Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Game Change: Timing is Everything

The book, Game Change, has rightly been the talk of Washington, DC, and the pundit class. Like many have, I have read the published excerpts, a few of which shock me, but most of which confirm the rumors long existent about the real nature of the notable players in the groundbreaking 2008 Presidential election. What the book does for me is question the number of times I have given the benefit of the doubt to politicians based on their passionate entreaties that they have been so unfairly smeared by the media. In some instances, I have completely doubled back and reversed course altogether from my initial reservations regarding certain candidates (namely Hillary Clinton) by second-guessing myself. In doing so, I assumed that perhaps my own first impressions were wrong or were motivated by some heretofore unrealized internalized sexism on my part.

I wonder about the timing of releasing such salacious, and ultimately damning revelations now. Clearly, John Edwards' reputation and political fortunes were rendered null and void long before the book's release, though one does get the added bonus of being supremely grateful he didn't even come remotely close to securing the nomination. The small, but substantial band of true believers who bought into what we know now was coordinated, though barely contained myth might be the real losers in all of this. These people felt demoralized and rudderless when Edwards crashed to earth. If even half of what is printed is true regarding Elizabeth Edwards, she is unlikely to be able to reserve space on daytime television couches ever again. At any rate, few will be pressing the Pope to canonize her for suffering nobly with quiet resolve from breast cancer while her husband was carrying on an affair with another woman. The Edwards', like so many political marriages, apparently are made for each other, somewhere on cloud-cuckoo-land.

What might be the intent of releasing this book now? To encourage the Democratic party to rid itself of dead weight to maintain ample majorities in both the House and Senate with the upcoming Mid-Congressional elections? To make President Obama look good by comparison? To dance one final dirge on the grave of the supposedly invincible Clinton machine? To keep the Republican party weak and divided leading into 2012? As a cautionary tale towards all Americans that one should never believe the man (or woman) behind the curtain? Or is it purely as a means to stir up controversy and sell books by the cartload? Only the authors themselves know for sure.

Everyone's been talking about the Harry Reid comment, as well they should, but when I read it, all I see is an out-of-touch politician stuck in a way of thinking forty to forty-five years out of date. Who says "Negro" anymore, aside from hip hop superstars, except maybe in an ironic context? Though the remark is embarrassing enough on its face, it also points out just why Senator Reid was in a vulnerable state before this bombshell exploded. Behind the times and certainly behind the eight ball, the ultimate impact of this ill-chosen remark will not arrive for another ten months, but if this is the beginning of the end, history will record the precise reason why. One would hope this would also be a bucket of cold water to the face of the Democratic party, who has consistently clung to wet noodles like Reid and eschewed inspirational and potentially transformative leadership out of a stubborn refusal to delegate power to those with better ideas and better strategies.

If the portrayal in Game Change rings true, then we were fortunate to neither have nominated, nor elected now-Secretary Hillary Clinton. She comes across as a supremely impotent and callous leader: petty, cold, vindictive, and totally unprepared after the surprise loss in the Iowa caucus. The irony among many is that, if this story is true, Hillary Clinton is the absolutely last person I would ever want picking up the red phone at 3 am. Furthermore, the results of Bill's apparent unwillingness to stop philandering might not have been leaked to the public, but the fear that it would proved to be a major distraction, among many many others in the Clinton War Room. There were many of us out in the blogosphere who were accused of being clandestine Republican, or at least disloyal traitors to the party for voicing these same reservations, and I hope that now perhaps we can be vindicated as placing mostly ethical conduct (if not a winning team) before party line.

I don't blame those who wanted to see Hillary Clinton as the first female President in the hopes of putting a symbolic end to the oft-reviled glass ceiling. Even going in, she was clearly not a flawless candidate, but many who participated in the front lines of the women's equality movement were willing to overlook them in order to make a clear and unequivocal statement. As for me, I can't count the number of times I've voted for a candidate who neither inspires me, nor fills me with anything more than a rather perfunctory obligation to cast a ballot (see: Kerry, John). In the minds of some, no red flag or combination of red flags could have swayed them from taking Hillary Clinton to new living quarters at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But, in saying this, it is very dangerous to superimpose any dream on one single individual, particularly when the cause itself can at times be distorted into purely self-serving ends, rather than with the intent to positively influence as many people as possible and in so doing improve life for everyone.

Regarding the Hillary supporters, I do understand their motivation. When she was criticized from whichever corner was actively firing at her, they felt criticized, too. All of the times where women in position of power were discounted or called "bitch" when they tried to intrude upon what had long been spaces reserved purely for men translated to a supreme justification for their unyielding favor with Team Clinton. Still, what one must do, however, is qualify the criticisms and the negative comments in their proper context. "Bitch" can be meant in an equally petty, snidely condescending fashion regarding any woman who broaches Patriarchal protocol and demands to be both highly visible and highly outspoken. "Bitch", it must be added, can also be an epithet for someone whose mean-spirited behavior and ill-tempered personal conduct renders them most unpleasant and not especially ingratiating. So there is a difference, though sometimes it can be obscured or manipulated when it is politically expedient to do so.

This degree of self-identification at the expense of viewing the Senator's New Clothes is what drove the hard-core Hillary loyalists, some of which became PUMAs come convention time. It is also why the mainstream Feminist organizations like NOW backed Hillary Clinton to further their own cause, though in truth they are beholden to aging leadership, obsolete strategies, and tone-deaf attempts to stay relevant and pertinent to a new generation of younger feminists as well as those interested in the cause. Thus, it shouldn't be surprising why these organizations allied themselves with a candidate who shared all these same regrettable tendencies. Hillary Clinton might as well have been a PUMA herself, since by the end, it was only those of her own age range, skin color, level of education, and background who clung tenaciously to a fading hope. Again, true change will always be threatening to the status quo, but passing the torch isn't an inspirational invocation, it is an admonition in this context. It is well past time for a new generation of Americans to move forward the cause.

Returning briefly to then-Candidate Clinton, though there was certainly an undercurrent of sexism inherent in media portrayals and public opinion of Hillary Clinton, as revealed in the book, the candidate certainly didn't help her case by her private behavior. Furthermore, she was brought down and utterly discounted by one of the most bizarre bedfellow arrangements I've ever seen in the form of the Anybody but Hillary bandwagon, the nascent Obama campaign, and the weakened, but still effective Republican party media blitzkrieg. For once, all three were on the same page, with the same target in their sights, and all were dishing out a version of the presumptive front-runner that the passage of time has proven to be closer to fact than to fiction. When you actually are that which your opposition claims that you are, then it is time to consider punting.

Books like these reveal a fundamental truth about Americans, and perhaps all humans. We are all eager voyeurs, gleefully peering behind the curtain to observe a glimpse of something we should not be able to spy, but also praying that the camera eye will never be turned upon us at any time, for any reason. One might call it hypocrisy or the by product of a repressive society, but at any rate, it is the fundamental tension that leads us to create carefully crafted public images which are often nothing like our private, unguarded selves. This is true on Facebook and it is true out in the work world. I'd rather pursue this angle rather than resorting to a bunch of faux moralizing about how this book is scandalous and tawdry to no good end. Scandalous and tawdry has become a cottage industry of sorts and it will always have an eager market. There was a market for it a thousands years ago and there will be a market for it a century hence, I have no doubt.

One would hope, then, that recognizing the painful dysfunction inherent in our political stars would cause our views to soften or at least evolve. Being given a clear example of how propriety has a way of distorting the real from the imagined one would think would be liberating. Imagine if there would be no need to outsource our own shortcomings to a war room within our own heads or, if we had the money, five or six well-paid keepers. Still, to normalize this sort of behavior is neither my intent, nor my goal. I'd rather focus on how initial altruism often takes a back seat to ultimate ambition, both in the minds of candidates and those actively involved in the game itself. This is the lasting lesson I glean from all of this.

We can continue to build a cynical notion that politicians and politics are a game of smoke and mirrors. Books like these do nothing to dispel such beliefs and everything to root them in place. A study of hubris on the scale of this one should give us all reason to wonder if, were we in the same position, we would do any better. It takes a tremendous amount of self-discipline not to give in to the applause, to the star-struck supporters, to the constant attention, and to the flirtations and propositions of those attracted to power, eloquence, and inspiration. Fame is ephemeral, certainly, but it is also often instantaneous or immediate. One day we are unknown, the next everyone knows our name. We might handle it better if we'd had time to prepare ourselves for the good times and also the slings and arrows that are part of a packaged deal. Though we may tell ourselves and others that being important is a state of being we would not wish for ourselves, there is a partially hidden part of us who craves it and would not turn it down if it were offered. The rewards are too tempting for most to resist, or at least for very long. When new fame comes attached to power, one can understand why any system views it uneasily, though the reality is that only by embracing a fresh set of legs and a new energy can we ever move farther down the road towards progress.

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