TCS Daily


Political Cabaret

By James Pinkerton - January 26, 2004 12:00 AM

MANCHESTER, NH -- It's impossible to know who's going to win here in New Hampshire -- although that doesn't stop a lot of folks from trying to know the future. However, it is possible to know who is going to lose; take, for example, Dennis Kucinich.

But the Ohio Congressman is still an interesting candidate, for two reasons. First, he's real, if for no other reason than that he can't afford to be made over into inauthenticity. Second, one can glimpse at his campaign and see a completely different tradition of politics than most Americans are used to -- different in terms of ideology, different in terms of its cultural iconography and audio topography. So maybe it's worth spending some time with him, if only to realize what we're missing -- and are lucky to be missing. Because it's my firm conviction that politics should be boring -- it's safer that way.

I realize that I am probably alone in my fascination with Kucinich. The media up here have decided that this is a four-way race -- that is, John Kerry, Wesley Clark, Howard Dean, and John Edwards. Even Joe Lieberman, the Democrats' vice presidential nominee just four years ago, a three-term senator, is mostly dissed, dismissed, and generally ignored. And the candidates below Lieberman -- Kucinich and Al Sharpton -- exist in a lost land of neglect -- call it Media Incognita.

As for myself, I'm cautious about any sort of augury, because I have seen too many predictions go the way of surefire stock picks and surething Iraq-WMD-searches. Indeed, in an earlier incarnation, I worked for then-Vice President George H. W. Bush in the 1988 campaign; he finished a humiliating third in the Iowa caucus, behind both Bob Dole and Pat Robertson. Yet just 8 days later, he turned a 19-point deficit against Dole in the Hawkeye State into a nine-point surplus here in the Granite State. I was along for that ride, but it's safe to say that none of us on the Bush Sr. campaign had any certainty as to what would happen -- as we lost, and as we won.

And I'm not persuaded that political forecasting has improved in the past four election cycles. On Monday, January 19, I watched David Yepsen being interviewed on the Fox News Channel, just an hour or so before the caucuses opened. Yepsen is the top political columnist for the Des Moines Register and he has covered every caucus since 1976. Yet there he was, telling Brit Hume that Dean is "the man to beat." Well yes, Dean was the man to beat -- and he was beaten, by both Kerry and Edwards.

To be sure, some reporters got it right. Walter Shapiro of USA Today, for example, predicted on that same day, Monday the 19th, that the top two finishers in Iowa that night would be Kerry and Edwards, and he was vindicated.

But for the most part, the herd of reporters knows little about the race they're witnessing, even though they "report" on the racing, and little else. On Wednesday, I went to see Clark speak at a VFW post in Portsmouth; the retired general gave his talk, and said he would take questions in two phases: first, from voters, second, from reporters. The real people asked real questions: What was the candidate's position on veterans' benefits? On Cuba? On global warming? Indeed, if Norman Rockwell were alive, he could have painted the scene of ordinary citizens asking intelligent questions, doing their part for participatory democracy.

But then, as if to provide some contrast, it was the reporters' turn. Their queries to Clark were almost all horse-race-y and tactical: Was Clark going negative against Kerry? Was Clark using "fear" as a campaign tactic -- and if not, who was?

Of course, the Boys and Girls on the Bus might respond to criticism of the superficiality of their questions by noting that the candidates aren't just superficial -- they are artificial.

We might consider, for starters in our study in plastic, John Kerry. In his 20 years in the Senate, he's been a standard-issue Massachusetts liberal, with a lifetime rating from Americans for Democratic Action of 93 on their 0-100 scale. By contrast, the other Senator from the Bay State, Teddy Kennedy, has a lifetime rating of 88. "That makes Kennedy the conservative of the two," chortled Republican National Chairman Ed Gillespie as he visited New Hampshire last week on an anti-Democratic strafing run.

Next is Dean. In the wake of his disastrous "I have a scream" speech on the night of the Iowa caucuses, the Vermonter has decided to calm down -- and won't stop telling us that he is now as cool as a cucumber, dammit. And yet, not missing a single spin, his campaign swears that the new slow-talking, sweater-wearing, wife-hand-holding Dean is the real Dean. On January 21, he said he would be all sugar and spice, claiming, "It's who I was as governor for 12 years. I might as well go back to being who I really am." Yeah, sure, just like the "New Nixon," who emerged anew every couple of years. But of course, the New Dean can't resist savaging his fellow Democrats on every occasion; he routinely accuses his major Democratic rivals of voting to collaborate with President George W. Bush on the death of 500 Americans in Iraq. Snarl, snarl.

Then there's Clark. He might be new to politics, but he's already mastered ambidexterity; he acts right, but he talks left. That is, he has the background, the bearing -- and the personal voting record -- of a conservative, but now he seems to have had a mind-meld with one of his endorsers, Michael Moore. The retired four-star supports gay unions, wants to revisit the issue of gays in the military, and throws around conspiracy theories that implicate the Commander in Chief as a deserter, prevaricator -- maybe even a traitor. All of which leads one to wonder which direction a hypothetical President Clark would march once in office.

As for Edwards, what can one say about a millionaire trial lawyer who plays at being a populist? It's hard to think of anything phonier than a barefoot boy from the billion-dollar tort bar, but hey, the American people haven't seen through that whole scam yet -- and so who dares count Edwards out?

But when it comes to Lieberman, I think the reporters have him pegged correctly; he is not bound for glory in tomorrow's balloting. Why doesn't he just admit he's a Republican? He not only garnered the endorsement of the famously right-wing Manchester Union-Leader, he actually waved the piece from the podium. That would be like a candidate in a Republican primary bragging about snagging the editorial smile of Mother Jones -- definitely a general-election play, not something for the base to know about. Indeed, if Vice President Dick Cheney were to go prematurely to that Great Pheasant-Hunting Range in the Sky, Bush could do a lot worse than to put Lieberman on the ticket with him. But of course, Democratic voters would see the Perles and Kristols, visible on Lieberman's collar; the Connecticut solon is a lot more likely to be carried into the White House by elephants, not donkeys.

Nobody asks horserace questions of Kucinich, because the best he gets is a little tiny paragraph somewhere in the A-section of the local papers.

Yes, the Clevelander has support, although it's more noticeable for its intensity -- both ideological and visual -- than for its quantity. Kucinich's tiny base rests on three spikes of feeling:

The first spike is composed of Leftists, or, as they like to call themselves these days, "progressives." Kucinich, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, declares that he wants to create a "workers' White House" -- as a prelude one might surmise, to a full-blown nationwide paradise for those same workers. In hopes of gaining such a paradise, Kucinich supports universal "single payer" health insurance. But those words, "single payer," are a misnomer, since the payers will be 150 million or so taxpayers in the US. The phrase should really be "single provider," because under the Kucinich commissariat, a government monopoly would dispense health care. And everyone would enjoy the equality and solidarity of waiting in line, comrade. Kucinich also pledges to withdraw from both the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization, proving that those Republicans Depression-bringers, Smoot and Hawley, can still make a comeback, albeit in the other party. And Kucinich wants to save the "family farm," without bothering to explain how farmers, as small business owners -- albeit permanently on the dole, most of them -- will harmonize their interests with the workers who will run the White House.

The second group for Kucinich, partially overlapping with the first, is a kinder, gentler bunch who represent a mellow stew of Christianity and the New Age. Many members of Pax Christi, the international Catholic pacifist group, support Kucinich's candidacy; one such is Thomas Moore, author of The Care of the Soul and 13 other books on religion and spirituality, who lives in nearby Wilton. Moore describes Kucinich as the "only person that I know who is speaking directly for peace." That's nice, although one is left to wonder how the Pax-niks of this second group would get along with the class warriors and liquidators of the first group.

These days, of course, any left-leaning spiritual movement will have a green mystical hue. On the Kucinich campaign's web page is, so far as I know, the first endorsement of a presidential candidacy by a fictional character. "Grandfather Twilight" supports Kucinich, according to the author Barbara Helen Berger; as the children's book writer asserts, "In these extraordinary times we must act with extraordinary sincerity." That's a delightful thought, but those sentiments would be easier to embrace if they weren't uttered by a fictional character. Still, it's hard to trash totally a site in which a dog tells a cat, "Vote for Dennis," and the cat purrs back, amicably, "I will." Such critters live in a nice world -- even if it isn't this world.

But if the Kucinichians are a mixed bunch, the candidate himself is elusive. On Friday night, I drove to Keene State College to see him, having been assured that the Great Progressive would be on the scene at the Keene student center, sharing billing with a rock/hip-hop concert. He wasn't around, alas.

But as I waited in vain for the Traveling Buckeye, I did get a chance to study third leg of the Kucinich Konstituency up close. These folks, of course, tilt young, all the way over into their alt.lifestyle category, heavy on "Stop the Drug War" signage and verbiage. Dreadlocks and yellow, green, and red reggae hats were mixed in with Kucinich buttons, all bopping and hopping to a Rage-Against-the-Machine-type thrash-metal band playing furiously in the auditorium. It's funny, to me at least, that folks who say they hate machines rely on so much machinery to get the decibel-level up high. I wonder if Kucinich Kare will include hearing aids.

One memory stands out for me, amidst the noise. A bunch of kids were outside the student center, smoking (cigarettes) in the night air, dressed only in tee shirts. It was about five degrees, no kidding. If life itself is a kind of performance art, then these kids, in their tee-y, nicotine-y toughness, were great performers. I happened to notice that one of the young women was wearing an even barer tank top with one word across her front: "Bitch." I've seen that friendly message before, of course, but in the context of the Kucinich campaign, I thought to myself, "I wonder if this girl is really serious about helping people, about making the world a better place?"

As I pondered the woman's message to the world, I thought back to the wisdom of P.J. O'Rourke. In Parliament of Whores he used the phrase "compassion fascists" to refer to those who seem to be, shall we say, illiberal in their pursuit of "liberal" political goals. That is, they are not so humane in their pursuit of policies and programs for "The People." O'Rourke was thinking of, for example, Jesse Jackson. But I saw some of that same mood in the Kucinich Krowd. They hated Bush, they hated the System -- especially the drug laws. And I'm not sure how they felt about America, compared to say, Gaia. But they loved humanity -- don't you dare forget it.

Nonetheless, there was something weirdly interesting about the Kucinich Krew, as I saw them at Keene State, and also, earlier, at the University of New Hampshire, where a Kucinich bongo ensemble pounded away for hours. These folks had energy, even if most of them couldn't -- or wouldn't -- vote on Tuesday, let alone in November.

That energy of theirs, of course, came from music. It's a point made by the late Allan Bloom in his 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind: if there's one thing that distinguishes young people of the modern era from past eras, it's the ubiquity of music. Two decades ago, Bloom was thinking of the Walkman -- which, of course, has now been augmented by various MP3 players and iPods.

All the campaigns routinely offer some sort of music at the beginning of their events. There's the occasional "Star Spangled Banner," but I've heard Coldplay, Van Halen, Journey, and even hipper-than-thou Outkast. But I've head nothing with the intensity of Kucinich's players.

And that's a good thing. Why? Because music, as everyone from Plato to Nietzsche understood, is about passion, as opposed to reason. That's why Plato wanted to ban most music from his Republic, and why Nietzsche loved music -- the more wildly Wagnerian, the better.

American politics has never been so bewitched and bewildered, of course. Here, a strict separation between politics and popular culture has always been enforced, however informally. The result was a widening gulf between the two realms of expression; politicians stayed staid, even as Elvis pelvised. Today's music stars are rewarded for dressing up in black leather and spouting pseudo-Druidic, even neo-fascist lyrics. They can create spectacles of Speerian bombast, of Dionysian excess. They can advocate, and maybe even practice, violence.

But there's no crossover into politics, happily. Howard Dean uttered just one brief primal scream -- a primal chirp, really -- and his campaign was doomed. The herd of reporters might not be able to spot a trend if it hit them in their haunches, but they do know enough to be scared by a candidate's all-too-visible carnivorousness.

On Tuesday, some relatively boring Democrat is going to win -- probably Kerry, the most boring of all. Kucinich and his motley fools will remain on the fringe, and that's a very good thing. Life might be a cabaret, old chum, but it's well that politics is not. We get enough drama in life as it is, without our public life becoming a passion play.

Yes, here come the Sensible Democrats -- sans, I suspect, after Tuesday -- Dennis the Menace and the Reverend Al. The survivors of New Hampshire's primary may wish to raise our taxes, overregulate our industries, and quotify our population, but at least they won't disturb the national calm. So bring 'em on -- many Americans need to catch up on their sleep.


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