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September 29, 2004

Something wicked, or just something stupid?

Posted by Phil on September 29, 2004 10:48 AM

I'm doing my best to be optimistic about John Kerry's chances in the debates and beyond, but I keep having nasty flashbacks to the fall of 2000.

I should have been happy in the fall of 2000. I lived in New York City, and my beloved Yankees and their crosstown rivals, the Mets, had managed to win their respective league pennants, giving NYC fans their first Subway Series in more than 40 years--which the Yankees won in five games. Ah, but such sweet moments are petty and fleeting. The last four years, with the exception of some personal highs, haven't been so happy. The Yankees have gone to the World Series twice more since then, and lost. So it goes in baseball, and so it should be. In baseball, you see, the winner wins.

In 2000, Al Gore "won" everything--the debates, the election--yet was somehow denied it all. In fact, Al Gore, who got more votes than any Democrat ever has--more than any candidate except Ronald Reagan in 1984--was personally branded a loser. (A sore loser.) And everyone who backed Gore, in addition to coping with their shock and awe at the subsequent record of the man declared the winner, has had to absorb the cognitive dissonance of that strange campaign season, yet somehow maintain a belief in the system that allowed it to happen.

As air grows crisp, and the World Series and the presidential debates approach, this is getting harder to do. This is the season when, in 2000, it all started to fall apart. The memories are seared--seared--on my brain. This is the season when, in 2000, the reality we perceived began to be peeled away from the reality we received. Al Gore, the winner, who won the debates, started being called a loser, for reasons that remain disputable, and indisputably trivial, especially in light of what, 11 months later, the stakes of 2000 turned out to be. The election that ended with the loser being declared the winner, began with the debates, when the winner was declared the loser.

Here's what I thought at the time, compiled from a few different e-mails I wrote:

I don't think the press and the pundits watched the same debate I did. I thought Bush seemed groping, shallow, thinly informed, off-balance, reliant on rehearsed lines, and occasionally desperate. He'd wander into answers then blunder around trying to attach a word to a phrase to a sentence to a punchline that would get him the hell out. His body language--bulging eyes, oddly pursed lips, inappropriate smirks--was painful. He seemed on the verge of unconsciously loosening his tie with a jerk, or punctuating a weak answer on a lost point by smacking the desk, emitting a hoarse "HYEAH!" and a rattling laugh. I thought the Major Gaffe was one garble away.

Gore, on the other hand, was a calm, slit-eyed assassin. "You want nice, I'll play nice." Careful, understated, poised, but quick with the razor. Everything he said--even qualifying asides--was obviously backed by comprehensive knowledge and a synthesizing intellect. He kept one hand behind his back, but made sure you knew it was there. He drew blood on Bush's Texas record and left him stammering. He cornered Bush on hate crimes and--yes! here it was!--got him to seem as gleefully bloodthirsty on the death penalty as his worst enemies aver! "Guess what's gonna happen to them? They're gonna be put to death! Be pretty hard to punish them any worse after they get put to death! Death! Sweet revenge! Holy Texas Electro-Killin'! ARRGAHARGGHHHH"--as though he'd personally seen to it that James Byrd and all those who labor under racism and hate had been avenged. Not only did he not answer for vetoing the hate crimes bill, he did everything but brandish a six-gun and shout "Yee haw!" Finally, proof that he was either a callous executioner or a lame asshole who talks big then runs when the knives come out.

Then everyone handed it to Bush. He "held his own" on foreign policy. He "seemed Presidential." He looked "relaxed and confident." That's not what I saw. I thought I was being objective. I thought what I saw would be clear to everyone. I am clearly not the shrewd political handicapper I'd like to believe I am.

It's almost like a Swiftian, satirical fable: the confident yet ignorant man is celebrated by the crowd for his style instead of his ability; the gifted man, irritated beyond reason that this idiot presumes (and is presumed) to be a worthy opponent, is criticized by the crowd because he can't be "nice." To be nice is everything, says the crowd. The ignorant man seems nice. The gifted man goes mad! The ignorant man smiles. The crowd smiles back.

Matching wits with Bush, how can Gore not seem like a bully? How about another metaphor? It's like if Woody Allen got in a boxing ring with Mike Tyson, and somehow everyone was blind to the fundamental issue--that Woody didn't belong there-- and only said that Tyson was a brute for doing what he's supposed to do in the ring. "Look how Woody holds his arms up, just like a boxer! He's staying upright some of the time, and you like to see that in a boxer. And he's moving his feet, too--you know, boxers do that. I'd say he really looks like a boxer. So what’s up with Tyson?! In that last fight, he was hitting Woody much too hard--but in this one, he's not hitting him at all! What kind of boxer is that?"

A conspiracy would actually be preferable, because then there might be one brain or one star chamber behind it that could be called out in the daylight and accused of something. What's going on is a lot more pernicious, pervasive, and inexplicable. Is it laziness? Attempting to sell papers by backing the front runner? Hoping to guarantee access when the self-fulfilling-prophecy front runner takes office?

Whatever the force behind it, so it went. The last three months of 2000 I remember a feeling almost like being suspended in amber. Many of us who supported Gore never gained closure on the mystifying turn of events. We tried to suck it up, show some backbone, and take comfort in our moral superiority, our ability to keep the interests of the republic uppermost in mind, with a dignity we knew the Republicans would never have shown. And what did we get for it? Utter contempt.

Democrats and liberals are congenitally self-critical, and, in order to manifest some control over the situation, we blamed Gore, too. He didn't win winningly enough! If he had won his home state, he would have won so winningly that he would have actually won. (Of course, we blamed Nader, too, and unlike Gore, that rotten cocksucker has had the balls to come back and fuck us over again.) After all, the system isn't broken. Next time, we just have to really win, and that'll prove everything's OK.

So, here we are again. The primary campaign featured some splenetic muscle-flexing of a sort not seen since, I don't know, 1968, I guess, but in the end we nominated another polysyllabic policy-wonk because, for crying out loud, this election is serious, and we can't have some crazy, loose-cannon Liberal going up against Bush! We've got to learn how to win, and then we've got to win! Winning isn't even good enough--we've got to win so winningly that we'll really win!

And so we should, it would seem. John Kerry is a smart and decent man, and George Bush is a proven failure. Our nation is in great peril--as we are constantly reminded by the people who are supposed to be protecting us--and the president has only shown a knack for making things worse. We've blown the budget surplus, sunk into a morass of debt, and the environment's going to hell (see: hurricanes, Florida). And we're in an unending, unwinnable war the president initiated under false pretexts in the most volatile region of the world--the very region where hatred for us runs so deep that people will actually kill themselves to kill a few of us.

However, we've learned that how things seem is not necessarily, or even likely, how they are. The twists of the campaign's post-convention phase have triggered severe post-traumatic stress. In the "political" game run parallel to the real issues, the dirty tricks have occurred before our eyes, as we knew they would, yet somehow we were not ready. Damage has been done, and we know not how. Dishonest and discredited attacks have stuck to Kerry, while legitimate charges against Bush dangle harmlessly on the gallows with Dan Rather. It's a mystery how all this could be; how half the nation could be so transfixed by deception and minutiae that truths that shine starkly to our eyes are unseen or discounted by them.

So we wonder: Tomorrow night, no matter what our eyes tell us, will George W. Bush, the boy who dove into the manure and actually found the pony, again be the loser who wins? And, if so, does that mean something else, something undeniable and bad, some sinister and all-powerful cabal, is really pulling the strings?

Or just that the whole flip-flop thing really stuck?


"the boy who dove into the manure and actually found the pony"! good one. We're still a long way off from the election, but if Kerry doesn't do something with these debates, and barring any October/Madridesque surprises it sure looks like it's going to be Bush for another four years. We'll see...

Posted by: thp at September 29, 2004 10:08 PM