By MICHAEL DAVIDOW, Radio Free New Hampshire
“My uncle had a friend in the investment business,” John Erlichman said, “and every year he would run away to the circus for two weeks, and be a clown. And it re-invigorated and regenerated him, and he owed his good sensibilities and long life to that experience. I think that going off in a presidential campaign has many of the same attributes. It’s totally different than anything you do in your daily life.”
Erlichman would know. He was one of those tragic figures from the Watergate scandal, a decent enough man with liberal tendencies who committed crimes while serving as an assistant to President Nixon. He served time in prison for that; in truth, for confusing the ethics of campaigning, or hard-knuckle politics, with his daily life, spent as a senior member of the executive branch. That was the long and short of Watergate: an administration filled with promise, that had forgotten where to draw the hard line between politics and government.
Some would say there’s a continuum between those two things. Mario Cuomo, for instance, famously stated that “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” The implication there is that campaigning rewards idealism, whereas governing requires realism. You speak about your goals in lofty ways, to get yourself elected; then you buckle down to the dry and difficult job of actually accomplishing those goals.
Erlichman was saying something different, though. Erlichman was positing a fundamental distinction between politics and government; he was saying they are two different things. And in so doing, he was harkening back to an even earlier time in American history, to the days when politicians gave long speeches on hot summer days and entire communities came out to listen, babies and grandmothers and dogs on leashes included; to the days when politicians gave out barrels of rye whiskey to their supporters, and that meant votes; to the days when politics vied with prize fighting for the eyes of the American populace. To the days, in other words, when legitimate businessmen could run away to the circus now and then, and people chuckled at that.
For better or worse, though, those days are long past. First radio and then television made it possible for citizens to hear and view their leaders in the comfort of their own homes, rather than requiring them to attend torch-lit parades. With that closeness came relations of a new sort; with those new relations came a growing seriousness in American politics. Fewer funny hats at conventions, because those funny hats look silly unless you’re there in person, and you’re drunk. More predictable speeches, blander personalities. Television is a cool medium, warned Marshall McLuhan. It rewards subtlety, it rewards restraint. The close-up lens works best on a still and quiet face. Perhaps that was the source of Cuomo’s maxim. Poetry is best enjoyed in moderation, after all.
But the face of politics has changed again. With the rise of cable television, first, and then with the rise of the internet, the modern voter wants neither entertainment nor enlightenment. Modern voters want personal connection. Modern voters see their candidates just like they see their own friends and neighbors. It’s that immediate and it’s that informal. And who behaves best for their own friends and neighbors? We prize honesty and naturalness now. We prize unvarnished emotion and we distrust those who deny us their inner selves.
Politics works poorly, though, when mixed with emotion. Politics can be fun, in the sense of performance, in which case the politician knows when the show is over, when it’s time to allow the practitioners to take over; politics can be uplifting, in the sense of idealism, in which case the practitioners themselves are only waiting to roll up their sleeves and get to work; but clowns and poets both benefit from professionalism, from practice, from experience, from modesty and self-knowledge. Not so today’s emotive politician, who doesn’t know when to quit.
The ugliness and unworkability of this model reached yet another height recently with Kevin McCarthy’s declaration of support for impeaching Joe Biden. They’ve been investigating Biden for months now and they have come up with nothing. But McCarthy and his angry party want him impeached anyway. Payback for how the Democrats treated Donald Trump; blood lust, really, only useful for feeding short-sighted rage.
Now Donald Trump has been investigated too. Investigated, indicted, finger-printed, and booked. He did it the old-fashioned way. He earned it. Biden is getting his impeachment papers in the new way: because it makes people happy.
Davidow writes Radio Free New Hampshire for InDepthNH.org. He is also the author of Gate City, Split Thirty, and The Rocketdyne Commission, three novels about politics and advertising which, taken together, form The Henry Bell Project, The Book of Order, and The Hunter of Talyashevka . They are available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Davidow’s Chanukah Land can be found here.