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The Guilfoile-Warner Papers


Welcome to the Palindrome

The GOP’s V.P. pick has been a doozy, though the reasons behind it are anybody’s guess—and guess they have. In search of answers, Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner recon the brain of John McCain.





With Gustav bearing down on New Orleans last week, the Today Show cancelled a performance by New Kids on the Block on the grounds that all that popping and locking would be a tasteless frivolity in the midst of a potential human catastrophe. Curiously, they went ahead with the scale reproduction of the tomb of Egypt’s King Pepy II in muffins.

The Republican National Committee was forced to cut back its convention and the first person trimmed, wisely, was George W. Bush, whose administration the Republicans are trying to paint as something like the original Battlestar Galactica. Yes, it was terrible, they say, but the remake will be totally cool.

Some wondered if Convention Lite would hurt McCain’s chances in November, but I suspect it will end up having little impact in November. In fact, this might be a good test of whether conventions matter at all.

On Day One of the Democratic Convention, James Carville was apoplectic over what he perceived as a lack of ferocious attacks from the stage aimed at John McCain. One quarter of the convention was almost gone and the Dems had squandered an opportunity to hit the Republican nominee with full force, Carville said. The truth is H.L. Mencken could have been at the podium at that very moment giving it to McCain with both skewers but I wouldn’t know it because CNN wasn’t showing it, and James Carville wouldn’t know it because he never stopped talking, and the rest of the country wouldn’t know it because they were watching people get punched in the face by a wall of mechanical boxing gloves on network TV, which hardly showed the convention at all.

Three of the four presidential and vice presidential nomination acceptance speeches will end up being among the highest-rated television events of the year, but everything else that happened at both conventions will be remembered about as well as the Ted McGinley years on Happy Days (or the Ted McGinley years on Love Boat. Or the Ted McGinley years on Dynasty). The media will poll and wonder which way the public is leaning and the public will lean based on the media’s polling and wondering. In the end, voters will have an impression and they’ll vote on it. Whether John Kerry was impassioned or Bobby Jindal ever made it to Minneapolis won’t weigh much on their minds.

Meantime, people are calling Sarah Palin’s six-year rise from part-time mayor to V.P. nominee improbable, but people who say that have a poor understanding of probability. Sarah Palin’s election as governor was improbable: getting hit by lightning. The fact that she might be vice president is more like getting hit by an asteroid and yet surviving because the asteroid has a hole in it shaped exactly like Sarah Palin.

Sen. Obama had exactly the right reaction when the media confronted him with Bristol Palin’s pregnancy. I agree: Families should be off-limits. But Levi Johnston isn’t family yet, so let’s talk about him. He gets his girlfriend pregnant, and then five months later her mother is plucked out of nowhere to be a candidate for vice president of the United States on a ticket that could actually win? In all of hormone history has there ever been a more perfectly executed impregnation of a teenager? He’d be the Tom Brady of illegitimate fathers if Tom Brady wasn’t already the Tom Brady of illegitimate fathers. (Also that would make Bristol the Randy Moss of unmarried mothers, which is an extremely disturbing image even as an extended comic metaphor).

Of course there is the risk that McCain and Palin lose a close election and Levi’s new family all blame him for cursing the golden opportunity they will never get again. Those will be some long, cold, thankless Thanksgivings.

* * *


It’s been so long since we corresponded on the state of the presidential campaign, I don’t know where to begin. There are so many choice targets that I can’t focus on any single one. It’s like being Matthew McConaughey let loose inside the Tri-Delt house, or maybe the writers of the Daily Show during the entire Bush presidency.

Thinking about the impact of the selection and imminent confirmation of Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate brings to mind Donald Rumsfeld’s famous philosophy of strategic thinking: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

The last couple of weeks have primarily introduced “known unknowns” into the mix, the chief of which is Gov. Palin’s effect on the race, followed closely behind by whether or not the return of Beverly Hills 90210 will catapult the CW into major network status, but I’d like to concentrate on what I feel are now the “known knowns”:

1. John McCain has watched too much Northern Exposure.

McCain’s musical tastes may have left off in the ‘70s, but his taste in television extends at least until the early ‘90s. Looking at Palin, McCain must’ve thought he’d seen a real-life Maggie O’Connell (as played by Janine Turner), an Annie Oakley straight out of the Alaskan wilderness with fantastic teeth and a particularly strong bond with Jewish doctors, a.k.a. Dr. Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow).

2. We live in Bizarro world.

We thought things were strange in 2004 when the war hero was Swift-boated into a pussy, while the draft dodger was the pinnacle of warrior strength, but the last week has really outstripped anything that has come before. It’s as though the selection of Palin has caused a rift in the space-time continuum where up is down and the Chicago Cubs are battling for the best record in the majors. Think of the recent happenings that were previously unthinkable: Campbell Brown becoming a hard-hitting journalist/interviewer, the Republicans crying “sexism” over the treatment of Palin, and the 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee speaking at the Republican convention. (OK, it’s not that unthinkable that Lieberman 2.0 would go the full Zell Miller, but it sure is bizarre.) Palin is even trying to take advantage of the current shift in the cosmos by being simultaneously for and against government pork.

3. John McCain believes himself to be an indestructible superhero who cannot die.

John McCain’s campaign slogan is “Country First.” In the primaries he famously lambasted Mitt Romney for working for profit rather than patriotism. Several times during the campaign he has implied (or outright declared) that Obama takes positions out of political expediency, rather than what’s good for the country (as McCain does). Clearly, this is a man of principle, and not someone who thinks it would irresponsible to put someone so manifestly unqualified as Gov. Palin in his “break glass in case of death” container. The only way McCain would feel comfortable doing this is if he absolutely knew that he would be serving out his full term. And the only way a 72-year-old man could possess this confidence is if he knows that he is a superhero, or at least like Bruce Willis in that M. Night Shyamalan movie that wasn’t nearly as good as The Sixth Sense, but not nearly as bad as anything that’s come since. In McCain’s defense, he has survived multiple jet crashes, being shot down in Vietnam and an extended stay in a tiger cage, not to mention a couple of bouts with melanoma, so you can’t blame the guy for being a little cavalier vis-à-vis his own mortality. The good bottom-line budget news is that if this is indeed true, we can save a lot on Secret Service protection.

4. As I suspected, the Today Show has gone an hour too far extending to 11 a.m.

Muffin towers. Jesus.

I think it’s all well and good that McCain’s dice roll has injected some fresh energy into the campaign, but the thought of this guy and his decision-making process becoming president increasingly terrifies me. I’ve seen six-year-olds weigh their choice of a hamburger or chicken nuggets with more care than McCain brought to choosing his Number Two. Apparently, the conventional wisdom is turning around since Palin’s perfectly acceptable speech, but seriously, let’s stop talking about qualifications for being president, a category that is as undefined as Clay Aiken’s sexuality, and let’s examine her preparation for being president, which is nil.


* * *


Q: What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull?
A: A sane person would never send a hockey mom to meet with Vladimir Putin.

Nevertheless, the Republicans keep putting lipstick on their dog, which might very well work. They backed Dan Quayle with a straight face all the way to a landslide. There used to be a certain dignity to spin, back when spin meant only that you accompanied a declaration of fact with a favorable demonstration of logic. Now spin means that you say things that are patently false and hyperbolic—Sarah Palin was a brilliant choice; Sarah Palin isn’t just qualified, she’s extremely qualified; abstinence-only education reduces the incidence of teen pregnancy—and by repeating them enough times you turn lies into conventional wisdom and hope the media gets so tired of challenging it that they just give up. I’ve used this example before, but it’s like that one Larry Sanders episode where they’re having a meeting with the network execs and Larry just gets up and walks out of the room and one of the suits says, “Larry just walked out on us,” and Artie says, “No he didn’t.”

I mean, it takes a special kind of nerve to vehemently deny you were a member of a secessionist political party while conveniently omitting that your husband, in fact, was, and also repeatedly boast that you were against the Bridge to Nowhere when you were only against it eventually and under intense pressure. Sarah Palin claiming she was against the Bridge to Nowhere is sort of like Mississippi bragging that it opposed slavery.

Q: What do a Hockey Mom and an un-neutered pit bull have in common?
A: They haven’t been vetted and they both have gigantic balls.

Palin was a brilliant choice in one respect—it was such a head smacker that it’s gotten Dems to take the bait and make this, for a time at least, about Obama vs. Palin. That diminishes the Democratic heavyweight and elevates the Republican lightweight and leaves McCain, the Ten Percent Maverick, with all his negatives completely out of it. The “eight is enough” strategy was winning, but the Dems have been off it for more than a week.

Of course the reasons you and I shake our heads in disbelief are the same reasons conservatives love her. In a year when they couldn’t get one of their own at the top of the ticket, they see Sarah Palin as a Trojan Horse. Whenever the hypothetical President McCain’s term is through, in four or eight years (or God forbid, sooner) they will have groomed a very young, very conservative candidate to be his successor. She’s sort of like the Manchurian Candidate, with Karl Rove instead of Angela Lansbury and the Assembly of God church instead of the Chinese.

Q: What do a Hockey Mom and a pit bull have in common?
A: Almost nothing, duh, but they still have tons more to talk about than Cindy McCain and Todd Palin.

Seriously, what do you think they were chatting about up there? Fishing? Snowmobiling? At least they probably have Budweiser in common, being that Cindy McCain’s ginormous Anheuser-Busch distributor is the primary vehicle with which the McCains connect with the working class.

And did you notice that John Rich and Cowboy Troy were invited to play, but not their partner Big Kenny Alphin? Clearly some quick-thinking RNC planner thought it would be a little bit on the nose if the headlining music act at the nation’s largest gathering of Republicans was a band called Big and Rich.

Of course the reasons you and I shake our heads in disbelief are the same reasons conservatives love her. In a year when they couldn’t get one of their own at the top of the ticket, they see Sarah Palin as a Trojan Horse. Also, I want to revise my earlier comments about Levi. Did you watch him at the convention? He looked like he was having morning sickness. If they had tied him to a chair and put a gag in his mouth he would have looked just like Drew Barrymore’s boyfriend in the opening scene of Scream. Kids make mistakes, and when they make one this big there are going to be consequences, but I take marriage as seriously as anyone in that convention hall and I defy any one of them to explain to me how forcing your high-school daughter and some self-proclaimed “fucking redneck” into a statistically doomed celebrity teen marriage just to save your political bacon is any kind of moral virtue.

Sarah Palin and I would certainly clash a lot if we were co-authoring a sex-ed textbook, but I bet we would both agree that it might reduce teen pregnancies if we put her future son-in-law’s petrified face on the cover.


* * *


You’ve got to feel for Levi at this point, don’t you? He looked like he was getting a steady dose of low-level electrical current to his balls every time the cameras cut to him, which come to think of it might have been how they got him to St. Paul to be part of the “clearly not exploiting the Palin family for the purposes of electoral advantage” tableau. The dude looked stricken, his inner monologue something along the lines of, “oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit.”

As you know (but not many other people do, judging from my current Amazon ranking), I recently authored a book, So You Want to Be President?, where the conceit is that if you follow my guidance and complete various challenges, you will be prepared to make a run for the Oval Office. With any luck, Gov. Palin is giving it a thorough read as she heads to her undisclosed igloo back in Alaska in order to cram for being one irregularly shaped mole away from the presidency.

But of course the book is a joke, illustrating that not only do regular people not run for president, they shouldn’t run for president. Sarah Palin’s appeal apparently rests on her being just like us, but why on Earth would we want to elect someone just like us? Have you seen us?

I have: I go to the mall.

Our leaders should be them, not us. “Us” takes six years and five schools to graduate from college. “Us” thinks Waziristan is who Mario has to defeat to rescue the princess. When “us” hears “Saakashvili,” we say, “gezundheit.” “Us” knows all the lyrics to the Chicago Bears “Super Bowl Shuffle,” but can never remember if “indivisible,” or “under God,” comes first in the Pledge of Allegiance. (That last one is me, not us, but my point should be clear.)

Q: What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull?
A: Hillary Clinton would have made a decent president.


TMN Contributing Writer John Warner is the author of the preeminent guide to winning the race for the Oval Office, So You Want to Be President?, and is Chief Creative Czar of TOW Books. He teaches at the College of Charleston.

TMN Contributing Writer Kevin Guilfoile’s debut thriller, Cast of Shadows, was named one of the Best Books of 2005 by the Chicago Tribune and the Kansas City Star. His humor has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Maxim, and The New Republic. More by Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner