New Rule: If we stop treating politicians like the celebrities they’re not, maybe then they’ll act like responsible people we trust to represent us, instead of the celebrities they’re not.
May ended well for the Democratic party. For the first time in an eternity, they’d captured a Congressional seat from the Republicans, New York 26, and they were taking a great offensive against the Republicans and their wunderkind, Paul Ryan, in their quest to end Medicare as we know it. Things were looking up until something else came up for one for Anthony Weiner.
Now all that May offensive has gone for nought. Now the press and media are obsessed with Weinergate and the sex scandal that wasn’t really about consensual sex as much as it was about consensual masturbation, or rather, online masturbation.
But then, I suppose, this is the sort of thing that happens in a country where politicians are accorded shallow celebrity status. Hell, five minutes of reality television afford losers celebrity status. What does that say about the people we elect to represent us?
I’m old enough to remember when the House of Representatives was a conglomerate of faceless policy wonks, elected from smallish rural districts or urban neighbourhoods and sent to Washington to cobble together legislation for the public’s good. They went for a minimum two-year tenure and the wife, kids and the family pets went with them. In the 60s and 70s, television focused on the Speaker of the House, the Majority and Minority Leaders and, maybe, the Chairman of Ways and Means. Apart from those people, the only other member of the House you recognised was the person who represented you.
Now, thanks to 24/7 cable news, the dumbing down of the country to the point where actual news has to be presented as a cross between a spectator sport and an entertainment program, and various celebrity talking heads who’ve made themselves opinionators, we’ve entered the age of the celebrity politician, and it shows.
John McCain was right about precious few things when he ran for President, but he was spot on when he warned the public against giving candidate Obama – and by extension, all politicians – celebrity status. All too often, people take their celebrity idols and project their own ideals onto a particular tabula rasa. This is what many and most Progressives did. They practiced the politics of assumption by willfully tuning out everything Obama actually said during his campaign, instead, projecting all their political hopes onto his persona and assuming that he was the black man they’d created, the black man their Progressive forefathers from the 70s had created of the radical, angry Progressive, who would eschew Congress – or at least emasculate it even further – and rule as a dictator – a benevolent, enlightened and Progressive dictator, but a dictator nonetheless.
Now when these types are presented with a man who modeled himself after his own idol, Lincoln, who was, in reality, a Left-of-Centre pragmatist, who knew the value of political compromise, they feel insulted, and once again, they transfer these insults to the man who won the election, ofttimes in a manner far more obdurate and far nastier than the insults hurled from the Right.
But this celebritization has gone even further, aided and abetted by the cable media, in presenting us with political celebrities, the likes of which we’ve never seen before in political history. How many Vice-Presidential candidates on the losing ticket can you remember receiving as much subsequent publicity as Sarah Palin? Some might argue Al Gore, as Gore did, actually, win an Oscar for a documentary made about global warming; but I certainly don’t remember him appearing in any form of news media on a daily basis. Others might point to Joe Lieberman, but his media attention came, mostly, during the healthcare debate and always for pejorative reasons. And neither conducted a “family vacation” mingled with a coy game of cat-and-mouse fought with a cloying, attendent media circus.
In another day and time, the likes of Michele Bachmann, Paul Ryan, Alan Grayson and Anthony Weiner, would be junior members of Congress, plugging away at bills aimed at securing federal funding to add a new wing to the elementary school in their district or to plug a few potholes. Now these people are not only significant voices in their parties – and, yes, I’m aware that Grayson is no longer a member of Congress – but they’re identified as major voices for particular demographics within their respective parties.
Grayson, a rookie, got national attention for an impassioned speech about healthcare. Chris Matthews gave Bachmann her debut, when she proved herself to be Joe McCarthy’s natural child in 2008, accusing various members of Congress of being unAmerican. Ryan’s the so-called “financial whizkid,” worshipped by Dick Cheney. And until recently, Anthony Weiner was the pit bull front man, aggressively assuming the mantle of the Progressive voice, until his own hubris brought him down.
I’m not the first one to say that I think his fall from grace was a set-up. In the immediate weeks before this revelation, Weiner had been relentless in assailing Justice Clarence Thomas and calling for his impeachment, listing Thomas’s crimes as ranging from conflict of interest to the fact that, as everyone now knows, Thomas lied under oath in order to achieve his appointment to the Supreme Court. Now we all know about how a shady, shadowy “conservative group” followed Weiner’s movements on Twitter and Facebook, and how an Internet ghost, handled “PatriotUSA76″, appeared from nowhere to intercept the infamous image Weiner accidentally tweeted, hand it over to Andrew Breitbart, and then disappear, citing a stressful family situation.
Why does my mind conjour up images of Ginny Thomas in a foam Statue of Libery hat when I think of PatriotUSA76? Why do I remember that it was Ginny who made an unusual early morning call, two decades after the fact, to Anita Hill, demanding that she remit an apology to Justice Thomas?
Be that as it may, the Democratic party are now conflicted over Anthony Weiner’s particularly adolescent caper. I can understand why, considering that more than one commentator, this past week, chose to liken Weiner to Gary Hart, whilst others stomped and screamed and cited David Vitter.
Hart was the original “Mr Progressive.” He emerged from handing George McGovern the absolute worst defeat encountered by a Democratic Presidential candidate in 1972, to win a Senate seat from Colorado, in 1974. He was the new Left’s wet dream for the White House. A rugged Westener, with Marlborough Man good looks, he fit the cowboy bill perfectly. He was trendy, fashionable, and he eschewed the word “liberal” for the edgier “Progressive.” Liberals were old hat. Liberals were tied into unions and Hubert Humphrey. Hart hated the unions, mostly because the unions backed LBJ and the VietNam War; but Hart forgot that most of the sons of union members, black and white, provided cannon fodder as draftees during that war. Most of Hart’s dynamic got student deferments or headed North to Canada in protest. In fact, part of McGovern’s campaign platform, authored by Hart, was amnesty for these men, to be able to return to the United States without prosecution.
In fact, most of Hart’s associates in reforming the Democratic party were educated, affluent young professionals, who were, themselves, the children of educated, affluent professionals, with little or no emotional association traditional to the ties of the Democratic Party to the unions. In short, these people were not working class.
Speaking of which, Hart also dismissed them as well, writing off the old rural South and Midwest and the unionised workers from the Rust Belt as nothing more than “little Hubert Humphreys” who would blindly follow the Democratic herd mentality no matter who led it. Therefore, why waste time with them? What were they going to do, vote Republican? (In 1980, that’s exactly what they did, and many have been doing so ever since.)
Hart was being streamlined to the White House, until in 1987, certain rumours started to surface, which proved to be true: first, that he wasn’t Gary Hart, but Gary Hartpence; second, that he was two years older than he’d previously admitted, so he wasn’t that much of a boy wonder when he first emerged; and thirdly, that he was a serial adulterer and was involved in an extramarital affair at that moment.
When confronted with this last allegation by the Washington Post (which was still doing investigative journalism at that time), Hart invited the press to follow him.
“Go on,” he egged. ”Follow me – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for a month. I promise you, you’ll be bored.”
The press did just that. They weren’t bored at all. Instead they found Hart on a yacht, appropriately named “Monkey Business”, with a woman young enough to be his daughter, Donna Rice, clad in the ubiquitous bikini and all over Hart like a bad rash; and that was the end of Mr Progressive’s path to the White House. Instead, we got Mike Dukakis, who fell victim to the dirty tricks of Lee Atwater.
Well, today we have Andrew Breitbart, who’s the mutated gene of a lovechild engendered by the mixed DNAs of Donald Segretti, Lee Atwater and Karl Rove and borne of Arianna Huffington. Breitbart knows that the Republicans have almost 40 years’ experience in demonising anyone and anything from the Left as deviant, morally weak and, therefore, threatening to the American way of life that has only really existed in Norman Rockwell paintings. He also knows that what Anthony Weiner was doing was probably done, on the side, by many Americans – probably even Breitbart, himself.
This was a take-down of a major Leftwing voice, who provided the Republicans and their commentating operatives with the prototypical urban, East Coast, educated, elitist, high-profiled Democrat being exposed as someone depraved. Never mind Vitter. Never mind that Vitter committed a crime. Vitter invoked God and prayer, and Bill Frist forgave him.
For awhile this week it seemed as though most of the major Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi, were conflicted because Weiner had lied to them about his involvement in these shenanigans. They were right in assuming that he showed poor judgement in this situation, that he was reckless, and that he left himself open to blackmail. (In fact, I am also of the opinion that the last woman with whom he communicated online and the first one to go public, Meagan Broussard, was a Rightwing plant. It was no coincidence that her “Republican friend” suggested she contact Andrew Breitbart.)
They were also conflicted as to whether or not Weiner should resign or stay on as a member of the House. Many of the more experienced politicos know how the GOP would spin this: add Weiner to the long list of Hart, Clinton, Spitzer and Edwards as evidence that the Democrats were not the party who worshipped at the altar of apple pie and family values. Already, the spin and the ads had begun. Already, Medicare and New York 26 were forgotten.
The GOP, on the other hand, couldn’t give a rat’s ass if Weiner stayed or went because this is a lose-lose situation for the Democrats. Most of the women who subsequently came forward after Broussard’s initial revelations were the slightly sleazy, bimbo-esque types who were attracted to Weiner’s Red Bull performances on YouTube – the screaming session with Peter King, the alpha male deliveries on the floor of the House, the in-your-face appearances on Fox News. These women were redolent and exemplary of so many inarticulate television junkies raised on a diet of reality television and Valleyspeak, the sort who’d describe a particularly well-delivered and impassioned speech as “hottttt.” This made politics sexy in a different way. They came onto Weiner and, to his discredit as a professional politician and an elected official, he responded in kind.
The irony of the situation was that the Democrats have, all along, argued and warned against the Republicans’ propensity to seek out political candidates who appear to be just like the plebeian element of the population they serve. (They’re not; they are as elitist as the Democrats are painted, but in a different way). Until now, those arguing for Weiner to remain a member of Congress, are echoing the same message. He’s not doing anything a lot of people aren’t doing.
The difference now and the difference which seemed to make the major Democratic leaders speak out this weekend, urging Weiner to resign, has been the revelation that one of his many online contacts was, in fact, a 17 year-old girl. Although there’s been no evidence or claim of any impropriety, once again, the politics of assumption falls into play. That happens in a trivial society where appearances count more than actual content or knowledge.
At the end of the day, the GOP have won this round without even trying: If Weiner resigns, a strident voice from the Left is silenced, a power player is gone – and, face it, there was much more substance to Anthony Weiner than there ever was in Gary Hart. If he stays, his ambition to be Mayor of New York (for which he was using Congress as a stepping-stone) is gone, and he has to keep his head down, his mouth shut and be a good constituency rep. Using Weiner as a front-man attack dog is finished for the Democrats. The attack dog has become the hot dog, the Weiner a weiner.
And anyway, the GOP has moved on now to other things and other people. This week’s model in demonisation is Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. Watch this space.