Two nights before Thanksgiving, and no president-elect yet. A remarkable turn of events! Morning news anchors, cable-television pundits and op-ed sages insist that Americans are demanding a quick end to the madness. A quick end? Madness? Why, I don’t know a soul who feels that way! Most people I know are enjoying the spectacle, are learning (more than they ever wished to know) about the intricacies of the U.S. Constitution and the Electoral College, and are discovering just how antiquated our precious voting system is.
Madness? Hardly. The proceedings in Florida have been more like a civics lesson, which might explain television’s impatience. Civics lessons do not make for good television, or so seems to be the belief among the program chiefs and news executives in New York.
What troubles this observer is not the wait for a result, but a small but vivid glimpse into what goes on well behind the scenes of modern American politics. In Newsweek magazine’s huge, making-of-the-president post-election extravaganza, we are taken back to the earliest stages of this amazingly endless campaign. Family friends and allies are encouraging George W. Bush to run for the presidency. He’s not entirely certain he wants it, and he’s especially worried about his teenage twin daughters. Why? According to Newsweek, they feared being made fun of on Saturday Night Live.’
Obviously the Bush daughters were assuaged, but what a sad commentary on the state of civic discourse in ironic America. Sure, there have been political satires since the days of Greece and Rome, and, in more recent times, comedians like Will Rogers and Bob Hope based their humor on the day’s headlines and people in the news. Politicians and, let us recall, mothers-in-law have been staples of American humor for decades. Political correctnessno, make that a more refined sense of decencyhas banished mother-in-law jokes (for the most part, anyway). Jokes about larcenous politicians, however, remain part of the great national conversation.
But the conversation has gotten so much cruder, so much nastier and so much more personal in recent years. Chevy Chase’s impersonations of a clumsy Gerald Ford look as innocent as Bob Hope’s jibes at Dwight Eisenhower’s golf game. There are no barriers of taste or discretion; even the children of politicians can expect to be made fun of. And it’s not just the shock jocks who are at the vanguard of rules-breaking humor. John McCain, an admirable and even heroic figure in American politics, made a cheap and vulgar joke about Chelsea Clinton in public some seven years ago. He apologized and seemed truly ashamed. The slip not only was regrettable, but was a sign of wit to come. In New York, a couple of juvenile radio humorists made sport of the mayor’s son. Right-wing radio hosts soon considered every Democrat’s family fair game for their hijinks.
There are today an endless number of barriers to what was once called public service. The money is not nearly as good as some demagogues would have you believe; the public is even more cynical than usual; and the stars of the press corps are those who can most wittily attribute base motives to every vote or action. Now, to this formidable list one must add the certainty that one’s children may become fodder for jokes and sketches. One wonders why anybody would run for elective office today.
No doubt there are some who would ascribe the new nastiness to the Clinton era. Yes, political conversation and political humor took a turn for the gutter in the last eight years, and some of the outgoing president’s friends and allies are to blame. James Carville will never be confused with Oscar Wilde; Al Franken is no Will Rogers. And on a much more serious note, onetime presidential aide Paul Begala asserted that the pro-Bush heartland was the home of racist and homophobic murderers.
But the right wing has made its own sad contributions to the politics of character assassination. As the courts tried to make sense of the proceedings in Florida, the Republican governor of Montana accused Al Gore’s supporters of trying to steal the election. The Wall Street Journal charged that Gore was about to stage a coup. Them’s fightin’ words. Coups, as I understand them, generally take place with the cooperation of the military. But hold onthe Bush people say that Al Gore is trying to disenfranchise the military. Who knew the vice president had such a complex method of seizing power? One would hardly have guessed that Gore actually won the most popular votes in Election 2000.
The Bush daughters had every right to fear what might await them on Saturday Night Live and elsewhere. And every politician in America, it seems, has reason to fear the power not only of today’s crude humorists, but of mainstream political commentators, superstar political consultants and puffed-up television pundits. Their only defense, they seem to have concluded, is a strong offense.
I’m sure there are all kinds of reasons for low turnouts on Election Day and the public’s general disaffection. But I’m convinced that greater participation is contingent on a more civilized conversation. Too many people associate politics with those silly cable-television talk shows, where the loudest voice and most provocative argument gets the most air time.
Politics is by nature a divisive business, at least in a democracy. Without division, there is no dissent.
But surely we can be divided and civil, too.