“Something doesn’t smell right.” That may well stand as the public’s verdict on John McCain’s surprising “suspension” of his campaign yesterday. Perhaps it will even end up being McCain’s political epitaph.
Lyndon Johnson knew he’d lost the public’s mandate when he “lost” Walter Cronkite. With this judgment, McCain just lost David Letterman.
The analogy is admittedly imperfect. Cronkite, working in the heyday of network news, had 10s of millions of viewers; Dave averages a paltry 4 or 5 million (though through YouTube, and probably through replays on cable news, this episode will reach millions more). Cronkite was “the most trusted man in America”; Dave is a cranky comedian, whom some of us love and others can’t stand. Cronkite had gravitas; Dave has sarcasm.
But Letterman may be a better bellwether than his limited reach and “unserious” occupation suggest. Here is a well-known member of the national media — and a McCain admirer, as can be plainly seen in these exerpts — who, unbound by the conventions of journalistic reserve and “objectivity,” can say exactly what he thinks of the Senator’s ploy. And he thinks it stinks.
There’s a larger irony here, and a more troubling question lurking in the background. The entire rationale behind McCain’s extraordinary gamble — and the reason it might yet work — draws on the same deep-seated anti-political disdain that “equal-opportunity offender” comics like Letterman (and Leno, Conan, etc.) depend upon for their nightly laughs.
McCain is betting that he will be seen as putting leadership before politics — “politics” being something trivial, petty, and disreputable; something that “leaders” like him suffer only because they have to. “Politics” is a show, a sham, a stupid game; a distraction from the Serious Business of the Country, which Great Leaders like McCain could get down to, if only they didn’t have to deal with “partisan bickering,” and “talk, talk, talk.”
Sound familiar? In its straightforward form, this is the text of many a stump speech and campaign ad, proffered by “Washington outsiders” from the left and (more frequently and vehemently) from the right. It is also the subtext of about 90% of the “political” jokes told on network late-night shows. These jokes — which might appear to be about particular candidates’ shortcomings, but are really about the unworthiness of all politicians, regardless of their parties or the year in which they are running — are more properly called anti-political, since they buy into this same definition of “politics” as an evil that may not even be necessary.
The problem is that politics is necessary. You can’t have democracy without elections. You can’t have elections (not elections that are about anything, anyway) without a campaign season in which issues are debated, and distinctions are drawn. There are a lot of terrible flaws with the way we do this, but we need to do it. We need the campaign, we need the debates, and — though they often do a horrible job — we need the news media telling us about it all.
Leadership – politics = dictatorship. As much as we might disdain “partisan bickering” (i.e., diversity of opinion) and “talk, talk, talk” (i.e., debate and deliberation), it is simply impossible to have government by the people without politics.
Letterman is only kidding when he says “the road to the White House goes through me.” But it does go through the campaign process, including media appearances, speeches, debates, and, you know, voting. It goes through us. John McCain can’t just dismiss the whole process as “merely” politics, and proclaim himself a leader, above all of that. Even if it looks like he might lose.