Column for 10 August, 2008
Beer and Presidents
“Shepherd your people with your staff, the flock of your inheritance, which lives by itself in a forest, in fertile pasturelands. Let them feed in Bashan and Gilead as in days long ago.”
America has always had a deep anti-intellectual streak. Maybe it’s a product of our revolutionary origins, a reaction against the idea of rule by our “betters.” Maybe it has something to do with America’s Protestant religious heritage. Even today, you can find conservative commentators who sneer at the Enlightenment. Or it could be a function of the cherished national myth that ours is a “classless society” where anyone can rise to greatness based solely on the content of their character. Of course, there’s a fine line between anti-intellectualism and the worship of outright ignorance, and naturally that line tends to get pole-vaulted over in politics. The repulsive Andrew Jackson, despite his fortune made on slaves and stolen Indian land, nevertheless portrayed himself as the hero of the common frontiersman, in contrast to the “stuffed shirt” image of John Quincy Adams. Later, William Henry Harrison, a Virginia aristocrat, used the same tactic against Jackson’s Vice President, Martin Van Buren. While some Presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were admired for their intelligence, the 1950’s saw Adlai Stevenson vilified (though, to be fair, he tended to bring it on himself) as an “egghead” and by the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies, the poster-child for ignorance Spiro Agnew could rail against “pointy-headed liberals” and “East Coast intellectuals” while Richard Nixon smirked beneath a hardhat. The same election that inflicted Nixon upon a hapless nation saw the rise of George Wallace who firmly cemented populism, exuberant ignorance and racism. In 1988, the dour colorless Michael Dukakis was excoriated by the geeky aristocrat George H.W. Bush for advocating a farm plan that called for planting Belgian endive, in contrast one supposes to more mainly crops such as corn or wheat. Of course, none of this is new to Texas, where stupidity has always been trumpeted as a political virtue. Maybe it’s not surprising then that Texas gave the nation (sorry, nation!), George W. Bush, a wealthy son of privilege with an intellect a mile-wide and an inch deep, nevertheless portrayed as a “guy you could have a beer with,” which I suppose is ironic given Dubya’s abstemiousness. Thus, the 2000 election was reduced to a student council race between the captain of the football team and the president of the chess club. Al Gore came across as prissy and nerdy; Bush wore his monumental ignorance on his sleeve. We now know from that little experiment that the guys you drink beer with will, if given half a chance, wreck the economy, trash the Constitution, and embroil the country in a grinding war of attrition based upon half-truths and outright lies. Who knew? Four years later, a decorated war hero with frankly middle class roots was portrayed as a rich, cowardly elitist by a man who used his millionaire family’s political connections to avoid combat service in Vietnam. Al Gore and John Kerry both contributed to their own character assassination by inexplicably refusing to defend themselves until it was too late. Small wonder then that John McCain is using the same tactic against Barack Obama. McCain, who is rich for precisely the same reason John Kerry is rich (marriage), a man with five houses and a private jet considered indispensable for getting around the evidently unpaved wilds of Arizona by his second wife, is trying to paint Obama as Michael Dukakis with a better speaking voice. When Obama made the point that offshore drilling (a position, like many, only recently embraced by McCain) would generate less oil than would be saved by all Americans keeping their cars serviced and their tires properly inflated, the McCain campaign, in a frankly brilliant piece of political judo, turned it into a riff on how dorky Obama is. Real Americans don’t inflate their tires! McCain’s descent into desperate pandering may have reached rock bottom (though that is probably too much to ask) with his recent appearance at the infamous Sturgis, South Dakota motorcycle rally where he (one hopes jokingly) offered his wife in a beauty contest which ESPN genteelly noted is “topless and frequently bottomless.” What’s next? A guest-shot on pro-wrestling? The danger to Obama, of course, is that while he is relatively unknown at the national level, the general public’s residual memories of John McCain are “war hero” and “maverick.” If, as polling suggests, voters are primarily interested in Obama’s qualifications, he cannot afford to allow himself to be indelibly branded as an earnest yet naïve dork. At the same time, McCain can tap into a rich vein of racially-charged subtext that Obama is “uppity.” And such attacks are hard to fight back against. Americans can spot a phony; Obama bowling and Hillary Clinton downing shots looked exactly like what they were—contrived, condescending pandering photo ops. Obama is clearly a very smart guy; he shouldn’t play dumb. He needs to realize that most Americans don’t know him and aren’t likely to read his books. Without claiming he was born in a log cabin on the prairie, he should emphasize his humble roots, growing up with a single mother. Americans do not, I think, insist on having a president who isn’t smarter than them; they do, however, prefer presidents who can relate to their problems. Obama won’t do that by riding in NASCAR. He seems to do well in town-hall settings; he needs more of those to be seen talking to ordinary Americans about the issues actually on their minds-gas prices, mortgages, the economy. And above all, he needs to fight back. While defining himself, he also needs to remind Americans that the “maverick” of 2000 is, in fact, a Republican and has completely subordinated himself to Bush’s agenda, in some instances taking positions that are even more extreme than Bush’s. If as it seems apparent this is Obama’s race to lose, he cannot afford to fight it on McCain’s turf. Or to put it another way, never wrassle a pig. You only get muddy and the pig enjoys it.