After I had a good night’s sleep, I thought of something I wanted to say about the Lee Atwater documentary I saw last night.
Last night I posted something sort of neutral and didn’t offer an opinion about Atwater, probably because it just seems so long ago, and the man’s dead, and since I don’t have anything good to say about him, why say it? Unlike Kathleen Parker, I do not share the philosophy of Alice Roosevelt Longworth (someone my grandma, who grew up in Washington during that period, used to talk about a lot; one gathers Alice was sort of the Paris Hilton of her day, in the sense of being a constant subject of media attention), summarized as "If you haven’t got anything good to say about anyone, come and sit by me."
That sort of attitude appalls me. Folks who think I’m just mean as hell to the likes of Mark Sanford, or Jim Hodges before him, just don’t understand how hard I have to be pushed to be that critical. Like Billy Jack, I try; I really try. But when I get pushed too far…
Anyway, a column in the WSJ this morning — by that paper’s House Liberal, Thomas Frank — said something (in a different context) that made me think of the Atwater movie:
In our own time, a cheap cynicism has been so fully assimilated by the
governing class that the disenchantment is already there, incorporated
into the orthodoxy itself. What distinguished the late conservative
era, after all, was its caustic attitude toward the state and its loud
expressions of disgust with the media….
And indeed, that was Atwater’s contribution to American politics — cynicism of the cheapest, tawdriest, most transparent sort. The sort that brings out the Pollyanna idealist in me, that makes me want to say, "Have a little faith in people." Or in God, better yet. Or in something good and fine and worthwhile. Atwater embodied, without apology — in fact, he boasted about it — the dragging of our public life, our great legacy from our Founders (do you hear the fife in the background yet?), down to the level of professional wrestling.
He made politics — already often an ugly pursuit — uglier, as ugly as he could make it and get away with it, and reveled in doing so.
Oh, and before you Democrats get on a high horse and shake your heads at Atwater as "the Other," check the beams in your own eyes. It was fitting that one of the people in the movie who defended Atwater was Mary Matalin. And it’s no coincidence that she is married to James Carville. Nor is it a coincidence that Carville — check the picture — looks like Gollum. All those years of cynicism ("It’s the economy, stupid") have done that to him as surely as carrying the "precious" did it to Smeagol.
It’s that "Oh, grow up! This is the way the game is played, so get over it" attitude that makes politics so appalling today. (I like what this writer said about Carville-Matalin: "For the love of God, please stop enabling them.") Both parties have thoroughly embraced the Atwater ethic — or perhaps I should say, nonethic.
Good news, though: Obama just may be the cure for what ails us, since so many voted for him as an antidote to all that — especially those young folks who flocked to his banner. Time to ask what we can do for our country, rather than merely sneering at it, as Atwater did.
(Oh, and before Randy says, "Why don’t you condemn McCain for his horrible, negative campaign," I should say that you know I’m not going to do that. McCain disappointed me by not running the kind of campaign he could and should have run, emphasizing his own sterling record as an anti-partisan figure. But he didn’t disappoint me enough not to endorse him, so get over it. Everything is relative. I could, as you know, condemn Obama for tying McCain to Bush, which was deeply and profoundly offensive to me given its patent falsehood, and all that McCain had suffered at the hands of Bush. That was a cynical and offensive ploy to win an election, and it worked. But I prefer not to dwell on that, and instead to dwell upon the facets of Obama’s character that inspire us to hope for something better. Those facets are real — just as the virtues of McCain were real — and we owe it to the country to embrace them, to reinforce them, to do all we can to promote the kind of politics that lifted Obama above the hyperpartisanship of Carville and the Clintons.)
Anyway, that’s what I thought of this morning to say about Atwater.