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“Great politicians sell hope.”
June 12, 2015 – I heard that quote a few days ago, listening to a “book on CD” by Chris Matthews. And when I first heard it I thought, “What rock have you been living under?“
But then Chris went on to cite examples from American history, in his book, Life’s a Campaign.
He wrote that looking back, our best presidents – including JFK and Ronald Reagan – were able to “sell themselves.” They were able to sell themselves by giving Americans a sense of hope for the future. That led to a thought: “Maybe that’s what this blog should be about…“
But then I had another thought: “He could be right, but what happened?“
What happened to those politicos selling hope?
But let’s get back to how I happened to be listening to Chris Matthews’ book-on-CD in the first place.
It all started back in December 2014, when I attended a funeral back home in Florida. The funeral was for my step-mother, who’d married my father back in January 1986. (After my mother died the year before; it was the second time around for both of them.)
At the reception after the service – inside the parish hall – I saw a table of used books for sale. I found one that piqued my interest, The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity. I’ve been meaning to review it ever since I started this blog. (In March 2015.)
But one thing I’ve learned during these busy days of retirement: It’s a whole lot easier to listen to a book on CD – driving around town – than it is to actually read it. And that’s why I found it far easier to review Life’s a Campaign than The Presidents Club.
Again, that book-on-CD was Chris Matthew’s Life’s a Campaign “What Politics Has Taught Me about Friendship, Rivalry, Reputation, and Success.” (The quote on “great politicians” is from Disc 2, Track 6.) And while by now I’ve listened to most of Life’s a Campaign, I’ve only managed to read portions of The Presidents Club.
But the really strange things is – suffice it to say – that both books have given me an inkling of a sense of hope for the future. (For example, one thing The Presidents Club pointed out was that a funeral – and especially the funeral of former president – really puts things in perspective.)
Put another way, The Presidents Club gave me a sense that – generally speaking – the men who occupied the White House have been – overall – decent, honorable and capable. Then too, Life’s a Campaign gave me a sense that maybe the same applies to politicians in general. (Gasp!)
But then came a third thought: Maybe today’s politicians seem especially nasty because many voters they’re trying to woo are just that way. Maybe today’s politicians are simply a reflection of the nastiness that seems to have taken hold of a large part of our population.
On that note, see the Wikipedia article on dichotomy. That article included this paragraph, about two-thirds of the way down under “Usage and examples:”
C. P. Snow believes that Western society has become an argument culture (The Two Cultures). In The Argument Culture (1998), Deborah Tannen suggests that the dialogue of Western culture is characterized by a warlike atmosphere in which the winning side has truth (like a trophy). Such a dialogue virtually ignores the middle alternatives.
(Emphasis added.) In turn, if that is true, then we swing voters need to figure out what a politician really stands for, beyond those nasty things he has to say to get elected.
Take George Wallace… Please! Though he’s widely known as one of the most race-baiting politicians in American history, his “final term as Governor (1983–1987) saw a record number of black Alabamians appointed to government positions.” See Did George Wallace repent his racism? | Yahoo Answers, and The Redemption of George Wallace.
The gist of the Wallace story is that he changed his tune after his attempted assassination in 1972. But there are other examples of politicians using shady tactics during an election campaign, then going on to serve honorably. Think “George Bush the Elder” and his Willie Horton campaign in the 1988 election. (Though in hindsight Bush I comes to us now as a &^%$ genius!)
Then there’s the other side of the story. Take Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan. (Reviewing another Chris Matthews book.) Or for that matter Ronald Reagan and Ted Kennedy.
Even though the two men were politic arch-enemies, Kennedy admired the fact that Reagan “knew how to manipulate symbols for his causes yet could sup with his enemies:”
He’s absolutely professional. When the sun goes down, the battles of the day are really gone. He gave the Robert Kennedy Medal, which President Carter refused to do… He’s very sure of himself, and I think that people sense that he’s comfortable with himself… He had a philosophy and he’s fought for it. There’s a consistency and continuity at a time when many others are flopping back and forth. And that’s an important and instructive lesson for politicians, that people admire that.
(Bronner, 104) Which brings us back to Harry Golden and his Carolina Israelite. See also Great but Forgotten: “If Golden were writing today, The Carolina Israelite would be done as a blog.”
Golden – who inspired this blog – wrote from 1942 to 1968. Those years included McCarthyism, Vietnam War protests, and the Civil Rights Movement. Those years featured violence and political rhetoric of a harshness equal to or greater than that of today. Yet throughout it all, Golden kept a sense of hope and a sense of humor. (As in his satirical “Vertical Negro Plan,” which involved “removing the chairs from any to-be-integrated building, since Southern Whites didn’t mind standing with Blacks, only sitting with them.”)
Even the title of his best-selling Only in America conveyed a sense of hope and wonder:
The most outstanding ingredients of [Golden’s] personality are a built-in independent way of thinking, an infallible nose for sham and prejudice on any level (which he immediately exposes, lightly but decisively), a special Golden brand of wit and whimsy, and a love of people and learning… “It could happen only in America,” is his most apt comment.
Carl Sandburg wrote in his introduction to the 1959 edition that “whatever is human interests Harry Golden. Honest men, crooks, knuckleheads…” He added that Golden was the perfect antidote for “too much of conformity and complacency, particularly among the young.” (OIA, xv-xvi. Also on that note see Seinfeld takes on political correctness on college campuses.)
Sandurg further noted that it must have been someone like Golden who was “in the mind of the Yankee, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote: ‘Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.'”
Golden himself said he drew “heavily on history, literature, philosophy,” in addition to “stories of the Lower East Side of New York where I was born.” And he didn’t present a simplistic Pollyanna view of history, either his own or as it happened before his eyes. Aside from those turbulent times he lived in, Golden went through five years in prison on an “embezzlement rap” – wire fraud. Yet through it all he maintained a sense of hope and humor: “As I continue to write of the passing parade, I am as happy as a mouse in a cookie jar.” (OIA, xx.)
All of which brings us back to the old saying noted in the Peanuts cartoon above, that in “bad times or hopelessness, it is more worthwhile to do some good, however small, in response than to complain about the situation.” See also Better to light a single candle. And that great bloggers – like great politicians – should work harder on “selling hope.”
That’s what this blog will try to do. Harry Golden, “The torch has passed…”
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The “stupid darkness” cartoon is courtesy of You Stupid Darkness! | Kurtis Scaletta’s Site, which in turn links to comics.com/peanuts, “one of the most amazing but little-known Internet resources.” See also lightasinglecandle.wordpress.com, and The 5 Greatest (newspaper) Comic Strips Of All Time.
The Matthews image is courtesy of Chris Matthews – Wikipedia. For more on the audio version of his book, see Chris Matthews Audio & Video – LearnOutLoud.com, and/or Life’s a Campaign.
Re: Funerals and “perspective.” See Reminders death provides about what’s really important in life.
Re: “argument culture.” The full title of Deborah Tannen‘s book is The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words. Tannen wrote an earlier book, You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation (1990). According to Amazon, in that earlier book “Tannen showed why talking to someone of the opposite sex can be like talking to someone from another world.”
The George Wallace picture is courtesy What George Wallace Taught Me About Forgiveness | HuffPost. Written by “Trudy Bourgeois, The American Experience | George Wallace, a story about Wallace’s change of heart (and on “Wallace and his circle”):
In March, 1965, a violent confrontation between Alabama state troopers and peaceful civil rights marchers horrified the nation. The troops that beat and tear-gassed the demonstrators were under orders from Governor George Wallace… Thirty years later, George Wallace would sit next to the podium at a ceremony commemorating the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march, holding the hand of the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Re: “Take George Wallace… Please!” This refers to a classic Henny Youngman joke. Youngman (1906-1998) was known for his one-liners, and his best-known was ‘Take my wife… please.’” Henny Youngman – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. For more on the technique illustrated, see below.
Re: Willie Horton. See Willie Horton – Top 10 Campaign Ads – TIME and The legacy of the Willie Horton ad lives on, 25 years later. As to the legacy of that ad, the latter article noted a comment by activist Al Sharpton, “The bad news for our politics has been that the tactics of our Willie Horton ad live on.”
Re: Ted Kennedy on Ronald Reagan. See Battle for Justice: How the [Robert] Bork Nomination Shook America, by Ethan Bronner, Anchor Book edition (1989), at page 104. The Reagan-Kennedy image is courtesy of www.boston.com/bigpicture/2009/08/senator_ted_kennedy.
Re: “the torch has passed.” See The elements of styling a great inaugural address: , noting that in 1961, President Kennedy gave “what is considered to be one of the greatest inaugural addresses.”
The lower image is courtesy of www.notable-quotes.com/h/hope_quotes_ii.
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Re: More on the Henny Youngman joke. The joke relied on the principle of dislocation, used in comedy as well as magic and the martial arts. See, Shinogi – Budotheory.ca, which noted three types of dislocation: positional, temporal, and functional. And a magician is also known as an illusionist. See the Wikipedia article, Magic (illusion) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, and also Alex Davies – Dislocation. Finally, see The Internet Classics Archive | The Art of War by Sun Tzu, which noted the saying of Sun Tzu (q.v.), the ancient Chinese philosopher who said, “The fundamental principle of the Art of War is deception,” or in other words, dislocating your opponent.
So anyway, in the classic one-liner – told literally “a century ago” – the audience was led to expect Youngman to say “for example” when he began; as in, “Take my wife… for example.” But instead of saying “for example,” Youngman dislocated his audience by saying, “Take my wife… Please!”
See also On praying in public.