The Bob Jones Albatross; Bush, Burning

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:52

    What South Carolina did was establish that most of the rest of the country doesn't want the folkways of Southern fundamentalist Christianity to be any part of the country's governing ideology. When McCain's campaign used the "anti-Catholicism" of Bob Jones University to scare people by phone in Michigan, they were indulging in the same underhanded push-polling that they assailed when Bush did it in South Carolina. But Bush is obviously not anti-Catholic, and the McCain message had nothing to do with that. The calls were just a way of making it impossible for Northern Republicans to forget that certain members of their party are yoked at the waist to stuff they (the Northerners) find repellent: Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, the Confederate flag and creationism. n Connecticut's Republican Gov. John Rowland says "it was stupid" for Bush to go to Bob Jones. But it wasn't at all stupid. Republicans have been doing it for 20 years, without a peep from Rowland. It just flopped this time. Bush's idea was to hit Bob Jones on the morning of Day One of his Carolina campaign, before much of the press had arrived. He'd throw down his marker in private. Thereafter, Southern Christians would know where he stood, so he'd get their votes. Then he'd shower voters in Televisionland with his "compassionate conservative" message for the rest of the campaign. And people like Rowland would forget all about it. That's what Reagan did by starting his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, MS, a town whose only claim to fame is that a few Civil Rights activists got whacked there in the 1960s. Reagan winked, and never had to mention the trip again.

    But something has changed in the last 20 years. It's hard to say whether it's that cable and the Internet have made it harder to confine a political appeal to a local audience, or whether Bush is a lousier, less likable candidate than Reagan. But since antiquated strategies and lousy candidates are both signs of a decayed political establishment, it's safe to say it's a little of both.

    Michigan's primary will be studied for the next decade. McCain certainly got walloped among Republicans and won through turnout: 1.25 million people voted, as against 500,000 in the last Republican primary. The question is whether the new voters were the core of a new constituency, as McCain would have it, or "people who come into our primary to make a statement and then intend to support Al Gore in the general election," as George Bush puts it. McCain's position seems to be the stronger one; 28 percent of those who voted in the primaries had never voted before, which means the Michigan primary did the work of enlarging the party. That's exactly what Republican activists meant such open primaries to do when they started them in the South decades ago.

    My friend Steve, a longtime union activist who's backing McCain, thinks his guy was even more impressive than he looked. "Infiltration" was minor, to his mind. Left-wing unionists (teachers, government employees and the like) are so beholden to the Democrats that there's no chance they'd come out in droves to advance the guy who looks like the stronger of the two candidates against Al Gore. It's industrial union members (the UAW workers and Teamsters my friend likes) who really dig McCain and want him to be president. "The guys in the loading dock, the one thing they hate is the fucking guy who inherited it and hasn't paid his dues," Steve says. "They like someone who says fuck you to the world." And McCain, my friend thinks, has "loading dock appeal."

    What's more, Republican turnout for McCain was severely depressed by the endorsement, just hours before Michiganders went to the polls, of former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Geoffrey Feiger, who is reviled as a loose cannon by every Michigan resident to the right of Angela Davis. Steve, a lifelong Democrat who loathes Feiger for the hash he made of the governor's race last time out, says Feiger's problem is his prodigious intake of alcohol. (Although "Hill of Beans," of course, is the last place you'll hear a politician taken to task for upholding such traditional values.) I did ask Steve whether he thought the Bush campaign had put Feiger up to the McCain endorsement, as a means of winning votes. "You can't put Feiger up to anything," my friend said. "Especially not a lit match."

    Burning Bush Bush is in even worse danger than he looks. Republicans still say they think Bush has a better chance of beating Gore in November, according to a CNN/Gallup poll. But they're wrong. Because the same poll has Bush beating Gore, 50-45, while McCain beats Gore 59-35. Republicans' best hope of winning in this antiestablishment year is that Al Gore is even more establishmentarian than anyone the GOP could propose. Establishment campaigns, as we're seeing with Bush's, are generally neither agile nor imaginative. Clinton's were an exception. But Gore's staff is planning to run the same, tired "Ultra-Extreme-Right-Wing-Fanatic" campaign that has worked so well for Democrats in the last two elections.

    Gore's strategy is tailor-made for a Bush who has visited Bob Jones and entrusted his on-the-ground operations to Pat Robertson. In fact, Bush may be the only Republican on Earth Gore could beat. Such a campaign is a terrible match with a McCain who's attacking Gore's campaign-finance corruption and drawing Democrats in droves. But the Gore people are behaving like it's too late for them to change horses?so what they're doing is pretending McCain is Bush. After all, says Gore, "they echo one another in their efforts to attract the extreme right wing." Yeah, sure they do.

    What Gore's doing is what successful parties always do: reuse a campaign strategy until it fails miserably. Republicans ran every presidential campaign between 1972 and 1992 as if they were running against George McGovern. If your target cooperates with your stereotype of his party?as Dukakis was in 1988?he gets clobbered. If he's agile, innovative, and the least bit unpredictable?as Clinton was in 1992?you get clobbered, because your candidate looks like the lazy sloganeer he in fact is.

    Bradley Bruised In such an antiestablishment moment, is it worth talking about Bill Bradley? In a word, no. The Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel recently gave some backhanded praise to Bradley, saying that "one could argue that he has talked as liberal as any presidential candidate since Teddy Kennedy in 1980." She's right. That's why he's proving to be such a political clown. Just because Al Gore lies about Bradley ("Racial profiling practically began in New Jersey," the Vice President said last week) doesn't make him an honest man. Bradley is now putting all his eggs in the basket of a primary?Washington's?that doesn't even allot delegates. That's because the only state he has a slim chance of beating Gore in is one Gore has decided doesn't matter. What makes Bradley "different" is not that he's antiestablishment, but that he belongs to a rump establishment of peacenik socialists that thinking Democrats had abandoned even before the Berlin Wall fell and Bill Clinton came around to collect their votes.

    Take Bradley's speech at Columbia last week. Bradley argued in favor of "infostamps" that would allow people to buy computers and get online. Now there's an idea we haven't seen since about 1968?let's complicate the entitlement system! Then he expressed his commitment to free trade by saying he's in favor of cash payouts to workers who lose their jobs through trade agreements. I believe the word most of us use to describe cash penalties for foreign trade is "tariff." Then at the Democrats' Apollo Theater debate, he started ranting on about "White-Skin Privilege."

    This put me in mind of Chris Rock's disquisition on the word "nigger." Rock says white people are always coming up to him and asking: "How come you get to use it all the time but it's a bad word when I use it?" Rock's perfectly reasonable answer is: "Because I'm black." "White-skin privilege" is another term white people shouldn't use. The reason is that if you're dirt-poor and white, there's no such thing as "white-skin privilege." But if you're filthy rich and white, as Bradley is, then "white-skin privilege" is only part of a much larger package of privileges. One would feel better about Bradley's willingness to give up "White-Skin Privilege" if he were also willing to forgo Dumb-Jock Privilege, which allowed him to get elected to office despite a shaky knowledge of the issues and an outright indifference to his New Jersey constituents; or Fatcat Politician Privilege, which has allowed Bradley, in the years since his "retirement," to collect several million dollars for a few nights of speaking to corporate conventioneers?not to mention Gentile Race-Hustler Privilege, which allows him to consort with Al Sharpton without the slightest discomfort that half the people he's invited believe every word of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

    In Camera The most onerous part of being a Washington political journalist is the tv work. Not being on it?just watching it. Whereas in New York, Joe Power brags about how his family doesn't keep a tv in their house so all his kids listen to is Mozart, in Washington, Joe Power has three televisions on in his kitchen all the time. ("Daddy! Daddy! I lost my first tooth today!" "Quiet, son. Jon Kyl is explaining why he voted against the Gun-related Nuclear Daycare Act of 1994.") It's the great déformation professionnelle around here. Not knowing what someone as negligible as?well, let's say Bill Bradley's flack Eric Hauser?gave vent to 45 minutes ago can make you look like a moron in print or on the podium. So you have to watch this stuff?Crossfire and Meet the Press and all the rest?even if you hate tv. The Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Pinkerton told me a few years ago that he'd got a programmable VCR gizmo that blanked the commercials out of the weekend talk shows and strung them all together. And since there's only about 13 minutes of actual material on any given show, that meant that Jim could watch a whole weekend's worth of palaver in one exercycle session. I still think this is the second-greatest time-saving trick I've ever heard of (the other comes from that character in a Martin Amis novel who turns metropolitan New York into a parking paradise by getting a handicapped chauffeur).

    Jim's system still entails too much tube for my tastes; I tend to download the transcripts of these programs. The problem is that this is an age in which journalism pretty much consists of waiting for politicians to make dumbo remarks, and then pouncing on them. (Or is it just me?) And you can never tell whether a dumbo remark reflects the politician's own stupidity or the transcriber's ineptitude. Last week, George W. Bush was trying to explain away his appearance at Bob Jones University to NBC's David Bloom. He said (according to my transcript), "I don't have to accept their tenants. I was trying to convince those college students to accept my tenants."

    So I can't say for certain whether Bush just had the bad luck to get stuck with a stenographer who can't spell?or whether he's actually so dumb he thinks "tenets" are the people who rent the extra room over your garage. But I can make an educated guess.