Wisconsin Sen. Russell Feingold was right when he claimed that George W. Bush's adoption of campaign finance reform in recent days "destroyed the argument that the American people don't care about it."
They do care?and you can see why. Two weeks ago, the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) endorsed Bush over John McCain, despite the fact that there's zero difference between the two on abortion. (Both are mildly pro-choice politicians who mouth pro-life sentiments to gull Republican primary voters.) Last week, the NRLC's opposite numbers at the National Abortion Rights Action League did exactly the same thing. They endorsed Al Gore over Bill Bradley, despite the fact that there's zero difference between the two on abortion. (Both are hard-line pro-choicers whose only argument is over whether Gore has been a hard-line pro-choicer for 25 years or 30.) In both cases, the endorsements were about power, not issues. The right-to-lifers prefer Bush's position not because he'll try to ban abortion but because he'll protect the campaign finance laws that keep them in business.
NARAL is not applauding Gore for keeping abortion legal but thanking him for the Clinton administration's record of giving access to feminist lobbies like NARAL, which could be more accurately described as the Democratic Rich Ladies' Lobby. n CNN's South Carolina Republican primary debate provided another piece of evidence that there is indeed such a thing as a "political establishment." Certainly someone owes us an explanation for why George Bush and John McCain are vying for the nomination while Alan Keyes flounders at around 2 percent. All McCain could do was natter on about how Bush arranged for a "fringe veteran" to attack him, while Bush whined over the fliers McCain's people were sticking under windshields. Keyes ran rhetorical circles around the pair of them. And what were the headlines? "Bush, McCain Trade Barbs." What did the pundits say? Bill Schneider praised Bush for showing "righteous indignation" against McCain.
(Here we should note that that nifty word "righteous"?which comes from the Old English rihtwís and means "just, upright, virtuous; guiltless, sinless; acting rightly or justly" [OED]?has, thanks to Washington, suddenly come to mean almost the opposite of what it's meant for the last 1000 years. In the past decade, it has been used to describe politicians who push a lot of in-your-face moral rhetoric that they don't believe in the first place. In other words, "righteous" has come to be a synonym for "phony." Certainly that was the type of indignation Bush was showing the other night.)
The debate was like something out of The Three Stooges. Not in the sense that all three of the candidates were incompetent. It's just that Keyes would have needed the vocabulary of Moe Howard to do justice to the babbling imbecility of his two rivals. When "Larry" McCain suddenly forgot that he'd been in favor of the Kosovo debacle and attacked the Clinton administration for "stumbling into" it, "Moe" Keyes should have poked him in the eye and said: Hey, knucklehead! Hey, lamebrain! When "Curly" Bush lamented that he had "got defined" in people's minds in the course of his campaign, all you could do was throw up your hands. Isn't "getting defined" the whole purpose of running a presidential campaign? As Moe would say:
He's temper-a-mental: 99 percent temper, 1 percent mental.
Keyes noted that the debate was being telecast to 202 countries, and wondered aloud what all those foreigners would think if they heard two men who aspire to rule the world bickering over who was a meanie first. I'll tell you what they'll think. They'll think we're racists. For anyone not already so worn down by a lifetime of televised political baloney that he doesn't notice it, it's obvious that in a real meritocracy, the two white guys would have a hard time getting a job as Alan Keyes' valet. Then Tim Russert let slip that he thought Keyes' performance was "reminiscent of 1984?when Jesse Jackson played the same role with Gary Hart and Walter Mondale." Keyes has more in common with Andrew Jackson, Mahalia Jackson, Glenda Jackson and Shoeless Joe Jackson than he does with Jesse Jackson. Reminiscent how? In that Keyes is black?
Not that Keyes himself was blind to his own blackness. The stunning moment of the night, which didn't even get picked up in the early wire reports, came when Larry King asked a question about racial profiling. Bush obeyed the First Rule of White Republicanism: When race gets mentioned, duck! He answered the question about racial profiling in two words: "Against it." McCain was against it, too, though he tried to carve out some kind of exception for international terrorism.
But Keyes, who had clearly thought about it a great deal, was off and running:
KEYES: I know everybody thinks that this is doing some favor to a racial group, but if our police and enforcement people have the experience that a given crime is disproportionately being committed by folks from a given ethnic group, we are now going to pass a law that says you can't notice that?... We're going to enforce a law that says that we can't notice the characteristics of individuals who commit crimes and develop profiles to help folks pursue the solving of crimes based on our experience? Experience by the way is not prejudice. Prejudice is an opinion you form apart from experience, prior to experience. An opinion formed based on experience is not prejudice. It is judgment. And I think our law enforcement officers ought to be able to?
KING: You wouldn't mind being stopped by a car if there was a high prevalence of?
KEYES: You know the person I would blame for that? If there are black folks out there disproportionately committing certain kinds of crime, my parents raised me to know that I represent the race in everything I do. And I wish that everybody would take that attitude and stop committing crimes and doing things that bring a bad reputation on to people. That's what I resent.
KING: But if you were stopped you wouldn't be angry?
KEYES: I just told you who I would be angry at.
Now, if Keyes had been debating a politician capable of stringing a complete sentence together, he'd've been vulnerable to a good rejoinder, along the lines of:
But you're against affirmative action, Alan. Why should the government be race-blind in the classroom and race-conscious in an armed confrontation? Or even: You've tripped up on exactly the public/private distinction you make so much of when you talk about religious freedom. While your family's concern about "representing the race" may be healthy over the dinner table, it's obnoxious as a basis for public policy.
Granted, Bush and McCain had their hands tied. If either of them had made Keyes' rant, it would have been attacked as a "stumble" or "gaffe" at best, a "page out of Jorg Haider's playbook" at worst. But what's important is that, first, to ask for logic from either Bush or McCain would have been asking the moon. And, second, that if there is a Straight Talk Express on this campaign trail, it's not John McCain who's riding it.
Race to the Bottom Maybe it was something in the air, because last week?even leaving aside the Diallo case?was the most racialized week in American politics in recent memory. Salon magazine set the tone when it came out with a story that "McCain's Ancestors Owned Slaves"?and claimed to have found documents to prove it. Where did those documents come from? Throughout the campaign, Salon has bowed and scraped to McCain with such devotion that you almost wouldn't be surprised if the source of the report was the McCain campaign itself, hoping to get back in the good graces of Dixie's lowlanders after the candidate's distinctly un-Suthn remarks on the Confederate battle flag. But otherwise, the implication is even more disgraceful: that Salon actually went out digging for the documentation, as if there were some genetic predisposition to slave ownership that would make such information vital to voters.
Also on the racial front, Al Sharpton seemed to be edging toward endorsing Bill Bradley, if only as a means of luring Al Gore into a meeting. Gore, meanwhile, contented himself with getting the endorsement of Maya Angelou, for reasons that will elude even the most attentive student of black politics. What's the point of getting the endorsement of a...poet? Aren't they supposed to be the un-acknowledged legislators of the world? Are Bradley and Gore going to battle it out for the endorsements of Robert Bly and Richard Wilbur?
President Clinton, meanwhile, spoke to the National Summit on Africa last Thursday, and managed to lard his speech with enough malarkey to fill a brochure. After explaining (accurately) Africa's dire poverty, and noting (accurately) the challenges of containing AIDS and tuberculosis, the President couldn't resist fancying up his speech with an outright howler. "In Africa," he said, "there are companies that are hiring two employees for every job on the assumption that one of them will die." Yeah?name one such company. This little tear-jerking line has urban myth written all over it. Hiring twice the necessary workforce is not something companies do in collapsed economies. That's what makes them collapsed economies.
Then Clinton moved on to the "two million killed by famine and war in Sudan, where government sees diversity as a threat rather than a strength." That's a rather simplistic way to describe a nationwide jihad that's been going on for 16 or 17 years. But it leads one to recall that the last country the President described in such terms was Yugoslavia, last March. One would almost think we were about to bomb Sudan.
Oops! Forgot! We already did!