Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Hearts of Gold

by Lewis H Lapham

Harper's Magazine Notebook (January 2008)

For politicians not only represent us ... They are, as a group, the hardest working professionals; they must continuously learn new masses of facts, make judgments, give help, and continue to please. It is this obligation, of course, that makes them look unprincipled. To please and do another's will is prostitution, but it remains the nub of the representative system.
-- Jacques Barzun

Seventeen presidential candidates (nine Republican, eight Democrat) go on sale in the January and February primary elections, and if it's fair to measure their worth by the cost of their manufacture (a total of roughly $420 million through the third quarter of 2007), never before in its history has the country been so fortunate in its selection of quality merchandise. Why then the murmur of dissatisfaction and complaint, the suspicion that the hearts of gold can't be weighed simply by the size of the money they raise? The media showroom salesmen rummage through the season's political piece goods as if through an unsatisfactory shipment of summer hats - this one the wrong color, that one too wide across the forehead, these other ones lacking the moral fiber of genuine Panama straw. The candidates on tour with the balloons and the gospel choirs compare their rivals to defective Christmas toys - Senator Hillary Clinton wobbles; Senator Barack Obama comes with no directions in the box; Rudy Giuliani makes strange clanking noises.

The judgments fail to account for the job description, which is to be of service, believe in God, and never forget that the customer, although sometimes weird, is always right. The work is not as easy as it looks on The Daily Show, and when reading the op-ed columnists disappointed by the absence of Pericles among the items listed on the Iowa and New Hampshire ballots, I remember the story told by Mort Janklow about his interview with the senior management of the New York Democratic Party during the early months of the Kennedy Administration.

Not yet settled in his career as a prominent literary agent, Mort in the autumn of 1961 was drawn to the romantic lantern light flickering in the gardens of Camelot. Perceiving politics as a noble calling, he thought to run for a soon-to-become-vacant seat in the House of Representatives reserved for a tribune of the people from Manhattan's Lower East Side. Three of the party chieftains invited Mort to lunch at a French restaurant on West Fifty-seventh Street. They weren't interested in his views on taxes or civil rights, didn't care whether he'd read Uncle Tom's Cabin and George Washington's Farewell Address. Mort's credentials as a candidate were adequate to the purpose - presentable, articulate, familiar with the issues, no prior criminal arrest - but before agreeing to underwrite his campaign they set him a test of his aptitude for the art of democratic politics.

He was asked to imagine that for six months he'd been selling himself on street corners, that the campaign speech had gone stale in his mouth, that he was sick of his own voice and tired of telling lies, that he no longer could see the humor in the questions asked by newspaper reporters looking for him to fall off a podium or forget the name of the president of Mexico. The party has promised him that on Columbus Day he gets the day off. He can stay in bed with his wife, talk to his children, maybe watch a movie or go for a walk in Central Park. Columbus Day dawns, and a volunteer telephones to say that a car will be out front in twenty minutes. The schedule has Mort at the head of a parade marching through Little Italy between 8:00 am and noon. He gets to wear a red-white-and-blue sash and carry the cross of San Gennaro. It's raining.

Mort's examiners didn't doubt that he would march in the parade (for Jack Kennedy and the New Frontier if not for Columbus and San Gennaro), but would he want to march in the parade?

"No", said Mort, "not really".

"Then don't waste your time or ours, because that's all that it's about - waving and smiling and a crowd of maybe fifty people, some of whom speak English". The committee ordered cognac, offered Mort a cigar, and drank a toast to the beginning, middle, and end of his political career.

Forty years ago, in the midst of the democratic uproar otherwise known as the 1960s, it was still possible to think that political theory had something to do with the practice of government, that the country's elected representatives were somehow responsive to the voice of the sovereign people. For proofs of the hypothesis one could look to the lowering of America's racial barricades, to the hand-painted signs protesting the Vietnam War in the streets of Boston and Chicago. Political debate took the form of argument instead of being staged as high school spelling bees; haircuts weren't yet rated as significant campaign issues; the cost of running for Congress was equal to the cost of buying the medallion for a New York taxi-cab. Democracy was still a work in progress unsupported by the scaffolding of pious ritual that now defends it against the threat of any further use. Al Gore made the point last October to Bob Herbert of the New York Times, explaining why, despite having won the popular vote for the presidency in 2000 (as well as both an Academy Award and the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007), he chose not to set forth on this year's road to the White House. "What politics has become", he said, "requires a level of tolerance for triviality and artifice and nonsense that I find I have in short supply".

Gore's acquaintance with politics is a good deal more extensive than Janklow's, but the two men tell what has become a familiar story in the citadels of the country's wealth and the conference centers of its higher purpose. Among the financial and media chieftains in New York as among their counterparts in Hollywood and Silicon Valley, the discussion sooner or later works its way around to the poor quality of America's public servants, whether Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, incumbent senator or would-be congressman. I never doubt the exquisiteness of anybody's taste in politicians, but when I sometimes ask one or another of those present why they themselves don't do the work, I'm told that politics is a profession that no longer attracts the best people, that it's become increasingly difficult to hire decent help.

The explanations differ - the long hours and the low pay, the intrusiveness and stupidity of the news media, fewer intelligent prospects willing to make the shift from subject to object, recognition of the fact that one stands a better chance of improving the lot of one's fellow men by working through voluntary and non-governmental organizations (for example, Bill Gates arranging aid to Africa, AI Gore promoting the awareness of global climate change) than by striking ornamental poses on the parade floats of a theme-park republic.

Assuming the answers embody a consensus among the country's A-list citizens, then whether for reasons fair or foul, their departure from the political arena suggests that they entrust their lives, liberties, and pursuits of happiness to their financial planners instead of to their elected representatives. From a legislature they expect the services provided by a well-run resort hotel (no suicide bombers exploding on the terrace or the lawn, a staff of hard-working professionals processing new masses of facts), and in a president they look to find a first-class concierge glad to be of help. Plato referred to the arrangement as oligarchy, a form of government rooted in property qualifications and therefore less confusing than democracy. He distilled the concept into two sentences: "When wealth and the wealthy are valued in the city, virtue and good men are less valued. What is valued is practiced, what is not valued is not practiced."

If there is a more concise summing-up of our current political and cultural circumstance, I haven't yet come across it on Fox News, which is a shame because as a statement "fair and balanced", it accounts for the fact that both Republican and Democratic parties second James Madison's motion that the sovereign people are meant to be seen and not heard. To read the angry commentaries posted on the Internet if not on the style pages of the country's major newspapers is to know that a majority of the American people wish to be quit of the war in Iraq, object to their government's adopting the methodologies of a police state, would divert much of the country's military expenditure to allocations for schools, roads, medical insurance, debt relief, and the environment. The petitioners being poor, their concerns are ignored. Congress doesn't see fit to stop the killing in Iraq, postpones debate on the questions of energy and health-care policy, confirms an attorney general ambivalent in his statements about torture but clear in his thought that the president on occasion can claim powers not granted by the Constitution, searches diligently for ways and means to protect the home-mortgage industry (that is, the makers, not the users, of junk and subprime loans) and to reduce to fifteen percent of income the tax rate charged to hedge-fund managers earning upwards of $50 million a year.

The uselessness of the American democracy as an instrument for revolutionary change comes as no surprise to the half of the American electorate that doesn't go to the November polls. To vote for what? Presumably to keep up the appearance of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

The media salesmen fill in the blanks between the theory and the practice with increasingly elaborate production values, preserving the eternal flame in the temples of virtual reality - hundreds of pages of expert newspaper commentary extolling the virtues of democracy as a cure for old age and fascism, thousands of hours of talk-show jokes testifying to the strength and vigor of the First Amendment. For PBS Ken Burns produces yet another hymn to the heroics of World War II; in the New York Times, David Brooks cites opinion-poll statistics (from the General Social Survey, the Harris Poll, and the Pew Research Center) indicating that almost everybody in America is leading a wonderful life - 86 percent of Americans content with their job, 76 percent satisfied with their family income, 62 percent expecting their "personal situation" to reach record highs. The correspondents weren't as upbeat about public affairs (only 25 percent content with the state of the nation, 68 percent believing the country to be on the wrong track), but in private, which is where democracy really counts, they didn't feel "personally miserable or downtrodden". Of course not, said Brooks, how could they? "Their homes are bigger. They own more cars. They feel more affluent ... they have built lifestyle niches for themselves where they feel optimistic and fulfilled."

So do the hearts of gold aboard the campaign buses asking to be appreciated for their property qualifications. How much money can they attract? How wisely do they spend it on the displays of self? How sure-footed are their moral values, how well do they get along with Jesus? When confronting one another on the quiz shows presented along the lines of reality television (Dennis Kucinich lost in the deserts of New Mexico, Tom Tancredo up against Mike Huckabee in the amazing race from Dartmouth to Des Moines, Hillary Clinton attacked by wild male animals in Las Vegas), can they entertain the audience with "barbed" rejoinders and "pointed" witticisms supporting the illusion that they're engaged in outspoken, old-style, genuine political debate, that somehow their words mean something, conceivably might set policy for the holder of the winning lottery ticket in the November election?

Given the task at hand - which is to address the needs and purposes of the figurative as opposed to a representative democracy - the season's candidates deserve our gratitude and praise. They do the work as well as or better than their counterparts in Russia or Turkmenistan; the production costs (in addition to the $420 million raised for last year's primary campaigns, at least $1 billion likely to be spent on this year's presidential election) qualify for the rating of honorific waste, regarded by Thorstein Veblen as the most prestigious form of conspicuous consumption.

On the other hand, if we complain about the performance and object to the expense, we might want to consider offshoring the labor. I read in the papers, and I'm told by informed sources at the Council on Foreign Relations, that the democratic idea (that is, the sovereignty of the people as the guarantor of liberty) excites large numbers of college students in Africa and Asia, and if we can outsource the sewing of our sneakers and blue jeans, also our back-office accounting and the assembly of our computers and television screens, why not the making of our politics? Several companies resident in India and available through the Internet now provide administrative services (buying theater tickets, making travel arrangements and hair appointments) for optimistic and self-fulfilled Americans (the ones with more cars and bigger houses); a number of agencies offer "womb-rentals" to less self-fulfilled American women who reduce their hospital costs by sending in vitro embryos to be carried by surrogate Indian mothers through the disfiguration of pregnancy and the labor of birth.

Conceive of the future as something bought instead of made (of the American democracy as finished piece goods rather than a work in progress), and if we're dissatisfied with our domestic political product, surely somewhere in the global market we can find better quality at a cheaper price.

Lewis H Lapham is the National Correspondent for Harper's Magazine and the editor of Lapham's Quarterly.

Bill Totten


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