Thursday, February 24, 2005

Bash, Hammer, and Slash
I decided that this was the week to reread Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 by Hunter S. Thompson--and now I wish I'd reread it during 2004, because it's full of some strangely familiar tales--for example, a controversial vote-count in Ohio during the Democratic primary--and political wisdom somebody should have listened to last year.

In 1972, of course, such wisdom could have been written off as Thompsonian hyperbole. Back then, the conventional view was that politics in general and a presidential campaign in particular were gentlemanly contests of statesmen, and every contestant placed his country's best interests ahead of his own. Thompson didn't see it that way, and found an effective football metaphor to describe the way he did see it.
There is not much difference in basic temperament between a good tight end and a successful politician. They will both go down in the pit and do whatever has to be done--then come up smiling, and occasionally licking blood off their teeth.

Gene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb was not a tight end, but he had the same instincts. The Baltimore Colts paid Gene to mash quarterbacks--and, failing that, to crack collarbones and make people deaf.

Shortly before he OD'ed on smack [in 1963], Big Daddy explained his technique to a lunchtime crowd of Rotarians. "I always go straight for the head," he explained. "Whoever's across from me, I bash him with the flat part of my hand--nail him square on the ear-hole of his helmet about five straight times. Pretty soon he gets so nervous he can't concentrate. He can't even hear the signals. Once I get him spooked, the rest is easy."

There is a powerful fascination that attaches to this kind of efficiency--and it is worth remembering that Kennedy won the 1960 Democratic nomination not by appealing to the higher and finer consciousness of the delegates, but by laying the stomp & whipsong on Adlai Stevenson's people when the deal went down in Los Angeles. The "Kennedy machine" was so good that even Mayor Daley came around. A good politician can smell the hammer coming down like an old sailor smells a squall behind the sun.
I read that the other night and instantly understood why today's Democrats are so feeble. We lack the tight end's instinct. We act as if laying on the stomp & whipsong is beneath our dignity, and that appealing to the higher and finer consciousness of people is the only decent way to play the political game. In short, we do not know how to drop the hammer. And so we get beaten like a gong again and again and again.

I suspect that Howard Dean knows how to drop the hammer--but whether he can convince the rest of the Democratic Party of the necessity of doing it is an open question. And anyway, Dean is removed from the day-to-day strategizing of government, where hammer-dropping is also required--which means that Democrats in Congress have to figure it out, too. To his credit, Harry Reid has already shown more fight in a couple of months than Tom Daschle showed in all his years as Leader, and Nancy Pelosi seems to be growing a spine, too. But there's quite a distance to travel between learning how to stand up for yourself and going forth to righteously kick ass.

Of course, how righteous Democratic ass-kicking will seem to millions observing it through the media filter is an open question, too. I forget where I read it, but recently somebody observed that people like Wolf Blitzer and Tim Russert, who are most likely liberals in the voting booth, are harder on Democrats than on Republicans on the air because they fear being Ratherized by the right. In other words, they lean to the right to leave no doubt that they're not leaning to the left. And so, if Democrats start employing the same hard-nosed tactics that are already common practice on the right, you can guess how the talking heads will spin them. You need do no more than observe the media's non-response to the Gannon/Guckert story--paid partisan mole masquerading as legitimate reporter turns out to be gay prostitute--and then imagine the fantods Wolf and Tim would be having if a similar story had occurred on Bill Clinton's watch.

The good news, I suppose, is that far more people observing politics today understand that political combat is like a knife-fight in a phone booth than understood it 33 years ago. Not everyone does, of course: Hillary Clinton, the presumptive presidential front-runner for 2008, is already distancing herself from either knife-fighting or hammer-dropping, tacking away from the liberal wing of the party in her husband's classic, triangulating fashion. But I am beginning to think, brilliant though he was, that the 1992 version of Bill Clinton might have a harder time winning in today's supercharged political environment. From now on, Democrats have to be prepared not just to play, but to bash, hammer, and slash--because our opponents already do.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?