If precedent is any guide, Chris Matthews will ask Al Sharpton tonight at the Institute of Politics (IOP) what his favorite movie is. And if precedent is any guide, it will be his most difficult question of the night. On each of our last two Monday nights of Hardball, the candidate-guest has struggled with the first genuine softball of the evening. The quick-talking Sen. John Edwards was dumbfounded at this simple question, creating a painfully awkward silence while he tried to think of one (which led many to comment that it must have been the one question for which he hadn’t been previously coached). The following Monday, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, offered The Blues Brothers and Animal House, but not before a similarly awkward silence broken only by the unforgettable line, “I love movies!”
Speaking of movies, in a seemingly unrelated event, President Bush visited California recently to meet with Arnold Schwarzenegger, whom his party had placed in the California Governor’s office with little apparent concern for the revelation of a string of sexual incidents from his not-too-distant past. Some of the alleged incidents border on assault and, if true, make Clinton look like a choirboy. (Rather than deny them, Arnold promised on TV before his election that he would “get into all those specifics and find out what is going on” just as soon as the campaign was over, so we’ll probably learn the truth at a joint press conference once O.J. Simpson identifies his wife’s real killer.) The allegations were not enough to affect the outcome of the election, but it was enough to make observers scratch their heads and wonder what had happened to the image of the Republican Party as a bastion of traditional family values and morality in private and public life.
These two surprises, one at the IOP and one across the country in California, share more in common than October; they are symbolic of the opposite and concurrent personality disorders of America’s two political parties. On one hand, the right wing is replete with personalities who undermine everything they profess to stand for. Across the aisle, members of a Democratic party, aghast at the hypocrisy of their counterparts’ personalities, seem themselves reluctant to demonstrate any personality at all.
The phenomenon of hypocrisy, of course, is nothing new; this particular strain of the Republican variety became full-blown in the parade of Speakers of the House we saw in 1999, near the peak of impeachment. Rep. Bob Livingston, shortly after being elected to succeed the disgraced (and adulterous) Newt Gingrich, had to step down following the revelations of his own extramarital affair. At about the same time, the indiscretions of no fewer than three Republican House impeachment managers, Bob Barr, Dan Burton, and Henry Hyde, came to light in a document compiled by the sleazy, but hardly hypocritical, Larry Flynt.
That particular flurry died down, but another rash of right-wing hypocrisy hit this year, first with the admission of William J. Bennett, Republican guru and author of such titles as The Book of Virtues and The Death of Outrage, that he had become addicted to gambling. Then came the double disgrace of Rush Limbaugh, who within two weeks was fired from his job as a football commentator because of racially insensitive comments (this is actually one of his more consistent moments), then announced that he was addicted to painkillers. This from a prince of American political culture, who once used America’s reverence for drug-using Jerry Garcia as evidence that our “priorities are out of whack,” and who proposed that all drug users be sent “up the river.” One wonders what the unfortunate Limbaugh’s latest woes will look like in the hands of Al Franken, who has already noted that the welfare-state-hating talk show host once collected unemployment insurance at taxpayer expense. And now there’s Arnold.
I could go on, but you might begin to think that my point is that Republicans are hypocrites. It’s not. My point is that they get away with it. Limbaugh has 20 million listeners. Hyde is the Chairman of the International Relations Committee. And Bennett was recently invited by the Republican Club to speak at Harvard. The party never even considered cutting Arnold loose. It all comes back to a kind of bravado built into the collective psyche of the American right wing, something I like to call the Dan Burton Principle. You may know Dan Burton as a senior Republican Congressman from my state, Indiana. In the 1990s he announced on the floor of the House of Representatives his certainty that Vince Foster was murdered, based on a scientific reenactment which consisted of him firing a pistol into a large fruit in his back yard. (I say “large fruit” because there is some dispute over whether it was a watermelon or a pumpkin.) But Burton was not driven off the fringes of his party; on the contrary, they made him chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee.
I’m not suggesting that liberals imitate this sort of behavior, but the resilience of the disgraced on the right is instructive. If Burton could be taken seriously after his watermelon episode, are we really sure the Democrats had no choice but to drop Bill Clinton like a political hotpotato rather than use him in the 2000 campaign? Now, Democrats shudder at the Kerry campaign because he’s Northeastern and liberal, as though embracing their base (never mind their fringes) were some kind of a political death sentence. On an individual level, this is the kind of insecurity that makes a popular southern Democratic Senator, afraid to lose a vote by mentioning the title of a movie that hasn’t been focus-grouped, sit blinking in silence on national television.
I am convinced that John Edwards did not become the boy wonder of the Democratic South by being boring; surely there’s more to him than we have yet seen, beginning with some kind of taste in film. And surely, surely Joe Lieberman has something resembling a personality under that thick skin. Hopeless though his candidacy may be, Al Sharpton will probably charm the crowd tonight. And Dean is certainly charming New Hampshire—largely because voters think he isn’t hesitating to let his personality (some would say anger) show through. If the Democratic establishment wants to reclaim the initiative, they ought to be willing to shoot from the hip once in a while; it’s worked wonders for Republicans lately.
Peter P.M. Buttigieg ’04 is a history and literature concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.