HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

September 8, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Squeamishness
September 3, 2008

I turned on the Republican Convention for a few minutes yesterday, but, I confess, I couldn't keep it on long. I don't think my inability to watch Republicans talk comes from disliking their motives. After all, I read Republican arguments all the time. But to sit and watch people actually demean themselves is extremely uncomfortable. I can't do it for very long.

The addition of Sarah Palin to the GOP ticket has exacerbated their humiliation. Person after person is trotted before TV cameras to defend and praise this pathetic choice. The exaggerated cheerfulness as they enunciate absurdities is an indication that they know what a sacrifice of personal dignity is being demanded from them by their party. Who can say that someone is knowledgeable about foreign affairs because she happens to live in a state close to Russia without wincing internally. Many Republicans are stupid, yes, but they're not that stupid.

I suspect most of the delegates are going to come away from the convention with a bad case of dyspepsia. No one can play the fool for long without beginning to feel like a fool. And that's scarcely a comfortable self-evaluation.

I'm not overly fond of Republicans as political beings, but even I feel too much for them to be able to watch steadily the spectacle of what they're doing to themselves.


Palin's Influence
September 4, 2008

The consensus emerging about Sarah Palin's speech to the Republican Convention is that she told a lot of lies but she did it perkily and with verve. So now, say the pundits, the question is whether perkiness will outweigh falsehood.

It's an extraordinary question. There's at least an implication in it, that a majority of the American people can be so swept up by manner they simply lose all interest in the principles or the policies of the person who exhibits the manner. Can that be the case?

I ask the question sincerely, because I don't know the answer. If I were forced to wager, I would bet that the people, though they're more ignorant than they should be, can't be carried off by pure posturing. Yet, I confess, my bet would come as much from hope as from analysis. I don't know, for sure, who the American people, in the whole, are. This election will come close, though, to settling the issue.

I did see a Republican delegate from Texas say she was excited about Ms. Palin's becoming vice president because the candidate loves her family and likes to ride on motorcycles. I guess the question before us is whether that delegate is representative of a majority of Americans.

If it should turn out that she is, those of us who don't warm to her sympathies have hard issues to be confronted. Difficulty isn't a thing always to be avoided but I hope this version of it will pass us by so we can turn our best political thought to modifying some of the cavernous weaknesses already dumped on the country by the Bush administration.


Sanctified by Blood
September 4, 2008

If you take seriously some of the talk coming from the Republican Convention, you would think the GOP might sponsor an amendment to the Constitution requiring that any candidate for the presidency or vice-presidency must have slaughtered a mammal weighing at least a hundred pounds, preferably a human, but at least a moose.

The convention organizers missed a grand opportunity by failing to have a moose trotted onto the stage with Sarah Palin and having her gun it down to the frenzied cheers of the multitude. That would have garnered a lot of air time.

It's hard to know whether Republican paeans to killing are merely a bizarre form of humor or actually reflect something deep within the Republican bosom. I suppose they could be both.

At any rate, the gathering of the GOP faithful leaves one wondering what portion of the people finds something noble in the concept of killing. Obviously, celebration of big killers has been a significant feature of the human story. But, we've tended to flatter ourselves with the notion that we've got past such appetites. I'm afraid, though, it's not true. Many people believe that the definition of leader includes not only willingness to kill at the drop of a hat but, also, a certain zest for doing it. We kill, of course, only to promote peace, but we seem to like it all the same.

It would be fascinating to know how long the passion for turning living creatures into dead meat will persist. We can't know that, of course. But we can be fairly sure that if it faded, the Republican party would fade along with it.


Overconfidence
September 5, 2008

I watched the first part of Senator Obama's interview with Bill O'Reilly. The candidate handled himself well but unless he has a hidden strategy for using the event, I think it's a mistake for him to submit himself to persons of O'Reilly's character. The talk show host is a conversational thug, and unless one wants to tell him off and point out his simplemindedness -- which is not Obama's style -- it's best to ignore him.

If Obama thinks he can win over O'Reilly's followers by being courteous during the interview he is mistaken. Scarcely anyone who finds O'Reilly persuasive will vote for the subtler of two candidates in a race. O'Reilly's people want simple answers to complex questions, and anytime a candidate refuses to gratify them, they write him off as weak.

One can't accept O'Reilly's queries and answer them intelligently. Virtually every O'Reilly interrogation is framed with false premises, and by appearing to take it seriously, one lets himself be goaded into naive responses. O'Reilly's insistence last night that Obama say exactly how he planned to bomb or invade Iran, no other tactic being credible, is a perfect example of his interviewing technique.

Obama was astute enough not to fall into the trap, but his refusal to bow down to O'Reilly's premises left him vulnerable to another manipulative technique. Immediately after the interview segment had been aired, O'Reilly trotted in the Ann Coulter mannequin, Monica Crowley, to pronounce triumphantly that Obama is not an adequate terror warrior.

Every element of the O'Reilly Factor is unfair, dishonest, and manipulative. That's what the program is; that's who Bill O'Reilly is. I guess you could say it shows becoming self-confidence to think that you can go into that pit and come out unsullied. But unless you're ready to tell O'Reilly to his face that he's a cheap sensationalist, there's little profit in it.


Too Nice
September 5, 2008

Barack Obama in attempting to woo Republican voters -- an unlikely occurrence -- is undermining his ability to say what the Republican Party is, and, consequently, has increased the difficulty of saying what he's running against. It could turn out to be a crippling tactic.

I hope he has paid close attention to the Republican Convention this week. If he has, he should have learned he's not going to win Republican hearts by sweet reason. They hate reason; hate it so much they have actually tried to launch an insurgency against themselves in order to give themselves the power to keep on doing what they have done all along. They are touting themselves as the party that wants to clean up Washington when they have made Washington what it is. It's an unreasonable ploy, but what do they care?

Obama has got to find some way to point out the nature of the modern Republican Party. He can't let McCain get away with running against the Republican Party while remaining the biggest Republican of them all. He needs to be brave enough to ask: is George Bush a Republican? is Dick Cheney a Republican? is Donald Rumsfeld a Republican? is Karl Rove a Republican? is Tom DeLay a Republican? is Alberto Gonzales a Republican? is Jack Abramoff a Republican?

This may be seen as turning against his own tactic of unifying the country, but he's also got to recognize that any semblance of unifying with those guys is a turning against his own supporters. Some turnings are necessary, and turning against the Republicans is a thing Obama desperately needs to do. And he needs to do it before it's too late, which means, right now.


Factor Confusion
September 7, 2008

Over the past two decades, Republican operatives have had a far stronger faith in the essential vulgarity of the American people than they have in God, country, or any other supposedly sacred entity. Their entire strategy has been based on belief that in America it is impossible to exceed the yuck factor. Watching the success of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Ann Counter, they have been captured by the conviction that no matter how dishonest and nasty they get, filthy attacks will always work for them because filthy attacks always resonate favorably with the people. Yet, it may be that they're now stepping over a line they'll regret.

One piece of evidence is the new militancy of the Time magazine writer Joe Klein. He was so put off by the Republican Convention and its notion that the party can now be successful by running away from itself, that he says McCain's ugly style of campaigning is a sign of a severe character defect in the candidate. McCain's choice of a running mate who is clearly not competent to be president, and then his having her spirited away so she won't have to answer any questions, is clearly beyond the pale for Klein. In fact, Palin's attempted escape from press scrutiny, while Bush operatives try to pump her up with a little knowledge, is getting to be a principal theme of campaign discussions.

The notion that selecting a woman whose enjoyment of killing moose and wolves will endear her more to the people than will any knowledge anybody else has of Iraq, the economy, and the national debt is a gigantic insult to the political intelligence of the public. Do the Republicans think nobody will notice that? Evidently they do.

I can't say I know for sure where the yuck line is, but I suspect it's not as far away as the Republicans think it is.


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