The Watchdogs

On the disconsolate state of American election coverage, excepting Christopher Hitchens, Paul Collins, Frank Rich, and Gail Collins.

Book Digest Apparently we are heading to an important election and many citizens and various aliens of all stripes, eyes, and ears are being besieged by the various soothsayers, talking heads, and comedians who make their living mediating American and world politics for the rest of us. Personally, I find our leap-year elections fascinating, though I am disconsolate that we no longer have commentators up to the task of vividly narrating these quadrennial jousts. Forget the workmanlike compendium of Theodore White (The Making of the President 1960, 1964, 1968, 1972), we have no Hunter Thompson (Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72) or Timothy Crouse (The Boys on the Bus) or Norman Mailer (Miami and the Siege of Chicago)—at the least, someone needs to attend to the infelicitous gibberish coming out of the senator from Arizona’s mouth.

If you remember last week’s Obama/McCain tête-à-tête, much—all right, some—was made of who correctly quoted Herr Doktor Kissinger on whether the next president should have preconditions for meeting with leaders of nations we don’t like. Christopher Hitchens who, thankfully, pays attention to such things, was prepared to set the record straight (Obama accurately quoted Kissinger). And, of course, as one would accurately surmise from Hitchens’s The Trial of Henry Kissinger, continued hectoring the unindicted war criminal:
Finally, of course, there is Kissinger’s habitual fondness for any form of dictatorship. To have been the friend of Pinochet, Videla, and Suharto, while almost simultaneously fawning on Brezhnev and especially on Mao, is to have been a secretary of state who was soft on fascism—and soft on communism, too! Unconditional talks with Ahmadinejad and Assad? Why not? They are the sort of people with whom he (and Kissinger Associates, the firm that introduces despots to corporations) prefers to do business.
Hitchens, I might add, may be one of the few American writers whose grasp of the sectarian politics of, for instance, France--of which Bernard-Henri Lévy (known as B.H.L. and apparently possessed of film-star-type celebrity in his home country) fulminates in Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism--allows for some Yankee understanding (B.H.L.’s American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville is more relevant and accessible for Americans). Hitchens sums up:
This blending of a relatively modern prejudice with the oldest prejudice of them all [anti-semitism] is what sickens Lévy enough to give it the appellation “Red-Brown.” It is the “new barbarism” of his subtitle. Against it, he counterposes the values of the Enlightenment, the France of the Dreyfusards, of Camus rather than Sartre, of Jean Moulin and Pierre Mendès-France rather than Maurice Thorez or—B.H.L.’s true bête noire—that debased Jacobin of today’s French Socialism, Jean-Pierre Chevènement. The left, he insists, must renounce any version of ultimate or apocalyptic history, along with any mad schemes to create heaven on earth. A secular, pragmatic humanism will be quite demanding enough, thank you.
And though it is not his normal beat, writer/bibliophile Paul Collins (The Trouble With Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine) had some smart things leavened with dazzling erudition to say about John McCain’s verbal tic, his ceaseless use of “my friends”:
McCain’s meeting with parishioners at Rick Warren’s Saddleback presidential forum certainly was a friendly one: He referred to “my friends” another 11 times. In the week leading up to Saddleback, the senator also friended, among others, a crowd in York, Pa., (“Two years ago, I traveled to South Ossetia, my friends”); workers at a locomotive factory in Erie, Pa., (“…my friends, look at the events that are transpiring in Georgia”); and Iowa state fairgoers (“My friends, I’m all in favor of inflating our tires, don’t get me wrong…”).

…But as a crowd bludgeon in modern political speechmaking, “my friends” can be laid at the feet of one man: William Jennings Bryan. His famed 1896 “Cross of Gold” speech at the Democratic National Convention invoked the phrase a mind-crushing 10 times. Inveighing against “those who believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below,” Bryan declared, “My friends, the question we are to decide is: Upon which side will the Democratic party fight; upon the side of the idle holders of idle capital or upon the side of the struggling masses?” Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” is historically considered to be among the most viscerally powerful speeches ever made by an American politician, with one New York World journalist reporting the crowd’s reaction as “tumult—hills and valleys of shrieking men and women.” The temptation to bottle that kind of lightning again is alluring.
And if you need to test my assertion of the degraded state of political journalism (Frank Rich and Gail Collins excepted), have a look at the recent New York Review of Books reissue of Mailer’s classic 1968 convention coverage, Miami and the Siege of Chicago (with an introduction by Rich). His description and assessment of Chicago’s stature and his asides on Brooklyn are just part of the pleasure of this vital book.
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