McCain jumps the shark?

There’s sometimes a definite point at which a candidate becomes a joke, loses all credibility, and might as well terminate his campaign. Michael Foot, who might have been an outstanding Labour Prime Minister, was ridiculed for appearing at the Cenotaph in what people called a “donkey jacket” (there’s no US equivalent, but think of it as a road-worker’s overcoat made from a coarse, still, black fabric, and with vinyl or leather shoulder patches). Michael Dukakis just looked silly in a tank and helmet. Al Gore was ridiculed for claiming to have invented the internet. McCain may have reached this point. It depends on how far the memes that evolved on Letterman’s show spread into the wider culture. Letterman’s very popular, so I don’t hold out much for McCain’s chances.

Precious moments:

“This doesn’t smell right. This just doesn’t smell right.”

“Here’s what happens, the economy is about to crater. You’re a senator. You’re a fourth-term senator from Arizona. You go back to Washington. You handle what you need to handle. Don’t suspend your campaign. You let your campaign go on, shouldered by your vice presidential nominee, that’s what you do. You don’t quit…”

“Somebody’s putting something in his Metamucil.”

John McCain lying in the phone saying he’s canceling on Letterman because he’s rushing to the airport to save the country, then being seen on a live feed having makeup applied so he can be interviewed by Katy Couric. As we watch the interview, Letterman says, “Hey John, I have a question. Do you need a ride to the airport?”

I think I might get that put on a t-shirt: “Hey John! Do you need a ride to the airport?”

Two points. First, it doesn’t matter if the shark-jumping incident really happened or not. Dukakis did sit in a tank and a lot of people thought he looked silly, and that’s a personal judgment, but personal judgments are what elections are about. Michael Foot was not wearing a donkey jacket (officially it was a short overcoat) but on certain photographs it looked unflattering and made him look clumsy. Gore did not claim to have invented the internet — that was an invention of a reported at Wired. But people were willing to believe these things. The memes evolved legs.

Second, the reason these occurrences are important is that much of our decision-making is made with the gut and not with the head. This is something that liberals generally fail to understand, but that republicans have down pat. The GOP leadership uses fear to get its way (“be very afraid of the terrorists”) and also offers reassurance “I, McCain/Bush am STRONG and can protect you.”) These are emotional messages, crafted to bypass the logic circuits in the brain and to go straight to the gut. Meanwhile you have someone like Kerry saying over and over, “I have a plan…” If MLK’s speech had been “I have a plan…” rather than “I have a dream…” he’d have been forgotten by now.

The trouble is that since liberals don’t understand the power of emotions they may not take the memes they’ve been handed and run with them. It I were running Obama’s campaign I’d be having millions of buttons and thousands of “Hey John! Do you need a ride to the airport?” t-shirts made. I’d be getting everyone on my team to use that line. McCain could make the most brilliant point in a debate and if someone said “Hey John! Do you need a ride to the airport?” you’d crack up with laughter and no one would take the man seriously. Just saying.

Yet more Buddhism and politics

Auntie at Buddhajones explains why she’s an undecided voter (not enamored with McCain but not confident in Obama’s ability to deliver) and asks: “Am I a Buddhist heretic because I’m not on the Obama bandwagon?”

Tinythinker at peacefulturmoil invites Buddhist conservatives (or at least non-liberals) to come out of the political closet. He or she raises an interesting point that I’ve also been dwelling on, which is that conservatism doesn’t per se have to be about being for the wealthy and against the poor, or anti-equality. I’m starting to think of American conservatism as being an anomaly, although perhaps I have in mind a non-anomalous conservatism that doesn’t exist.

Terence at Republic of T expresses some heartfelt outrage at John McCain’s asking for a time-out from the presidential campaign and from the first presidential debate. Like him, I (cynic as I sometimes am) started wondering whether McCain was avoiding a confrontation where he’s likely to come off looking bad. His phony populism will look pretty silly when set against reminders of his previous support for deregulation.

And tonight I was talking at a class I was teaching to a state representative who’s there because she wants to learn to be more ethically skillful in her political communication. Having only just started to think about this myself I can’t be of much immediate help in that regard.

Training camps for liars

I’m troubled when Obama distorts the truth, but more troubled by McCain’s distortions, simply because they’re more common and often more serious.

But I’m really troubled that a major part of the McCain campaign is apparently based on a) getting ghostwriters to lie by writing fictional letters, and b) getting ordinary members of the public to lie by claiming that the letters are their own and putting their names to them. News of this comes from a Salon article, which is a translation of a piece written for a Dutch newspaper. I’ve reproduced the entire article below.

I guess this is disturbing to me because it’s not just a question of a politician bending the truth, or of a politician’s campaign team bending the truth, but because it’s the encouragement of lying as a social norm. “If you’re with us, then the truth doesn’t matter,” is what the message seems to be. I find that utterly detestable, although I’m sure many people on McCain’s side will have their justifications. I really hope that Obama’s side isn’t up to anything like this.

Sept. 24, 2008 | “You can be whoever you want to be,” says an inviting Phil Tuchman. “You can be a beggar or a millionaire. A mom or a husband. Whatever. You decide!”

I volunteer in political campaigns now and then. After a series of outings for Obama and a first mission as a phone banker for John McCain, I returned to McCain’s headquarters in Arlington, Va. The offer was too alluring to delay — they wanted to put me into action as a ghostwriter. Next to commercials and phone banking, writing letters to the editor is the most important method of the McCain campaign to attract voters. At least that is what’s written in the guidelines that McCain campaign worker Phil Tuchman presents to me.

Today he is training six ghostwriters. What on earth is the appeal of McCain for the former Soviet bloc? Last time I was here, an exuberant Polish guy was phone banking next to me. Today, a Russian in yellow suspenders is shimmering at the same table, looking just like an actor who is famous in the Netherlands for star turns as a genius who suppresses his dark side with painstaking self-control.

The assignment is simple: We are going to write letters to the editor and we are allowed to make up whatever we want — as long as it adds to the campaign. After today we are supposed to use our free moments at home to create a flow of fictional fan mail for McCain. “Your letters,” says Phil Tuchman, “will be sent to our campaign offices in battle states. Ohio. Pennsylvania. Virginia. New Hampshire. There we’ll place them in local newspapers.”

Place them? I may be wrong, but I thought that in the USA only a newspaper’s editors decided that.

“We will show your letters to our supporters in those states,” explains Phil. “If they say: ‘Yeah, he/she is right!’ then we ask them to sign your letter. And then we send that letter to the local newspaper. That’s how we send dozens of letters at once.”

No newspaper can refuse a stream of articulate expressions of support, is the thought behind it. “This way, we will always get into some letters column.”

It is the day after Sarah Palin’s speech at the Republican convention. Today, she is our main subject. The others are already enthusiastically hammering their keyboards. I am struggling with a tiny writer’s block. “Dear Editor …”

Phil Tuchman has handed out model letters, and talking points and quotes from Sarah Palin’s speech. But whom do I want to be?

Let’s loosen up my fingers a little first — and my principles, too. Am I actually allowed to make up letters? At the moment, it seems to be the only way to demonstrate how this is done in a campaign. So yes. I start practicing attractive sentences about Sarah Palin:

“Her biggest plus to me is that, besides being amazingly smart and qualified, she managed to remain a woman like us. She is the PTA hockey moms. She is the working mothers of special needs children. She is every caring mother of a challenging teenager.”

Her pregnant daughter Bristol (17) is not a talking point. A talking point is her son Track (19), who will be deployed to Iraq.

“And most of all, she is just like any mother of a child who deploys to Iraq in the service of this country.”

Now we are getting somewhere. I look around. I type:

“My son, too, is there.”

Oh god, you liar. Now build up suspense. New paragraph.

“And my heart needs him back safe so much.”

Yes, yes. Well done. Another paragraph — why not? Now let’s pump some iron in that mother, for after all, we are not with the Democrats here. Look up the right, patriotic phraseology in the model letters.

“But when I see him again, I also want to see his face glow with pride. Just like the day he told me he enlisted.”

Yes, like that. And now full speed in the direction of McCain’s plans to continue the war. Sell that war. With a mother’s heart.

“That is why Senator John McCain could count on my vote from day one.”

But whatever happened to Sarah Palin in this story? I gaze out of the window. This takes 10 minutes. Then:

“With Sarah Palin, I have even more reason to trust in victory. She represents my heart.”

Hmm. Does that sound like total doublespeak? Or does it sound like logical reasoning to a McCain supporter? I cannot come up with anything better.

“Sincerely …” I leave the dots for somebody else’s signature.

Does Phil Tuchman want to read it?

Phil bends over my computer screen and reads. This takes a while. I am expecting roars of laughter or to be kicked out. Then he says drily: “I like that. It appeals to the hearts of people. Can you write more letters?”

Free Sarah Palin!

Campbell Brown Rips McCain Camp’s “Sexist” Treatment Of Palin

“Tonight I call on the McCain campaign to stop treating Sarah Palin like she is a delicate flower that will wilt at any moment,” said Brown. “This woman is from Alaska for crying out loud. She is strong. She is tough. She is confident. And you claim she is ready to be one heart beat away form the presidency. If that is the case, then end this chauvinistic treatment of her now. Allow her to show her stuff. Allow her to face down those pesky reporters… Let her have a real news conference with real questions. By treating Sarah Palin different from the other candidates in this race, you are not showing her the respect she deserves. Free Sarah Palin. Free her from the chauvinistic chain you are binding her with. Sexism in this campaign must come to an end. Sarah Palin has just as much a right to be a real candidate in this race as the men do. So let her act like one.”