to rely on increasingly manipulated accounts from the media and campaign staffs we will increasingly learn only belatedly that life is still real. We just didn’t vote as though it was.