Monday, February 27, 2012

Who are these people?

New Jersey’s Chris Christie, one of the stillborn anybody but Romney folk and a current supporter, declared on MSNBC: You can’t compromise your principles because people won’t know who you are.  He was referring to Rick Santorum’s going along with fellow Senate Republicans in supporting legislation, which he now contends ran contrary to his own beliefs.  Christie has a point.  Full disclosure, I haven’t followed the governor’s career closely enough to judge how he measures up against that high bar.  Regardless, his comments dovetail with something I’ve been thinking about of late.  Who are these people who run for office — all of them?  

Before getting to that, let me digress a moment to suggest that going along, as Mr. Santorum did while in the Senate, was the norm not the exception; it remains so.  Indeed voting or acting on conscience is so rare that John F. Kennedy devoted his best selling Profiles in Courage to the few senators in our history who did.  I guess you didn’t need to be reminded of that work to know that, his claims notwithstanding, Rick Santorum is no John Quincy Adams.  In fact, what the entire Republican primary campaign brings to mind is not Kennedy’s book but the title of that the long running radio show (1934-54) Let’s PretendIt’s a contest in which none of the players, including Christie’s man, seem to be concerned one bit about the even more enduring (on radio and then on TV) Truth or Consequences.  No courage, ample pretend and little concern (to carry my broadcast analogy further) for what Sargent Joe Friday called, just the facts.

Getting back to the identity question, have you noticed that much of this and other campaigns focus on the inconsistencies between what candidates say on the stump and what they have done either in office or in their private professional life?  Romney recently told the CPAC gathering that he was a severely conservative governor.  Then who was that guy who signed Massachusetts’ progressive healthcare program into law?  After leaving the House, the trash and burn faux populist Newt Gingrich raked in huge fees not lobbying for Fannie and Freddie.  While in the Senate, the fiscal conservative Santorum was a consistent supporter of deficit increasing earmarks.  And to keep this non-partisan, Barack Obama was a vocal critic of both Iraq and Gitmo on the 2008 campaign trail.  As president, it took three years to exit the first and he still hasn’t accomplished closing the second.

There is something in our politics or perhaps in any politics that works against a candidate being totally up front on the campaign trail.  We like to attribute this lack of candor to some kind cynicism — you can fool all of the people most of the time.  Focus groups not conviction produce robotic pronouncements telling us what we’d like to hear.  There is much to that argument.  But perhaps something else is at work that may come closer to the truth: an unspoken but nonetheless effectual compact between the voters and the candidate.  We don’t really want to know who these people are any more than they want to reveal themselves to us.  Why is that so?  Because that’s the way we largely function in many, if not most, of our everyday relationships.  For example, if that applies do you really know your boss or the people who work for you?  Do they know you?  Isn’t that not knowing often a matter of choice?

The idea that ignorance is bliss is a pretty good description of how we function, and perhaps necessarily so.  I’m not saying that such ignorance is a good thing, only that it’s a reality.  Few of us are totally open books, certainly when it comes to those beyond are inner circle.  And we all have inner circles whether they are comprised only of family or include some close friends and perhaps co-workers.  One of the large issues of our time is whether the Internet and specifically Facebook are invading our privacy, revealing too much about us.  We all know where their children come from, but we really don’t want to know about the sex lives of our family members and friends.  Perhaps Charlie Rose and Lara Logan’s revival of Ed Murrow’s dreadful Person to Person will gain an audience, but few viewers should be deluded into thinking they are really gaining access into the home, much less inner life, of the interviewed celebs.

As the late and charismatic Sarah Lawrence professor William Campbell knew well, we all need myths. And we all recognize that our heroes have a thousand faces.  In that regard, those who lead us tend to be composites of who they are (or may be) and who we want them to be.  They conspire to create an image but we are willing co-conspirators.  In that sense I am always somewhat amused when pundits contrast how reserved/opaque Obama and Romney are in contrast to say Bill Clinton or perhaps George W. Bush.  One certainly couldn’t say either Reagan or Bush Senior, both extraordinarily private people, were open books.  Who are these people?  The answer is we don’t fully know and never will.  Again, that may not be a good thing, but it is probably an inevitable component of public life.

It’s not surprising that generations of presidential historians have written and spoken countless words aimed at unearthing the real Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln  or Richard Nixon.  For them the mystery of public figures has been key to making a good living, for which I’m sure they are each personally grateful.  But it is also hard work.  Robert Caro has devoted nearly three decades of his and his researcher wife’s life just to Lyndon Johnson who, despite his gregarious nature, remains one of the most enigmatic figures of our recent history.  Intimate JFK associates Kenny O’Donnell and Dave Powers published a memoir Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye.  Its title was taken from an Irish ballad and it spoke to Kennedy’s tragically short life, but again evoking a suggestive truth that even their close friend remained somewhat of a mystery.

The irony of Governor Christie’s rebuke is that its subject may be most transparent figure of the current presidential race.  We may not know the real Romney nor necessarily want to know the real Gingrich or any of the other now defunct GOP contenders, but there is little doubt about the identity of Rick Santorum.  To his credit, and perhaps to our horror, he has been totally up front about his fundamentalist religious views.  He decries our educational system — he and his wife have home schooled their children.  He opposes contraception and abortion and, while eight children (one died) is no record, they certainly have more offspring than the average American couple.  While believing the government should pull back, he nonetheless thinks it should play a substantial role in social matters because, like Mr. Justice Scalia, Santorum believes our laws come from God.  Perhaps nominee John Roberts put one over on the Senate with his self-portrayal as a respecter of precedent and settled law, but Santorum hasn’t played that game on the campaign trail (for the most part).  We know that he would bring some modicum of theocracy to the White House, even if in campaign mode he claims that not to be the case.  More on that subject to come.

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