A Confederacy of Political Dunces
Double Down is a reminder of 2012’s uninspiring list of candidates for the presidency of the United States
This book bills itself as an “explosive inside account of the 2012 presidential election,” and it is explosive in its way. To those not particularly conversant with the methods of American politics, what is explosive is the apparently nonchalant exposé of the total cynicism and vapidity of the entire process of choosing the holder of the greatest office within the gift of any people on earth, an office that has often been distinguished by occupants who were very considerable, and even great, statesmen. To those who admire America and wish it well, and are persuaded that it is a great and generally benign country, and haven’t noticed the evolution of American political mores in the last 20 years, this book will, indeed, be explosively disconcerting. To America’s haters and the merely contemptuous, this book will confirm them in their views very satisfactorily, in a manner too conducive to enhanced complacency to qualify as an explosion.
The authors, two editors at hackneyed American middlebrow weekly magazines — Halperin at Time and Heilemann at New York — are exhausted from chasing more timely media, huffing and puffing clichés to keep up, and strain to be stylistically trendy as they render the inexorable chronology of these banal events. People are frequently “discombobulated”, sometimes by “humungous” developments. More racily, the protagonists generally refused to be “force-fed shitburgers”, and the reader is carpet-bombed by more salacious four-letter words, not only in citations of politicians and their entourages in slightly excited or populist moments, but in the authors’ own composition, to keep the flavour of the narrative consistent with the quality of the dialogue. This reaches its coruscation in a quotation in which the f-word is repeated 11 times in a 22-word exclamatory sentence. There’s nothing wrong with this if there’s a point to it, but there isn’t, except the election of the US president. Many readers will remember the shrieks of moral outrage over Nixon’s moderate coarseness in the Watergate transcripts. Everyone in this book, including the authors and many political women, make Nixon (or even Gordon Brown), sound like a Baptist parson. This is not Theodore White’s Making of the President, or even Andrew Rawnsley’s breathless account of the rise of New Labour, Servants of the People. It is two journeymen editors at tired and marginal magazines blending like nanny into an Edwardian family photograph and maintaining consistency with what they hear.
They are either masters of the expressionless, which is not their sometimes slick and snappy, sometimes unresourceful literary style; or they are too far gone and anaesthetised by the immense, garish, corrupt circus in which they operate, to notice how fatuous and cynical the entire process of choosing an American president has become. The authors present their story, sometimes in excruciating detail, and always with a sophomoric formality that makes no distinction between important and unimportant people, in presidential electoral terms, and important occurrences and the daily rounds. The authors have no sense of history: to read this book, one would think William Jefferson Clinton and Thomas Jefferson were a generation apart, not that President Jefferson is mentioned (any more than are Washington, Lincoln, Wilson, Eisenhower, or Franklin D. Roosevelt). The names Kennedy, Johnson, Bush and Reagan rarely arise and might as well have been Mount Rushmore figures. Even the universal, equal-opportunity, no-fault, one-size-fits-all totem, Richard Milhous Nixon, is almost completely absent. Of course, this is a book about the 2012 election, but all of the above were elected to the office sought (23 times), and bringing in a bit of context would have made the intellectual and ethical aridity of the 2012 campaign, and the mediocrity of the candidates, more clear. The casual reader might imagine that American elections were always like this, but they were not. When Andrew Jackson ran against John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, and Abraham Lincoln ran against Stephen A. Douglas and John C. Breckinridge; when former Princeton University president Woodrow Wilson ran against future secretary of state and chief justice Charles Evans Hughes, and FDR broke a tradition as old as the republic and sought a third term against distinguished lawyer and public intellectual Wendell L. Willkie; when victorious theatre commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower ran against the sparkling epigrammatist and intellectual governor of Illinois Adlai E. Stevenson, and when Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, much decorated young World War II Navy officers and literate and learned men, were the candidates, the campaigns were enlightening, dramatic, and presented different policy views on vital national issues.
In this campaign, as in all of the post-Reagan campaigns for the presidency, not one memorable phrase was uttered. Barack Obama was the first incumbent not to stand on his record in seeking re-election since Martin Van Buren in 1840. (Van Buren inherited a depression from Jackson’s revocation of the charter of the central bank and simply pretended that none of it had anything to do with him.) Even Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, unsuccessful presidents though they were, gamely tried to run on their records, and lost. Nowhere does the reader learn in this book that Obama’s entire campaign is to go fishing after packets of susceptible voters, and not to claim that, on his record, he deserves to be re-elected.
The president’s strategists claimed there was a Republican “war on women” and in furtherance of this, decided that the Roman Catholic Church had to pay to insure all the medical requirements of employees and students at its institutions, including contraceptive devices, abortion-inducing drugs, and processes of sterilisation. The authors made no connection between this (probably unconstitutional) effort to separate the country’s 75 million Roman Catholics from their episcopal leadership, implicitly portrayed as a quavering legion of septuagenarian celibates, tolerators of sexual molestation and humbug-spouting killjoys, and the departure from the administration of chief of staff William Daley, of the very Catholic governing family of the President’s home city of Chicago. While the murder of the American ambassador to Libya in Benghazi is mentioned, there is no mention of the degrading speech to the world’s Muslims that the President prevailed on the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, to give, pretending that their ambassador did not die in a terrorist attack but as a result of spontaneous objections to the video of an Islamophobic kook in California, which Obama and Clinton knew to be false. Instead, we have laborious coverage of the magnificent but outrageous Donald Trump’s campaign to prove that the President was ineligible to be president because of his supposed birth in Kenya. We are marched solemnly through an endless sequence of facile ad-men and organisers. A succession of Republican contestants for the nomination are treated as if they were potential presidents, when in fact they were caricatures, charlatans, who in a less tolerant society would have been arrested for impersonating presidential candidates. Michelle Bachmann, who went down fighting the inoculation of young children against diseases (unmentioned); Texas governor Rick Perry who jogs with a hand-gun in his shorts and hired his father-in-law to perform a vasectomy on him (unmentioned); Newt Gingrich, intelligent but unfocused, hobbled by dubious financial connections, and well described by former Reagan speech-writer Peggy Noonan as “a human grenade with his hand on the pin, saying ‘Watch this'”; Herman Cain, an African-American former pizza executive afflicted by a semi-public problem of satyriasis; and Rick Santorum, a defeated Pennsylvania senator who espoused courageously a Catholic programme redolent of Pius IX, a man of principle but not of this century or that electorate.
The Republican candidate, Willard Mitt (yes, Mitt; my attempt to have him referred to as WMR, like FDR, JFK and LBJ didn’t succeed) Romney, was a consultant, a former private equity executive, wealthy and successful, who had been the governor of Massachusetts and had successfully managed the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games, had faced in all four directions on all issues and was a sitting duck. He was well summarised by Bill Clinton as “a nice guy who should not be allowed to speak to large numbers of people” after he called 47 per cent of Americans freeloaders who accepted benefit in one form or another and were lost to the Democrats. (A majority of pensioners generally vote Republican.) The 47-per-cent comment and the headline on an op-ed piece in the New York Times about the General Motors-Chrysler bailout titled (by the Times, not Romney) “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” sank his candidacy. Each side spent a billion dollars; there were three inane sound-bite debates, and a president who had increased the National Debt from $10 trillion (after 233 years of American independence) to $17 trillion to buy a 1 per cent economic growth rate, passed a catastrophic healthcare bill, and retreated on every front in the world, apart from killing Osama bin Laden, was re-elected by five million votes in an electorate of 129 million. The campaign was a bore, the candidates were bores, and Obama is an unsuccessful president, like Carter, Hoover and Benjamin Harrison, to mention only a few — but they weren’t re-elected.
This book does reveal the unsuitability for national office of Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, who was being touted by Rupert Murdoch, Nancy Reagan, Ken Langone, Henry Kissinger and others. He didn’t pass Romney’s scrutiny for vice-president, and after his recent punishment of the community of Fort Lee, New Jersey, for a disagreement its mayor had with the governor, by his staff shutting down access to the George Washington Bridge to Manhattan, he has probably sunk, in national terms. But this book presents this entire sequence of events and panoply of second-rate people without comment, even subtly implied comment. In the terrible year of 1968, with 550,000 draftees in Vietnam, 200 to 400 coming back dead every week, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and race and anti-war riots every week all over the country, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Robert Kennedy, Nelson Rockefeller, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan all ran for president and all were qualified to be president. The procession of tyros who were dispatched by Romney when Jeb Bush, Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, and even Senator Marco Rubio were available, raises serious questions of why, in the splendid formulation from the days of the founders, the office is not seeking the man (or woman).
This is not a particularly good book, but it is an interesting document of the very reversible, but unmistakeable, decline of America.