Economic and war news is so grim that Americans are fortunate if they can sometimes enjoy politics as theatre, as a small compensation for all the suffering and destruction that politicians cause. Politics is indeed very expensive entertainment, but since we are paying for it whether or not we enjoy it, we might as well enjoy it. This requires seeing most politicians as fools, not just knaves.
Americans could at least laugh at George W. Bush’s chuckleheaded clownishness as he doubled the national debt to $10 trillion and arrogated imperial powers while decrying big government. Americans could smile at Darth Vader jokes while Dick Cheney’s and Donald Rumsfeld’s arrogant certitudes led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands and immiserated hundreds of thousands more. We can amuse ourselves for hours with video clips of Congressman Hank Johnson worrying about whether Guam might tip over and capsize if too many people stand on it.
Horace Walpole wisely observed that “the world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.”
Among the most entertaining moments of political theatre are election campaigns, when we get to watch politicians embarrass themselves with gaffes, obvious lies, weaselly answers, overt hypocrisies, inadvertent revelations of stupidity, garbled talking points, rhetorical dirty tricks, insincere humbleness, mangled English, demonstrations of ignorance, toadying, religious hypocrisy, sanctimoniousness, Falstaffian bluster, and world class excuse-making.
To be sure, our modest enjoyment is tempered by our stark awareness of the vast destruction that campaign winners will eventually inflict on our lives, and on the lives of others.
Frank Caprio, officially the best candidate the Rhode Island Democratic Party could come up with to run for governor, has provided rich amusement by his public snit over not being endorsed by President Obama. He said that he never asked for Obama’s endorsement, and said that the president “could take his endorsement and really shove it as far as I’m concerned.” (transcript)
I’ll refrain from remarking on the astonishing speed with which civility has been drained from political discourse in America. And I’ll skip the inevitable speculation that Caprio’s remark was a cleverly planned campaign tactic. Let’s think for a moment instead about the admissions implicit in a couple of politicians’ remarks in the Caprio affair.
Caprio’s calling a president of the United States a Washington insider, as if no one realized this before, is a sobering reminder that not all political candidates are deep thinkers. Caprio seems outraged by his own party’s insider actions only when he thinks he is the personal victim.
Even having two days to cool down and listen to his handlers did not damp Frank Caprio’s narcissism. Two days after telling the president to shove it, Caprio declared Obama’s failure to endorse him “Washington insider politics at its worst.” That would be true only if Caprio’s fate is more important than the country’s. Obama’s staying aloof in Caprio’s race apparently is worse than all of the Washington insider compromises and corruption that harms the national interest, wastes tax dollars, hampers good programs, increases income inequality, enables financial manipulation, etc.
To party hacks, party loyalty matters more than anything else in the world. Frank Caprio is outraged that for Obama, party loyalty came after personal loyalty. “Out of respect for his friend, Lincoln Chafee, the President decided not to get involved in this race,” according to Obama’s spokesman, Bill Burton. This is hardly the first time a politician, for good reasons or bad, has stayed neutral in an election.
Declining to make an endorsement now and then sounds reasonable to me, except in a universe where elected officials always have to stifle personal feelings, personal values, and a sense of what is right because their party is more important than anything else. Placing party interest above national interest sounds Stalinist rather than Jeffersonian, but American politicians don’t seem to care because we voters object only when the other party does it.
Ronald Reagan elevated party loyalty to the level of religious obligation when he endorsed as the 11th commandment “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” That is hubris of the first order, but I do not recall Reagan’s ever being criticized for his arrogance (then again, such criticism would be forbidden by the 11th commandment). Did any Republican evangelicals wince quietly and privately at Reagan’s amendment to what they see as God’s commandments? Did any object in public?
Frank Caprio’s statements got the headlines last week, but buried in the followup stories was a glimpse of a real Washington insider scandal. Lincoln Chafee said that Caprio’s uncivil outburst “could adversely affect the state’s relationship with the federal government.”
Do elected officials ever punish states for the political sins of its representatives? Is that a real story here? A few years after the 1972 election, I told an old friend who had been working in Washington for several years that some people in my home state of Massachusetts thought that President Nixon had rejected state grant applications to punish the state for having voted for George McGovern.
Not yet knowing Nixon as well as we all eventually came to, my friend said the accusation was absurd: Nixon would not have to direct appointees and their staffs to punish Massachusetts, because plenty of people in his administration would immediately punish Massachusetts for him, without ever being told to, on the assumption that he would want them to. Shakespeare understood such courtiers.
One last Caprio hypocrisy from this week’s story. Before the endorsement news, Caprio acknowledged asking the president to come to Rhode Island to appear with his campaign, touring a factory and talking about jobs (arguably the state election’s central issue); after learning that he would not be endorsed, Caprio criticized the president for going to Rhode Island to raise party campaign contributions, saying “I don’t like it when a trip to Rhode Island is politicized.” Unless he is doing it.
I do not follow Rhode Island politics. For all I know, despite his demands for party solidarity above all else, Frank Caprio might be the very best candidate for the job, especially given the awful candidates that the Republican Party usually offers. The one fact we can be absolutely sure of is that no American political party ever advances its best men and women to be candidates for the highest offices.