You’d think politics would be like, say, classical music—that the more you know about it, the less interested you would be in the obvious stuff. Just as no real classical music maven ever seems to talk about Vivaldi or Beethoven or Tchaikovsky, it would seem that no real Washington insider would want to talk about big national races. But that’s not the way it works. From about this point in the election cycle, Washington becomes one interminable discussion of the presidential race. There are half a dozen newsletters and a dozen websites devoted to tracking every nebbish and every minor endorsement and campaign proposal. There are people in town who can give you the names and addresses of everyone in New Hampshire who’s endorsed John Kasich, tell you the middle name of Lamar Alexander’s South Carolina field director and fax you Bob Smith’s schedule in Iowa for two weeks from now.
The problem is that usually the candidates have something to talk about, and this year they don’t. Who is going to be able to stand 16 months of George Bush talking about “helping those left behind” and Al Gore talking about “building a more vital democracy” and “good strong, livable communities with green spaces.” Or, for that matter, Bill Bradley. Bradley was on a 10-day swing through California, a state that Gore has cultivated more assiduously than any other. Bradley 0sought to get to Gore’s left by holding meetings with gay, feminist and union activists. No one was more puzzled at this than Margaret Carlson of Time magazine, who quipped that, to get to the left of Al Gore on gays, Bradley would have to announce that he’s gay himself. One thing Bradley can do is garner basketball endorsements. The Lakers’ new coach Phil Jackson, late of the Bulls, is on board. Bradley, in fact, could score a major campaign coup if he could get Michael Jordan to do an ad alongside footage of Gore referring to the Bulls great as “Michael Jackson.”
But that won’t happen. About the only unpredictable candidate left in American politics is Pat Buchanan, who, to his immense credit, has spent the last several weeks giving interviews about how unlikely it is he’ll beat George Bush. In the process, he has been getting off some tremendous one-liners, describing the not-terribly-bright Governor as hopeless without his army of handlers and consultants. “This,” said Buchanan of Bush, “is one of those quarterbacks where they call the plays from the bench.”
There is growing evidence of solidarity between interesting people of all persuasions, a closing of ranks against boring people. Last week, Buchanan visited Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura—with whom he has absolutely nothing in common—and praised him for attacking the “dismal duopoly” that Democrats and Republicans enjoy in national politics. Which he is. A stunning poll taken last week by the office of California Gov. Gray Davis found that Ventura has 80 percent name-recognition among Californians. Davis himself has name recognition of only 54 percent.
There were several incidents last week that make it plain that the bores who run the world will not give up without a fight. The first was New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman’s opening of an investigation of acting police superintendent Michael Fedorko’s remarks at a dinner in 1995. Looking for someone to throw to the wolves baying about racial profiling, Whitman is committing the kind of politically correct excess we haven’t seen since the darkest days of campus p.c. at the turn of the decade: She’s busting someone for making bad jokes.
Here’s what Fedorko said at the police academy’s pizza night four years ago: “I’ve enrolled Sgt. Fogerty and Trooper Betten in one of the local community colleges in an anatomy class, so they can find out why women can’t talk like they have a set of balls.” Joke number two was this: Fedorko thanked an Hispanic police recruit for telling him about a salsa station. “Those people really don’t play that music that fast, right?” Fedorko said. “That’s somebody speeding up the record.” You might need to be told that what was offensive to Whitman about the second remark was the reference to “those people.”
“It doesn’t sound like jokes that I would think are particularly funny,” Whitman says. She’s certainly right about that. They’re not funny. But if lack of a sense of humor is a firing offense, Whitman should watch her back.
Bob Dole, meanwhile, did Whitman one better. He apparently wants to pass some sort of legislation to block journalists from making fun of his penis. Since he started appearing in Viagra ads, of course, Dole has been a hot topic for office imitations and various gags. “I don’t mind Jay Leno,” Dole told the New York Post, “but serious journalists ought to know better.”
Neither Whitman nor Dole, however, is the most humorless politician in America. That honor goes to Virginia Republican Congressman Bob Goodlatte, one of the most obstreperous right-wingers on the Hill, who last week pulled a stunt for which he deserves some kind of lifetime achievement award. Goodlatte had a summer intern in his office named Aaron Mann. On a slow news day, a reporter from Roll Call decided to do a humorous survey of Hill interns and find out how they spent their days. Mann replied, “Picking apart Oreos…watching soap operas…throwing a Frisbee in the office.” That was a firing offense for Goodlatte, who claimed the statement “unfairly represented his staff,” and told Mann he was not to use the office as a reference.
Perhaps in despair over the march of grimness, David Sutch, the gold-lamé-clad chairman of England’s Monster Raving Loony Party, hanged himself in his London apartment.
Kosovo And Nam
The more one examines Kosovo, the more it begins to look like what would have happened if we’d “won” in Vietnam: We get to marry a dictatorship of our own making till death do us part. In fact, as Paul Warnke, the Pentagon’s political director in the mid-60s put it, “We can keep on ‘winning’ the war forever. We always win and we always will, and it won’t ever make any difference.” In rushing to the altar, we’re drawing all sorts of wrong lessons.
One is that the principle that you can’t win a war from the air has been overturned. It hasn’t. Except in wars where you want to “win” by wiping the country off the face of the map, air campaigns make ground campaigns inevitable. When in mid-1965, with exquisite illogic, Lyndon Johnson launched Rolling Thunder—a bombing campaign designed to make ground troops unnecessary—he dispatched a few ground troops to defend Da Nang and other air bases. Pretty soon they found they had to patrol up to 50 miles from base, and soon after that there were 50,000 troops defending the troops protecting the bases we needed for our “air war.”
In the Kosovo episode, ground troops were needed to bring the Yugoslavian army into the open where our cluster bombs could reach them. The KLA fought the ground war for us. In coming weeks and months, we will likely discover that the United States—not NATO but the United States—armed the KLA and coordinated their troop movements. That’s what we did with the Croatian Army in the run-up to the Dayton Accords in 1995. Now it’s payback time. So here’s the tally: In order to avenge the deaths of 43 people in the guerrilla stronghold of Racak last January and (much, much more importantly) to act out our sense of moral superiority, we’ve murdered thousands of civilians and handed over a whole country to a bunch of subliterate
fascists. As we went to press, reports were emerging that the KLA had been torturing gypsies to death in the Prizren police station. Ah, victory!