Cool Kids in Charge of Political Debate

In a sense, the Hillary haters quoted in my colleague Joe Conason’s column last week have it right. It really doesn’t matter whether or not Hillary Rodham threw in the word “Jew” to break up a string of two expletives. It doesn’t matter because the incident is alleged to have happened 26 expletive years ago. Lots of people say and do dumb things in their youth (although I don’t believe for a minute that even a youthful Hillary Rodham said what she has been accused of saying). They’ve even been known to do likewise in middle age. Should public people, elected leaders, live in fear that a moment of stupidity may one day appear in a book commissioned by a hostile infotainment conglomerate? Are there, in fact, no statutes of limitations for politicians?

Apparently not. The late John Sirica stands accused of having connections to organized crime because … well, in part because he was a boxer as a kid in Washington, D.C., in the 1920’s, a time when boxing was illegal and therefore under the close supervision of mobsters. The First Lady is forced to deny a story from 1974. George W. Bush spent a fair portion of last year parrying questions about rumored long-ago cocaine use. Any candidate for offices ranging from dogcatcher to President must account for his or her marijuana use while in college. Potential candidates for Vice President are, even at this moment, explaining to professional vetters every tax deduction they’ve made in the last quarter century. And, in the name of the public’s right to know, opposition researchers, private investigators and investigative journalists are poring over the biographies of every candidate for federal office this year, hoping to uncover inconsistencies, small lies, spurned lovers and double-crossed childhood friends.

The political is personal these days. It’s tempting to suggest that we deserve shallow politics, given that under the leadership of the baby boomers, we’ve become a shallow society. But by condemning everybody, we spare nobody, and that’s hardly justice. The people who deserve issueless, vacuous, personality-driven politics are the people who have imposed it upon us-the consultants, media executives and spinmeisters who, as a matter of fact, have isolated themselves from the effects of stupid politics and rotten government.

There are any number of reasons for this emphasis on personal behavior, on personality, as opposed to public policy and great issues. The media, for the most part, believe that there are no great issues anymore-they’ve been settled since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and even that great issue was getting tired by 1989. And the phrase “public policy” reeks of op-ed earnestness, and if we’ve learned anything during the 1990’s, it is that old-fashioned op-ed earnestness just doesn’t play well among the buzzkeepers. In place of issues, then, today’s commentators focus their attention and their well-rehearsed wit on the foibles and quirks of those who would lead us.

Politicians have, in their own way, bought into this. As this space has observed more than once in the past (in fact as recently as, er, a week ago), candidates have seized upon their biographies as a selling point, inviting a certain amount (but only a certain amount) of scrutiny of their personal narratives. They understand that today’s media want a story, and they oblige by providing one. The fact is, however, that even the most vapid among them have some sort of record (except, of course, when they’re rookies) equally worthy of inspection. But only a reporter unworthy of the label “ambitious” would dare to include the phrase “voting record” in his or her copy.

Luckily for us, there are brave souls willing to defy the dictates of the buzzkeepers. Those voters interested in Rick Lazio’s record in the House of Representatives, or Hillary Clinton’s role in health care reform and children’s welfare, will have little trouble finding such information. But those who dig up such information rarely are rewarded with the paltry perks of the business. The cable television channels are filled with egregious blowhards who can hardly begin to hide their ignorance, and yet, because they are able to bark a glib line or two about a candidate’s wardrobe or speaking style or personal failings, they are presented as keepers of civic wisdom.

This will have to stop, some day. It probably will take an unspeakable crisis or disaster of some sort, hopefully not nearly as dramatic as that which led New York to turn its back on glib, vacuous Jimmy Walker in the early 1930’s. But it has to stop. A great nation ought to be unafraid of discharging its duties, and certainly should be confident enough to take its civic affairs seriously.

But, at the moment anyway, boomers still think that running the country is no different from high school. Anybody who read a little too much was never invited to sit with the cool kids.