Contents | January/February 2004
More on politics and society from The Atlantic Monthly.
More on campaigns and candidates from The Atlantic Monthly.
From the archives:
"No Apparent Motive" (November 2002)
A chilling characteristic of politicians is that they're not in it for the money. By P. J. O'Rourke
The Atlantic Monthly | January/February 2004
e all know what it is that politicians talk a lot of. But it's worthwhile, especially in a presidential-election cycle, to examine stool specimens. George Bush says, "Our Founders dedicated this country to the cause of human dignity, the rights of every person, and the possibilities of every life." The job is to find the disclaimer: "See Alien and Sedition Acts for further details. Offer not valid for slaves, Indians, women, and persons without property in the following thirteen states."
Speaking of the Candidates
Our correspondent looks much too closely at the current crop of stump speeches
by P. J. O'Rourke
Howard Dean says, "The idea of America using its power solely for its own ends is not consistent with the idealistic moral force the world has known for over two centuries." We sort through 227 years of moral account ledgers and read the accompanying British, Mexican, Sioux, and Spanish auditors' notes.
John Kerry talks about "the soaring aspirations of America." We ponder how much of America's greatness is owed to pedestrian aspirations, such as the Heinz family's dream of starting a ketchup company. As aspirations soar (in Manifest Destiny, Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, and the purchase of AOL Time Warner stock), Icarus moments occur.
Voters are not really expected to pay attention to the grandiloquence. And candidates are not really expected to produce it. That is, candidates—major candidates, anyway—don't write their own speeches. Custom dictates that others take no credit for doing so. And the candidates cannot be said to "give speeches," as that phrase was understood from the dawn of language until Roosevelt and Churchill. The public-speaking skills of the presidential candidates (Al Sharpton always excepted) are such that orations are more discarded than given, delivered in the paper-boy-and-porch-roof manner, a kind of campaign litter. Still, it's important to check what the candidates are saying, as opposed to what commentators say the candidates are saying—and, indeed, as opposed to what the candidates say they are saying when they are called to account for what they say. Thus the printed transcripts of thirty-six speeches by ten candidates have been read. Analysis of the contents may provide a lesson in contemporary democracy, or ("What we need most immediately is a sense of immediacy"—Joe Lieberman) it may not.
mong those who aren't listening to the candidates are, it would seem, the candidates. John Kerry claims, "I will live to the principle that I learned in Vietnam: the United States of America should never, ever go to war because we want to; we should only go to war because we have to." But where would that have left Korea? Where will it leave Liberia? And what if we don't really have to go, but we want to go because if we don't go now we'll really, really have to go later? Adhering to the principle that Kerry learned in Vietnam (and that children refuse to learn on long car trips), the world got World War II.
George Bush states, "It's a different kind of war than we're used to in America ... It's a war in which we will hunt down those who hate America, one person at a time." The snotty waiter at the Brasserie Lipp, in Paris, who brought me a Scotch and warm water—he's next.
Joe Lieberman—perhaps the last person one would think of as channeling Jerry Brown—professes, "Science has taught us that ... everything must be understood holistically, as part of symbiotic, ever changing ecosystems."
The relationship of political speaking to truth is complex, although not close. "There are some eighty thousand chemicals registered for use in the United States," says John Kerry, "and each day we are exposed to hundreds, even thousands, of them." Carbon dioxide, for example, is blowing through our noses this very minute.
But candidates do not tell outright lies. Except when they do. "I believe," John Edwards says, "we can give paid leave to millions of families without adding a burden to businesses." It is just possible that this is a true statement of Edwards's belief, but Edwards also has a higher-education plan: "I call it College for Everyone." Mike Tyson?
Sometimes it's not certain who's lying, but logic indicates that someone is trying to. Of the recession John Kerry says, "Never before in our country has there been an economic reversal this dramatic and this fast." George Bush says, "The recession was one of the shortest and shallowest in modern American history."
More common than lies are vague generalities, in which candidates sometimes tangle themselves by Brer Rabbit means. "We cannot talk vague generalities," John Kerry says, immediately after saying, "We don't have to choose between jobs and the environment. Protecting the environment is jobs—the high-value-added jobs of the future."
Just when one's vision blurs with indefiniteness, and particularities become one's dearest wish, they arrive—the way wishes did in the tale "The Monkey's Paw." Dick Gephardt details his program "to scrap the vast majority of the Bush tax cuts for wealthier Americans and corporations." Wealthier Americans and corporations, he says, will be required to provide health-care coverage to every employee. "My plan," Gephardt says, "then gives tax credits to cover most of the cost." This, says Gephardt, will result in "stimulating one of the biggest sectors of our private economy"—that sector being, evidently, illness and injuries. There will also be "tax incentives for a new generation of automobiles." Good news for those of us whose Bush tax cut barely equaled a down payment on a Lincoln Navigator. And we will be buying American. Gephardt intends to "establish an international minimum wage." Gephardt will "create a single pension plan that follows you from the moment you're born to the moment you retire." He says, "You'll get every penny of your retirement savings, no matter how often you change jobs." This is like Social Security privatization but better, because Gephardt is a Democrat, so you'll get Social Security, too. Gephardt wants preschool "for every child" and also postschool, "a safe, educational place to go between the hours when school's out but parents are still at work." Underschool and overschool are next, to keep the rest of us off the streets. As for the new Detroit iron we'll get to buy during the Gephardt Administration, the candidate says, "Industry is already working toward totally hydrogen-powered cars ... So what are we waiting for? The next spike in oil prices? The next gasoline crisis?" The Hindenburg to land? Plus, Gephardt says, "I'll launch an aggressive new Apollo Project ... to achieve true energy independence."
Coincidentally, John Kerry has the same idea. He says that "developing new energy technologies ... will take a commitment as broad and bold as sending a man to the moon." Meanwhile, Joe Lieberman calls for "the Manhattan Project of our generation ... establishing America's energy independence."
The candidates do not pause to consider what the Manhattan and Apollo projects accomplished—the obliteration of Hiroshima, and several fellows on a rock—and compare this with what Henry Ford did tinkering in the barn. The candidates are too busy giving spiels intended to make the voter think, "Aha! The pea is under that specific walnut shell." As John Edwards puts it, "For families of teachers, nurses, and police officers who can't afford to save right now, we'll cut the capital-gains rate in half on gains up to ten thousand dollars held for at least three years." Miss Smithfield, who teaches third grade, made $10,000 in the stock market. Check the kids' lunch money.
eading the candidates' speeches, one's mind wanders. And one's mind is not alone in its meandering. The whole nation seems to have drifted away from the candidates. "I want my country back," says Howard Dean. "I'm running for President to turn America around," says John Kerry.
And around and around, it could be argued, although not about Kerry alone. One might almost say of all the candidates that "false rhetoric becomes a substitute for meeting the reality of our challenges." But Kerry, who actually does say that, provides the best examples: "They talk about heroes in New York City ... But let me remind those Republicans of something: every single one of those firefighters, every single one of those police officers, every single one of those emergency medical personnel ... were members of organized labor."
The others can't compete. "We cannot cover the holes in our borders with plastic sheeting," says John Edwards.
The campaign rhetoric may be a thing seen through a roll of polyethylene, darkly, but the campaign issues are clear enough. They are Iraq, the economy, and health care—the last a sure sign that the Baby Boom has matured and gone from navel gazing to colonoscopies.
The candidates take an expansive view of helping the poor to pay for medical care. Howard Dean announces that in Vermont "we have made Medicaid into a middle-class entitlement." John Kerry says, "I'm running to make health care in America a right and not a privilege." As usual, Al Sharpton puts it best: "If Charlton Heston can have a constitutional right to carry a rifle, why can't Grandma have a constitutional right to health care?" It's probably in the Declaration of Independence, with the other unalienable rights—"among these are Life, Liberty, and getting someone else to pay when we go to the doctor." And to the drugstore. George Bush says, "All seniors should have help in buying prescription drugs." Warren Buffett presumably included.
Bush may be taking some pretty good prescription drugs himself, because he says he has "[a] vision that will make health care positive, and optimistic, and hopeful for all our citizens."
Joe Lieberman is having visions too:
"... a new plan called MediKids."
"I call this plan MediChoice."
"I'll lead us to a better way—by creating the American Center for Cures."
"My plan," he says, "will cover more people than the plans of Dick Gephardt, Howard Dean, or John Kerry—and we will spend less money for each newly insured person than any other presidential candidate's plan." Then, lest we think he's way out there, broadcasting from Planet Lieberman, Joe delivers this clincher: "That's not my analysis. It's the conclusion of a widely respected independent health-care expert, Dr. Ken Thorpe, of Emory University, in Atlanta."
The candidates are concerned about our medical condition. The candidates are caring people. But aren't we all? George Bush says, "Our Medicare system is a binding commitment of a caring society." It's not just a way to buy off Mom and Dad and keep them from bugging us for help with their doctor bills.
But the fact that candidates care about us so much raises a larger question. What if a total stranger—who was not a presidential candidate—rang your doorbell and told you, as John Edwards does, that he cares about your children's receiving unsolicited e-mails, "many of them pornographic and some of them violent."
"More and more children," this stranger continues, "are first learning about sex not from a parent, or even from a peer, but from some e-mail that is totally inappropriate." Depending on the gun laws in your state, you'd at least call 911.
ainstream Democratic candidates don't advocate spending—just investing. "Invest in education," says Dick Gephardt. John Kerry says, "We should be investing ten thousand dollars a year for a young person's future with early-childhood education, child care, Head Start, Smart Start, Healthy Start ..."
George Bush, however, thinks that people should make their own bad investments. "The best and fairest way," he says, "to make sure Americans have ... money is not to tax it away." He's going to give us money by not taking it. The other candidates do not point out that this sounds like a protection racket. They favor tax cuts too.
"In a recession you should cut taxes."—Joe Lieberman
"I'm going to cut them."—John Edwards
"I think some tax cuts were a good idea."—Howard Dean
"As House majority leader, I led the fight to ... cut taxes for working families."—Dick Gephardt
Even Al Sharpton is concerned about high taxes: "Tax cuts on a national level force the states to increase state tax on property, sales tax, mass transit, which is just shifting the burden to working-class people."
That is to say, and Joe Lieberman says it, "The real question is what kind of taxes you cut." Howard Dean objects to the kind of cuts "forty percent of which go to people making more than three hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year." Not that the candidates (Al Sharpton always excepted) want to soak the rich or start class warfare. "Mind you," says Dick Gephardt, "I'm all for helping wealthy Americans grow our economy." And thanks to his remarkable caring, his extraordinary empathy, Gephardt is actually able to get inside the heads of wealthy Americans and learn their true feelings: "But doling out tax cuts they don't want or need is not the way to do it."
"We should cut taxes, but we shouldn't cut and run from our values when we do," says John Edwards. What each candidate values the most is the good will of the particular subset of voters who might conceivably vote for him. George Bush is blunt about it: "Tax relief is for everyone who pays income taxes."
The unemployed, with no income to be taxed, have to seek relief elsewhere. The Democratic candidates are optimistic about unemployment numbers. Wesley Clark says America has "lost 2.7 million jobs." John Kerry says, "Since George Bush took office, we have lost nearly three million jobs." John Edwards says, "We've lost 3.1 million private-sector jobs." Do I hear 3.2? Going, going for 3.1 ...
The Democratic candidates also make much of the growing federal deficit. John Kerry preaches the virtues of "restoring fiscal discipline." John Edwards vows to "restore fiscal discipline." Joe Lieberman swears we must "re-apply real fiscal discipline."
The deficit, tax cuts for Republicans, and unemployment are squished together in what might seem to be mere electioneering goo. But, as Ecclesiastes says, "A good name is better than precious ointment." "The economics of debt and regret" is Dick Gephardt's name for it: "Unaffordable tax cuts for the few. Zero new jobs. Surging unemployment."
The Democratic candidates are opposed to the economics of debt and regret. John Edwards talks about some tax cuts that he certainly won't give to "the wealthiest one third of one percent of taxpayers." Edwards says, "We'll use the money not for new programs ..." That would be a violation of Fiscal Discipline. Fortunately, Edwards doesn't have to use tax-cut money for new programs. "We'll give struggling families ... a five-thousand-dollar tax credit toward the down payment on their first home," he says. Tax credits are different from government spending, because the government never got the money, so you can't say the government spent it. And tax credits are different from tax cuts because it says so right there in what the things are called: tax credits. "We'll provide a new progressive tax credit to promote investment, savings, and wealth creation for working Americans," Edwards says. Edwards also wants a "Family Leave Tax Credit"; he says, "We should extend some family-leave rights to parents in small businesses."
I myself am a parent in a small business. Number of employees: one. I look forward to exercising my family-leave rights but worry that this expansion of economic fairness and social justice may leave me among the 2.7, nearly 3, or 3.1 million Americans for whom a credit toward income tax is a moot point.
Joe Lieberman wants a "New Jobs Tax Credit." Dick Gephardt says, "We should provide a tax credit to every family and business who buys fuel-cell technology." Those who want old-fashioned, big-government, New Deal/Fair Deal greenback spending will just have to vote for George Bush. Bush takes up Gephardt's hydrogen challenge and pledges "1.2 billion dollars in research funding so that America can lead the world in developing ... hydrogen-powered automobiles." In just such a manner, in 1950, the Truman Administration pledged funding so that America could lead the world in developing the hydrogen ... Never mind. Bush promises to fight drug addiction with "a new six-hundred-million-dollar program to help an additional three hundred thousand Americans receive treatment." (The President would be well advised—no matter what the 300,000 drug addicts say about getting treatment first thing in the morning—not to give them the $600 million in cash.) And Bush proposes "a new approach to helping unemployed Americans through Personal Re-employment Accounts," saying that "Americans who face the greatest difficulties in finding work will receive up to three thousand dollars to use in their job search ... If the job is obtained quickly ... the worker will be able to keep the cash balance as a 'Re-employment Bonus.'" Job-hopping from KFC to Wendy's on a weekly basis, you could make $156,000 a year.
Under George Bush the deficit is growing, and—Bush is proud to say—not only the federal deficit. "Low interest rates have allowed Americans to tap the rising values of their homes," Bush says. "In 2002 refinancings added more than a hundred billion dollars to American pocketbooks." Bush, of course, will be relieved of responsibility for the national debt in 2008 at the latest. We'll still be paying off the second mortgage.
Bush is not the only throwback to previous political-economic eras. Joe Lieberman wants "tax incentives and regulatory reforms to encourage the deployment of the next-generation Internet." He says, "Broadband can bring on a broad-based boom across dozens of industries." Someone should tell Lieberman about 2001.
The candidates have bad economic plans—except for Wesley Clark, who doesn't have a plan at all. "Why has America lost the prospect of a five-trillion-dollar surplus," he asks, "and turned it into a five-trillion-dollar deficit? ... We're going to seek out the facts, search for the causes, to find the solutions ..." What am I saying? I mean to find out.
esley Clark presents similar penetrating insights about Iraq: "For the first time since the 1960s and early seventies more than a hundred thousand American troops are fighting abroad, and once again at home Americans are concerned about their civil liberties." He's working himself up to use the "Vietnam" word.
For the major Democratic candidates, Iraq is the Sharper Image airport-store issue—a big, attractive thingamajig with lots of intriguing features. But there may be baggage problems. And what do you really do with it when you get it home?
If you're a Democratic candidate who more or less supported the war, you accuse George Bush of losing the peace, as Joe Lieberman does: "The opportunity to build a more stable and democratic Iraq ... is now in jeopardy." (Lieberman does not say this in a speech; he says it in a July 7, 2003, op-ed in The Washington Post. But the Washington Post op-ed page is a stump, if anything is.) Lieberman then goes on to indignantly demand that the Bush Administration do pretty much what the Bush Administration is doing: "commit more U.S. troops," create "an Iraqi interim authority," "work with the Iraqi people and the United Nations." Lieberman does, however, call for NATO "to assume command of the forces in Iraq," because "as we saw in Kosovo, it works." Kosovo sent the world a message: wherever there is oppression, suffering, and injustice, NATO will show up six months late and bomb the country next to where it's happening.
John Kerry gets into a Clintonlike debate with himself about what he means. "I voted to threaten the use of force to make Saddam Hussein comply with the resolutions of the United Nations," Kerry says. "But it was wrong to rush to war ..."
Dick Gephardt, talking about international cooperation in Iraq, manages to mean even less than Kerry: "We need a President who ... will lead by real leadership."
John Edwards focuses on domestic-security issues, saying, "We will not allow John Ashcroft to use the war on terrorism to take away our rights, take away our liberties, and take away our freedom!" No, that would be John Edwards's job. Edwards proposes legislation that would create a Homeland Intelligence Agency, "for collecting foreign intelligence inside the United States," and advocates a "neighborhood-watch program" to "help prevent both terrorism and ordinary crime." The people heading the neighborhood-watch programs would bear absolutely no resemblance to the Communist Party "block captains" in Cuba. "In addition," Edwards says, "there is still a serious question whether people will get the information they need when they need it, particularly when they are sleeping ... So I have a bill ... that will create an emergency warning system to reach everyone using new technology—for example, special phone rings that could wake people."
Or you can offer an alternative approach. Howard Dean wants a Cold War on terrorism. "We destroyed the repressive communist regimes without firing a shot, not simply by having a strong military, but because we had a better ideal to show the world." Dean does not specify what the better ideal is that we'll show the terrorists. But perhaps we can guess. Dean quotes, with admiration, John Winthrop, the theocratic Puritan governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Maybe we should tell the terrorists, "You're religious nuts—we're religious nuts!"
Rhetorically, George Bush possesses the advantage on the Iraq issue. He has what the bomb tossers of the nineteenth century called "propaganda of the deed." He can just keep killing people until November.
The minor candidates also have an advantage, since there's not the slightest chance they'll have to do anything they say. It's not an advantage they take. Carol Moseley Braun says, "I believe women have a contribution to make to move our country toward peace ... Women can show Americans that we are clever enough to defeat terror without destroying our own liberty, that we can provide for long-term security by making peace everybody's business. We can show the world that we are creative enough to brave today's challenges." Elect me because women are clever, creative busybodies. This is the "Lucy and Ethel Get an Idea" platform.
Al Sharpton pleads for "a policy of befriending and creating allies around the world." (He advocates this in an NPR interview. I count it as a speech because Sharpton's off-the-cuff comments are better crafted than the scripted declamations of the other candidates and because, frankly, Al Sharpton is always giving a speech.) The way Sharpton intends to make friends is by fixing the world's sinks and toilets. "There are 1.7 billion people," he says, "that need clean water, almost three billon that need sanitation systems ... I would train engineers ... would export people that would help with these things."
Dennis Kucinich wants to "make nonviolence an organizing principle in our society." Our troops in Iraq will stage lunch-counter sit-ins. Kucinich promises to establish "a Cabinet-level Department of Peace." The Secretary of Peace will do for international understanding what the Postmaster General does for mail.
Kucinich, speaking in Seattle, says, "A few years ago I could smell the dynamic tension between the claims of the community and the claims of the free market in the tear gas that invaded the locked-down lobby of this very hotel." He's probably crazy. But the purpose here is not to compare the candidates, much less to rate them. Rather, the purpose is to do what young people call "sampling" (and the recording industry calls "theft"). Still, it would take more-than-human self-restraint to spend hour upon dreary hour studying the candidates' bombast without forming a few subjective and doubtless manifestly unfair (and grumpy) opinions.
The unlikely candidates are very unlikely. Al Sharpton indeed wants to give Granny (and everyone else) a constitutional right to health care, plus a constitutional right to education and a constitutional right to vote that Sharpton seems certain isn't in the Constitution. If I understand the workings of the American legal system, this would let me sue, on grounds of violation of my constitutional rights, any time I get sick or stupid or move to Palm Beach County, Florida.
"Nobody who looks like me has ever been President of the United States," says Carol Moseley Braun. That is her platform. It's time to elect a black woman President. Moseley Braun may be right, but she's opening herself to a two-word Republican quasher: Condoleezza Rice.
At a meeting of the Democratic National Committee's western caucus, Dennis Kucinich reads a poem of his own composition about the California energy crisis. He calls it "The Haiku of Hegemony."
And so on for another ten lines. Kucinich is not much of a haiku master, or much of a presidential candidate, but he's not a bad Beat poet, compared with Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
False-promise low rates,
Political contributions place.
Regulatory controls erase.
Energy supplies manipulate.
eorge Bush argues too often from the anecdote. "These are just a handful of the stories, which are true and real," he says. They're not. Bush tells about meeting a doctor who had been running a successful pain-management clinic, but the doctor's liability-insurance premiums became so high that the doctor had to move to another city and go to work for a hospital. How do we know the doctor wasn't lying? Maybe the doctor was selling Rush Limbaugh scripts for OxyContin and had to go on the lam. Assuming the doctor was telling the truth, how do we know that Bush wasn't talking to one physician with a darn bad insurance agent? If arguing from anecdote is just a rhetorical flourish for Bush, it is a tired one. Reagan and Clinton wore it out. If arguing from anecdote is a reflection of how Bush thinks, then his thinking is worse than political—it's journalistic.
John Edwards also employs the anecdote. But his do not need to be tested for truth. They make no point whatsoever: "Kashya Morrison is a single mom with two kids who works two jobs and studies finance at Montreat College. She commutes over a hundred miles every day ... She'd love to see her kids in a good after-school program, but she can't afford it ... so her grandparents watch her kids, just like mine watched me."
And Edwards turned out fine. I guess.
Among the noises made by Howard Dean is the clank of rods being bound into a cylindrical bundle with an ax in the middle. Dean, slightly misquoting John Winthrop, says, "We shall be as one. We must delight in each other, make others' conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always living before our eyes our commission and community in our work." Dean says, "Any competent, qualified kindergarten teacher can tell you who the five kids in his or her class are that are most likely to end up in prison." He cites a Vermont state program whereby "every child ... gets a home visit within two weeks of their birth." "It is really not a child-raising police," Dean feels compelled to say.
John Kerry has no sense of humor—not that any of the other candidates do (Al Sharpton always excepted). Kerry, announcing his candidacy, begins to tell a joke that he doesn't seem to realize is an anti-FDR gibe: "Five thousand years ago Moses said, 'Hitch up your camel, pick up your shovel, mount your ass, and I will lead you to the Promised Land.' Five thousand years later Franklin Roosevelt said, 'Light up a Camel, lay down your shovel, sit on your ass. This is the Promised Land.'" Then Kerry, with comedy-club open-mike-night doggedness, just keeps going. "Today George Bush will lay off your camel, tax your shovel, kick your ass, and tell you there is no Promised Land."
Joe Lieberman needs a few lessons in the soft sell. Decrying the high cost of medical care, he says, "I'll rein in the runaway prices we pay ... I'll squeeze out inefficiencies ... My plan will cut medical errors in half within five years." Lieberman may be able to keep these promises—but he'll have to kill the sickest 50 percent of Americans by 2010.
Dick Gephardt has too many ideas.
And Wesley Clark has too few. Although that may be unfair. By the time you read this, Wesley Clark may have presented the nation with a wise, cogent, and detailed policy prospectus. But no matter how wise and cogent Clark may get, or how quickly, he presents a problem. History's richest and most powerful nation is choosing, by democratic means, one person to be its political leader, its head of state, and its commander-in-chief. A popular and respected aspirant to this grave honor states why he should be elected. Wesley Clark's speech lasts less than five minutes and contains the following:
"We're going to run a campaign that will move this country forward, not back."
"We'll ask the tough questions as we move forward."
"And together we're going to march forward, forward with a new vision, forward to bring our children and grandchildren into a future ..."
"We're ... moving forward."
History backs away, keeping both hands visible, avoiding sudden movements, and trying not to show fear.
P. J. O'Rourke is a correspondent for The Atlantic. His satirical survey of American politics, Parliament of Whores (1991), has recently been reissued.
Copyright © 2004 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January/February 2004; Speaking of the Candidates; Volume 293, No. 1; 95-100.