This Joyless Campaign Needed a Good Clambake (and Nader)

Ah, Ms. Brown, where are you this morning? Are you happy? Are you suffused with a sense of accomplishment? My last recollection of Ms. Janet Brown, the hatchet-faced, anal-retentive beauty who functions as the executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, was of her looking out at a mirthless world from a television tube. She was laying out some set of immutable rules concerning one of her Presidential debates, but the enduring impression she left was of a woman with a sour pickle stashed somewhere.

No one better personifies the bloodless emptiness of this now thankfully concluded election. You may remember that one of the ground rules of the debates was no applause, no shouting, no whistling and no stomping of feet. No applause in politics? No shouting in politics? No, no, no-none of that kind of carrying on which is so conducive to emotionalism, name-calling and voting with the heart rather than the head. Stop the music, halt the parade. The once hilarious, joyful, exuberantly enthusiastic and-above all-public and social business of electioneering is on its way to being a Carthusian exercise, a monastic discipline.

For a century or more, American political reformers, steeped in the traditions of Calvinist self-suppression, have pushed politics and elections toward a private individualism purged of social communion. The push began in the 1890’s with the introduction of the secret ballot, which isolated people in their political pew, the curtained voting booth. The straight ticket was eliminated and hence political coattails, thereby making party victories and party cohesion harder to attain and maintain. The number of elective offices was drastically cut and the terms of office were lengthened, thus making elections less frequent, less part of ordinary community life and less fun as they were changed from festive, ferial days into sober occasions of civic duty. Voting was, under the reigning middle-class definitions, not an occasion to gossip, have a good time and possibly pick up a little favor, but an obligation, a solemn act of citizenship to be performed, if not prayerfully, then at least studiously.

The 2000 election marked a further step in making the act of voting something done in isolation. This spring in the primaries voting on the Internet was introduced, but more significantly voting by mail has been introduced in two states, Oregon and Washington. In Oregon, one can vote only by mail since there are no polling places any more. Washington still has polling places for those who don’t want to drop the ballots in a mail box, but given the cost of election judges, voting machines, etc., you can expect that polling places will begin to vanish all over the country as the mail ballot becomes the ordinary means by which the vox populi gets itself voiced. As this happens, what was once uproariously public, communal and furiously tribal will now have been entirely changed into the particular, the individual, the secret and the personal.

As the years have passed and this change has worked its way into elective systems, all the secondary characteristics of jubilant, out-in-the-open electioneering have shriveled up and gone away. Campaign songs, campaign slogans, displays, barbecues, ox roasts, clambakes, uniformed marching bands-all vanished and gone, and with them the great mass meetings, the parades and processions for party and candidate. No more will there be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight, Teddy.

These changes have not made it easy for a candidate to find an audience. If we see them on those lowbrow afternoon talk shows and the no-brow late-night comedy hours making mild asses of themselves, it’s because the choice is between being seen on Oprah or not being seen at all. If it weren’t for the high schools and colleges whose civics and political-science teachers can pressure students to turn up for candidate appearances at airport tarmacs and gyms, these politicians might go through a whole campaign without speaking face to face with a citizen.

One of politics’ most salient traits is its remorseful repetitiveness. Yet this year, not only were the locutions more repetitious than in prior go-rounds, but the subjects covered by Al Gore and George W. Bush were fewer in number and scope. Or perhaps it seemed that way because these two coffee-grinders are such wearisome talkers. They both came across as a couple of tunnel-visioned Johnny One-Notes. The modern school of political management likes that; they call it “staying on message.” I call it driving us crazy. They both sounded like those cheap TV ads in which an announcer with a dentist’s-drill voice keeps repeating the 800 number until the viewer flings the cushions across the room trying to find the remote and push the mute button.

The recorded-message quality of the campaign changed somewhat when the Democrats suddenly began to attack Ralph Nader instead of George Bush. The Nader candidacy was described as a “self-indulgent crusade,” an act of “willful prankishness” and an “ego run amok” by the hysterical ninnies at The New York Times. Up and down the whole front, every howitzer of Stalinoid liberalism wheeled left and, following the new party line, attacked Mr. Nader.

I know of no Presidential campaign before Mr. Gore’s that, in the last days before the election, confessed it was losing and begged for another candidates’ votes like a homeless junkie on a street corner asking passersby to put coins in his polystyrene cup. Putting aside the tactical pros and cons of such public avowals of weakness, the attack on Mr. Nader may have undone in a few hours the months of work calculated to keep the famous reformer off television, off radio and out of the newspapers. Until this puzzling attack, Mr. Gore and his fellow Democrats had been successful in denying Mr. Nader any kind of national platform from which he might have made his case to the voters.

To some extent, at least, the attack undid that work. In a trice there was Mr. Nader, trading sound bites on television with Mr. Gore. When it comes to the cutting remark and the telling wisecrack, Mr. Nader is no man to come up against, least of all for the plodding, bellowing Mr. Gore. Likewise, when it comes to general knowledge or technical facility in public policy, as well as wit, speed of foot and mouth, idealism and the power to lead and inspire, Mr. Nader is to Mr. Gore as Mr. Gore is to Mr. Bush.

For a brief moment, Mr. Nader had escaped his media blackout thanks to the Gore-itos, and in that moment, those who listened to Mr. Nader got a flash not of what this campaign was about, but of what it might have been about had Mr. Nader found a way to get to the microphone.

The campaign was not about capital punishment, for example, although Mr. Bush will do for an American version of a real Lord High Executioner. Mr. Gore, of course, has no blood on his hands, but when he had a chance to speak up about these hundreds of executions and about an ever-lengthening list of federal crimes carrying a sentence of death, he said he favored the death penalty.

The campaign was not about the two-million-plus people in our jails and penitentiaries. It was not about the disparity of punishment accorded to black crack-cocaine users and white powdered-cocaine sniffers. It certainly was not about drugs and the bog of corruption and hypocrisy into which the nation is sliding, as more millions use more kinds of illicit drugs in the face of an impotent and foolish government.

The campaign was about an idiotic quarrel over how to spend trillions of non-existent dollars 10 years from now, as if anyone knows what will happen 10 years ahead of time in one life, much less a nation’s. The campaign was not about why companies like Texaco, Chevron, CSX, Pepsico, Pfizer and J.P. Morgan pay no federal taxes. The campaign was about fictions and fairy tales, arguments about voucher payments for poor children to attend private schools that have no empty seats for them, anyway.

In the middle of the campaign, an American warship was blown up and almost sunk, but they didn’t talk about that. They did not discuss why well over a billion Moslems, from Morocco to Indonesia, hate our guts. They did not talk about trade treaties or child labor.

But they had their election, and because they talked about so little and the whole thing was private, we have winners and losers but no mandate, no direction, no idea of what’s to be done (except possibly argue some more over who gets the money). Ah, Ms. Brown, if they’d let Ralph Nader into the thing sooner, who knows? You might have dropped your pickle.