Monday, October 27, 2008


October 30, 2008

Voting in America, while a public duty, is an intensely private act. It is something akin to how the psychologist William James defined religion: "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude." When you enter the polling booth and draw the curtain, you are utterly alone.
It was not always so. In an eye-opening article in The New Yorker of October 13, Jill Lepore describes the evolution of voting procedures in the United States, from manifestly public expressions of preference by voice vote or by counting heads in a candidate's corner of the polling place — much like caucus states conduct their party elections to this day — to the secret ballot, first devised in Australia in 1856, which only became the universal norm for general elections in this country at the end of the nineteenth century. The "Australian ballot," as it was called, generated much debate at the time, both here and abroad. When Britain was considering the measure in the 1860's, the political philosopher John Stuart Mill argued that voting privately would undermine individual accountability; would you want your legislators voting on bills anonymously instead of by roll-call? "Only if a man votes ‘under the eye and criticism of the public,'" Lepore writes, quoting Mill, "will he put public interest above his own." Mill's critics contended that legislatures are qualitatively different from electorates because their members share equal power. In a general election, Lepore summarizes, "the powerless will always be prevailed upon by the powerful; only secrecy can protect them from bribery and bullying." The critics prevailed; Britain went to the secret ballot in 1872.
In at least one respect, Mill was right. Without having to stand up and be counted, voters can be most capricious; behind the curtain, anything can happen. This is why pre-election polling is so often an unreliable predictor. Put on the spot over the telephone, people will say the first thing that comes to mind, or what they think the pollster wants to hear — or they'll just hang up. In the booth, they are left with their own decision, in their own solitude.
In this election especially, there may be many more undecideds than the surveys show. They will arrive at the polling place beset by "feelings, acts, and experiences" stored up in their brains over two years-plus of constant campaigning, now compressed into a few anxious seconds. They will process all accumulated data partly rationally, partly intuitively, partly emotionally, in the stream of their consciousness:
Republican, Vietnam hero, experienced, creative, maverick, spontaneous, impetuous, old, disabled, sloganeering, "my friends," White; anti-abortion, Keaton Five, surge-is-working, hundred years in Iraq, gas-tax holiday, Bush, Country First, Joe the Plumber, change, Cindy and the seven homes, "that one," socialized medicine, suspend campaign to solve fiscal crisis, flip-flop, trickle-down, Reagan...
Democrat, Black, youthful, determined, quick of mind, inexperienced, opportunistic, demagogue, Hillary-spoiler, community organizer, Leroy Brown, Jeremiah Wright, Weatherman Bomber, White mother, Hussein, Oprah, Teddy, Caroline, "thatone," Black; yes-we-can, change, pro-abortion rights, no preconditions, failed Bush policy, timetable for withdrawal, lipstick on a pig, mortgage relief, public works projects, solar and wind, health-care gradualist, Black...
Republican, hockey mom, you-betcha, young and perky, terminally fluffy, son in Iraq, son with Down syndrome, campaign- funded clothes-horse, apostate Catholic, witch-hunting church, Tina Feye; anti-abortion, drill-baby-drill, Putin rearing head over Alaska, less Rove/more rogue, 3 a.m. phone call, Katie Couric, White...
Democrat, Scranton and Wilmington, Amtrak commuter, Amtrak non-supporter, widower, avuncular, loose-lipped, Catholic; pro- abortion rights, foreign-policy wonk, 35-year Washington insider, partition Iraq, White.
Take deep breath. Push lever, touch screen, fill in bubble. Pull back curtain. Go home.
Sigh in relief. Tell no one. Buyer's remorse.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


October 23, 2008

The Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner is a unique event in American politics. Held every October for the last 63 years, it draws major figures of all parties and persuasions to have a good time for a good cause. Its keynote speakers have included eleven presidents or presidents-to-be, foreign leaders, diplomats, generals, entertainers, and broadcasters. The dinner gets the most attention in presidential election years. Beginning in 1960 with John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, five pairs of opposing candidates have jointly shared the dias, culminating last Thursday with John McCain and Barack Obama, fresh from their testy debate the previous night.
Unlike the frivolous froth of the Gridiron Club and the Washington Correspondents Association dinners, the Al Smith bash is light-hearted without being light-headed. It affords speakers the momentary opportunity to relax and joke about themselves and their rivals, but also to interject words of inspiration and principle above the usual partisan sloganeering. The Archbishop of New York shares their table, and the proceeds of the event help to fund the work of Catholic Charities of New York, which serves the poor and distressed regardless of their religion. (This year, the $1,000-a-plate white-tie affair at the Waldorf Astoria raised nearly four million dollars.)
The dinner was initiated in 1945 by Archbishop Francis Spellman, arguably the most powerful political personage in New York City next to the mayor, to honor the memory of New York Governor Al Smith, who had died the previous year. Born in a tenement on the Lower East Side in 1873, Smith had no formal education beyond elementary school, yet with his quick wit and shrewd political sense rose rapidly through the ranks of the Democratic Tammany Hall political machine and was elected governor in 1918. Defeated in 1920, he aligned himself with the progressive wing of the party and subsequently regained the governorship in 1922, serving three more terms. His impassioned efforts on behalf of the poor and working classes earned him national recognition, and in 1928 he was nominated to run for president against Republican bureaucrat Herbert Hoover — who beat him in a landslide.
Smith's loss has often been attributed to "the three P's": prosperity, prohibition, and prejudice. His warnings of impending disasters in agriculture, industry, and finance went unheeded. His thinly-veiled "neutrality" on Prohibition — as well as his Irish roots — made him suspect among the drys. And his Catholic faith turned many against him in fear. Despite declaring his belief in "absolute freedom of conscience for all" and "the absolute separation of Church and State," anti-Catholic groups nationwide depicted him as a pawn of the Vatican. In one curious but not atypical example, one flyer showed a photo of Smith beside New York's Cardinal Patrick Hayes decked out in his medieval regalia at the 1927 dedication of the New York-New Jersey Holland Tunnel, with a caption claiming the tunnel was the passageway through which the pope would secretly enter the United States and set himself up in the Smith White House.
Following his defeat, Smith turned to business. As president of Empire State, Inc., he masterminded the construction of the Empire State Building in just 13 months in 1930-31. After vying unsuccessfully with Franklin Roosevelt for the 1932 Democratic nomination, he left elective politics for good.
Al Smith's image as "the Happy Warrior," his dedication to social justice, and his relentless and far-sighted opposition to racial and religious bigotry have not been lost on those chosen to speak at the gala for the foundation he established and his descendants have perpetuated. In 1960, with the election just weeks away and facing anti-Catholic sentiment reminiscent of Smith's own campaign, John Kennedy joined with his opponent Richard Nixon to joke amicably about themselves and each other, to acknowledge the country's debt to Smith, and to deplore religious intolerance. Forty-eight years later, with the issue of race still in play, McCain and Obama again invoked Smith's spirit with good humor and uncommon decency.
Surveying the scene from wherever he is in the cosmos, Al Smith must have been enormously pleased.
Eighty years ago this November, as the dismal election results came in, Smith sent a one-word telegram to Pope Pius XI at the Vatican: "Unpack."

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


October 9, 2008

The presidential campaigns have been going on for so long that not only do many of us not remember when they started, we can’t imagine that they’ll ever end.
But end they will. In less than a month, the airwaves and cablewaves will take on the eerie stillness of an armistice, when the boom of cannon cease and the song of birds is heard again, when the relentless roar of the candidates’ commercials abruptly stops and the soothing tones of ads for curing erectile dysfunction and osteoporosis take their place.
Historians of polling say that most undecided voters solidify their choices about a month before an election. The candidates have been in our homes, endlessly jabbering to us through our TV sets, for so many years that they are like neighbors, and like neighbors, we size them up by gut: Can we trust them? Can we rely on them? Are we comfortable with them? Will we invite them over for dinner or keep them at arm’s length?
In the closing days of a campaign, it’s as much about personalities as about policies. In Latin, a persona was the mask that actors wore in Greek and Roman plays to represent their characters. Per-sona literally means "sound-through." What we see on our TV screens are the candidates’ masks, their personae; somehow we have to judge what’s behind them.
We’ve been seeing some interesting examples of personae of late. Barack Obama, who at an earlier stage of the campaign was giving many Democrats "buyer’s remorse" by appearing distant and hesitant when off of his fiery stump, has turned decisive and forceful — "presidential" — in recent weeks. John McCain, by contrast, has betrayed a disconcerting dithering behind his hero’s mask. Most astonishingly, Sarah Palin’s persona retrieved its scrappy, homey form at the debate with Joe Biden, not only redeeming her candidacy but making some people think it’s now a Palin/McCain ticket instead of the other way around.
What’s driven people to scrutinize personae over policies at this time more than ever is the global financial meltdown. The situation of the economy is so contorted and confusing that in the short run the voter has to choose a president based on perceived "leadership qualities" rather than solid proposals, of which there are few. It was much the same in the 1932 contest between Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt, in times of similar economic peril and uncertainty: Nobody was quite sure what they were voting for, but everybody was sure whom they were voting for. Roosevelt powerfully supplied the what just days after his inauguration; we can only hope against hope for something of the same.
No matter how they feel about the candidates’ personae, voters had better use that now-legendary kitchen table of theirs to lay out the range of issues and think them through on their own — call it the "Straight-Thought Express." Neither candidate nor their parties have presented the bold plans of action that are desperately needed — the Democrats are typically timid and the Republicans are simply confused — but we can develop our own wish-lists and vote for the candidate and the party that seem to offer the best chance of realizing them, however haltingly.
On the economy: What do you now believe about regulation and deregulation? How free should a free market be? How much social security (in lower case) should every person be guaranteed? Should basic saving and first-home borrowing be simple, secure, and available to all, or should people be forced to make market decisions they can’t possibly understand?
On health care: Ditto. Should everyone have equal access to a simple, universal system, or should they have to wade through endless and often deceptive "options" fabricated by insurance middlemen?
On energy and transportation: Should the government enact a comprehensive policy that favors renewable energy sources over fossil fuels, and rail transportation over highways and air?
On taxes: Should taxes be directly linked to expenditures, instead of cutting the first while increasing the second? Would you be willing to bear higher taxes for health care and transportation, for example, rather than being "taxed" by the insurance companies and oil conglomerates?
On the Supreme Court: Given that the future president will appoint several new justices, do you want a court that is ideologically lopsided, or one that has to deliberate to strike a balance in its decisions?
On foreign policy: Is Iraq a sovereign country or a vassal state? Is Afghanistan a quicksand for the U.S. as it was for the U.S.S.R.? Can Cuba best be liberated by free trade? Can the U.S. broker a just and even-handed resolution to the Israel/Palestine stalemate? Are establishing diplomatic relations, opening trade, and presenting a non-belligerent stance actually the best ways to destabilize the dictators in Iran and North Korea?
That’s hardly the end to the questions, either. You may have to add another leaf to your table.
No candidate, no party will fulfill all your wishes; they either are too paralyzed by the polls or don’t know what to think themselves.
But develop your wish-list anyway, and go with your gut about those personae. Then hold your nose and vote.

Friday, October 3, 2008


October 2, 2008

I admit that I was like many others in the country who tuned into the first McCain-Obama debate last Friday: I tuned out halfway through. Having all those sound-bites from their stump speeches aggregated into one enormous mega-bite was just too much to bear.
I might do the same for tonight’s vice-presidential debate too, but for a different reason: The pathos of it may be too much to bear.
A few columns back, I wrote that Sarah Palin had hit the national scene like a hurricane, overturning conventional (and convention) wisdom and throwing presidential politics into disarray: Would she exhibit exceptional insight and judgment, compensating for her paucity of experience? Could she get up to speed on the issues in time for the debate with Joe Biden — and beyond? Would her gender alone be able to attract disaffected Hillary voters, despite her opposite opinions on just about every subject? Would she make McCain look even older and voters even more frightened of the Unthinkable, now compounded with a second Unthinkable that she’d have to step into his shoes?
After a month on the campaign trail, often appearing as Maverick’s sidekick to draw out the curious and energize his rallies, sometimes appearing on her own to give the same "Thanks-but-no-thanks" speech over and over, and occasionally appearing on TV interviews to stutter and sputter, some of her virginal appeal may be waning. She’s holding her evangelical base, of course, and still drawing out the curious, but even some in her own party are recoiling in embarrassment, and in dread of what she might do next. Kathleen Parker of the conservative National Review has called on her to quit the race for the good of the ticket.
The debate with Biden might be the clincher. New York Times columnist William Kristol, editor of the neocon Weekly Standard, thinks that Palin’s problem is repression: Her true self is being inhibited by "the former Bush aides brought in to handle her." McCain, he writes, "needs to free her to use her political talents and communicate in her own voice."
Perhaps he is right. Perhaps she was so befuddled in her interviews with Charles Gibson and Katie Couric because she was over-scripted. Perhaps, left to be the Sarah Barracuda of old, she can overcome that feeling of pity most of us experienced as we watched her squirm.
But Biden has his own problem. Speaking of handling, how will he handle her? He’s had 30 years of senatorial experience in domestic and foreign policy, starting his learning curve when she was a teenager. He also has the richly deserved reputation for the thoughtless and outlandish remark. Will he attack her without mercy? Will he snicker at her naïveté? Will he keep his distance and wait for her to sink her own ship? Will he be deferential? Can he be deferential? He may destroy his objectively overwhelming advantage with a couple shots from his own loose cannon.
Biden’s challenge here is not only to be political but to be "politic," which Webster’s defines as "shrewdly tactful." He can’t bash her as he’s been bashing McCain on the stump, however much her statements may beg for it. He can’t just ignore her as Obama has done — that’s impossible for him. He has to tack carefully because she is not just a politician, she is a symbol, and a unique one at that. Unlike the hard-bitten Hilary, the true pit bull with lipstick, Palin comes across as childlike and vulnerable, and the slightest misspoken word or look from Biden may trigger a backlash of negativity against him and of sympathy for her.
Kristol argues that Palin will acquit herself in the debate if she can "dispatch quickly any queries about herself, and confidently assert that of course she’s qualified to be vice president" — and then go on to attack Obama. It may not be that easy.
What we may see tonight is not a political contest but a psychodrama, a playing out of various meanings of power and weakness. We may find ourselves cringing and changing the channel. Or we may find ourselves transfixed.