Never let it be said that the men who would rule us,
regardless of the actual electoral returns (an evenly divided Senate; the
popular vote in favor of a man scorned as a sore loser), don’t know how to
dress for great state occasions. Trent Lott, the man from Mississippi who will
be the non-majority leader of the new Senate,
wore a Stetson for his ranch-house meeting with not-quite-President-elect
George W. Bush, that Texas Yankee who has risen in life thanks to the
entitlements of aristocracy commonly known among more common people as
Political headgear occupies an honored place in our civic
mythology: Abraham Lincoln’s stovepipe, Calvin Coolidge’s Indian headdress, Al
Smith’s brown derby, Bella Abzug’s-er, well, whatever they were, they were big.
Mr. Lott’s entry, no doubt, is intended to send some kind of message to his
fellow citizens, just as John Kennedy’s refusal to wear a hat for his frosty
inaugural was carefully designed to elicit great public comment on his vigor.
(Yeah, tell that to William Henry Harrison.) For this Northeastern observer of a
certain age, Mr. Lott’s choice of cranial fashion brought back memories of
those beefy guys who accompanied Lee Harvey Oswald during the century’s most
infamous perp walk.
Whether the cowboy hat is the only thing that adorns Mr.
Lott’s head or is simply its most conspicuous ornament is for others to say.
That he seemed to be wishing, hoping and-given his public professions of
piety-perhaps even praying for an act of God to strike Hillary Rodham Clinton
beyond capacity before she begins her Senate term suggests the former. It also
calls to mind a bit of wisdom handed down to me some years ago re:
Western-style fashion statements. What is it that cowboy hats and hemorrhoids
have in common? Sooner or later, every a**hole gets one. The reference at the
time was to a nasty editor long since dispatched to a place not unlike that
which Senator Lott hopes Mrs. Clinton will soon be taking up residence (i.e.,
not the U.S. Senate). The Senator from Mississippi, it would seem, bears out
the correlation between cowboy hats and those bloody swollen veins in the
region of the netherlands (i.e., not Holland).
As the law courts make ready the way for Bush Redux, the
likes of Senator Lott are emerging from those dark, cold places in which they
were stored during the governor’s campaign. It’s a wonder that the Gore team
never did manage to point out that the Clinton administration, for all its
flaws, acted as a foil for the likes of the cowboy-hat crowd, those faux
populists who pose in denim and carry out the businessman’s agenda of low labor
costs and minimal government regulation. The government shutdown in 1995 was
but a metaphor for their fondest wishes, a world without the Environmental
Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the Occupational Safety
and Health Administration, etc. Why didn’t Al Gore make this case, or make it
better? Then again, why didn’t Al Gore do a lot of things, chief among them:
act like a human being?
It has always been hard to imagine W. as a threat to peace,
prosperity and whatever is left of the civic culture. He seems decent, if
dense; a man who won’t frighten the children or the animals. He will be in over
his head once the economy collapses, poor man, so he should begin making plans
now to distract us with some tactic from the Official Cultural Warriors’ Battle
Plan. Perhaps a renewed assault on the American
Civil Liberties Union will be in order once unemployment heads north.
It is not so hard, however, to see Mr. Lott and his cowboy
friends as Newt Gingrich’s rightful heirs, even if the former Speaker was and
is demonstrably more intelligent than the non-majority leader. Perhaps Mr. Gore
thought it simply would be too complicated, or too much inside baseball, to
campaign against the Southern Republicans, whose idea of “compassionate
conservatism” is not about empowering the poor through school vouchers but of
being sympathetic to the men and women of business who regard the minimum wage
as a vestige of Leninism.
Then again, that would have been a hard argument to make,
for Mr. Gore has certain sympathies in the lower-labor-cost department as well.
That’s precisely why he is not the President-elect today. Had he been a little
more skeptical of New Economy wisdoms, a little more willing to say what ought
to be obvious-that it is literally un-American to expect Old Economy workers to
go away without complaint as their jobs are shifted to dollar-a-day sweatshops
in Malaysia-well, Ralph Nader would have had trouble besting the
bile-challenged Pat Buchanan in the race to break .99 percent. But Mr. Gore did
what he did, and now the cowboys are in charge.