I am rather ambivalent about politics. Like most people, I follow political news, but little about its grips me with anything resembling interest or passion. I find the basic machinery of politics (budget debates, speeches, White House press conferences, etc.) as dull as the proverbial dishwater.
I also think my relative apathy is shared by many since millions of Americans routinely do not even bother to vote in presidential (or any other) elections.
I happen to believe that there are few fundamental differences between Democrats and Republicans and that politicians generally have less power and influence than they used to. I also believe that large corporations and mainstream media wield far more power and influence than whoever happens to be residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Another part of the problem is that modern-day politicians are more like corporate spokespersons -- plastic, superficial, tepid and robotic. They have to be this way since the magnitude of media and round-the-clock cable TV and internet is such a ferocious, all-consuming beast that the slightest infraction or misstep becomes a huge and potentially debilitating news story.
Moreover, those seeking high office must appeal to the broadest possible base of the population in order to get elected.
Thus, Presidents, most governors and senators have to be as sterile, inoffensive, lackluster and bland as possible.
Take the current occupant of the White House, Barack Obama.
He appears to a nice enough fellow and seems to be trying hard to fix what is ailing this country -- but he is as dull as a bag of stale potato chips. He never says anything controversial, nor does there appear to be much scandal surrounding him (except for the lame Tony Rezko real estate deal in Chicago, which seems to have faded from memory; and his ties to a controversial black preacher in Chicago, whom he has cut off).
Indeed, the only things “interesting” about Obama are that he is of mixed-race and that the far right in this country (including the Tea Party) do not believe he was born in the United States; thereby making him ineligible to be president.
Aside from that, Obama is as forgettable as yesterday’s box scores.
George W. Bush was utterly devoid of “color” (much like his father). Bill Clinton, despite being a sleazy adulterer, still lacked anything remotely resembling character or eccentricity.
Someone who is truly unique or eccentric or interesting or fascinating or colorful simply cannot get elected to high office in this country (or most other western democracies).
And this, I think, has greatly diluted and ‘castrated’ modern political life.
The last truly fascinating President of The United States was Richard M. Nixon, who resigned from office almost four decades ago.
Hundreds of books and articles have been written about ‘Tricky Dick.’ He was, according to most sources, paranoid, insecure, mentally unbalanced, moody, uncomfortable in public, highly sensitive, delusionary, and likely suffered from some kind of persecution complex. He was also a brilliant legal scholar and a tireless worker.
How such man rose to the pinnacle of power is beyond belief – Nixon couldn’t hope to get elected Mayor of Whittier, California today.
Indeed, as it was, Nixon struggled to ascend to power -- he used the anti-Communist witch-hunts of Senator Joseph McCarthy to raise his profile in Congress. He scored a coup when Ike Eisenhower selected him to be his Vice President in order to appease the right-wing of the Republican Party. (Eisenhower reportedly disliked Nixon on a personal basis).
Nixon then lost (just barely) the 1960 Presidential election to John F. Kennedy -- a race that likely shifted in favor of the Massachusetts Democrat due to the questionable tactics of Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago.
Nixon spent the next eight years in the wilderness before emerging as the Republican candidate for president in 1968 (perhaps the most pivotal year of the post-war period) and winning.
The Nixon years in the White House (1968-1974) were probably the most fascinating time in American history -- it featured race riots; campus unrest; the war in Vietnam; continued battles over busing and desegregation; radical changes in marriage and divorce rates; labor strikes; a rising drug culture; the decline of large cities; climbing violent crime rates; the proliferation of suburbia and the dominance of TV as the culture’s principal arbiter of taste and style, among many other developments.
Nixon, with his permanent five-o’clock shadow and pointy nose, looked both comical and sinister at the same time. Comedians openly made fun of his unusual mannerisms and his stiff speech delivery. Even some Republicans ridiculed him.
The mass media (especially the New York Times and Walter Cronkite of CBS News) openly loathed Nixon; who, in turn, openly detested the media.
Nixon seemed like he had no friends in the world and no social life whatsoever – and yet he was the most powerful man on earth and won the 1972 election is a historic landslide.
He even had an “enemies list” and taped all conversations in the White House (the contents of which would embarrass his aides decades later).
He surprised everybody by going to China and meeting with Chairman Mao Tse-Tung.
Then, there was Watergate – the scandal that would not go away and would eventually force Nixon out of power. It was (as I faintly recall) a daily soap opera that lasted almost two years before his resignation.
I wondered how he could even function as president while the whirlwind swept all around him.
Could Nixon have a chance of being elected to high office today?
I would think not.
In the U.S., controversy and scandal usually kill political careers (with some notable exceptions). Plus, the media saturation coverage (via television and now the omnipresent internet) forces Presidential candidates to be on their “best” behavior at all times.
One is far more likely to find eccentric, controversial and memorable politicians in local regions – that is, those statesmen with a rabid, concentrated following, but with no hopes of ever gaining national appeal.
For example, Jesse Helms, the fearsome Republican senator of North Carolina, was probably the most right-wing American politician of modern times. Reviled by liberals and moderates across the country (including those in his home state), Helms had such a passionate following among local white conservatives, he remained in power for three decades. But “Senator No” had no chance of ever appearing on a national ticket.
Frank Rizzo was the bombastic Mayor of Philadelphia during the 1970s and made a legion of enemies, particularly among the intelligentsia and local media. He repeatedly infuriated blacks, liberals, and others, but he was adored by his blue-collar, white ethnic constituents who admired his no-nonsense approach to law and order, his lack of refinement, and his modest lifestyle.
The Reverend Al Sharpton, the buffoonish civil rights activist, has never actually held political office, but he has dominated the New York City political landscape for over thirty years and is widely sought-after for his opinions on various topics. Portly Sharpton is a hilarious, outrageous, blustery old-time “preacher” who often elicits hostility and derision. He did, in fact, run for president once, but, naturally got nowhere.
During the early 1990s, billionaire software executive H. Ross Perot made for a near-viable Third Party candidate for president -- he collected a surprising number of votes. But, with his ferret-like face, rabbit-ears, short height, and funny Texas accent, he was a comedic figure that most people did not take seriously. A hugely successful businessman, yes, but too much of cartoon character to become leader of the free world.
In last year’s gubernatorial election in the state of New York, Republican challenger Carl Palladino ran a bizarre, erratic campaign in which he attacked blacks, gays and even threatened a reporter with violence. The media lambasted the billionaire Buffalo businessman as a clown, unfit to hold high office, and potentially dangerous. He was (not surprisingly) trounced by the acceptable “establishment” candidate, Democrat Andrew Cuomo.
Palladino did so poorly, in fact, that the top leaders of his own Republican Party refused to support him.
Keep in mind, that long before the advent of television and the internet, there were plenty of colorful American politicians, including Jimmy Walker, the stylish, hard-drinking mayor of New York City in the 1920s who openly defied Prohibition; James Michael Curley, the mayor of Boston who actually once carried out his duties while imprisoned in a jail cell; and Huey Long, the legendary “Kingfish” of Louisiana.
But such men no longer exist – or, if they do, they have no chance of winning elections; and we are left with a depressing array of dull, bland, sterile automatons as our “political leaders.”