With what a Japanese student of mine called "national erections" around the corner, I find myself in a familiar state of bewilderment. First, I can’t drop the notion that a nation that’s produced Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Edison, Billie Holiday and Billy Wilder, Miles Davis and Miles Standish, Al Kaline, Dorothy Day, Cole Porter, Sacagawea, Ben Franklin, Merle Haggard, Marilyn Monroe, and Winslow Homer might just be expected to scrape up a presidential nominee whose level of intellect, character, and competence surpasses that of the Decider Guy we’ve enjoyed over the last eight, or has it been eighty, years. Is this so much to expect?
My bewilderment also stems from a learning disorder common to many Americans. I know that there is something out there called an Election Process. I know that it is long, costly, and sneaky. I know that people with political hair and plastic faces and ideas every bit as compelling as reruns of wretched made-for-TV dramas tend to "emerge" from it. Yet I do not know how the Process actually works. This is partly my own fault. If I worked at it harder, I’d likely be able to explain a caucus, a primary, or an electoral college. The fact of the matter is — I have only a foggy idea what they are, and doubt that I’m alone in the fog.
The question that seems to concern most people is not how but whether the Election Process works. The last Emergence has not been widely regarded as a sign that it does, in spite of the fact that Decider Guy has just re-declared the ongoing Iraq adventure a success. It follows that his overall reign may be termed a success too, but while we’re at it, let’s throw in the Battle of Little Big Horn, flight of Icarus, voyage of the Titanic, and 1919 World Series. Bob Dylan’s "There’s no success like failure" could serve as one of the kinder epitaphs on the tomb of the Bush administration.
As for the President’s personal epitaph (once his mortal journey of golf, fundraisers, and brush clearing at taxpayer expense is run), I have recently come across an inspired possibility in Alistair Cooke’s America. The BBC series is somewhat dated but well worthwhile, as are the Letters from America. Cooke’s friendship with and reflections on H. L. Mencken are fascinating. After being informed that President Coolidge was dead, it was probably Mencken (the comment is attributed to Dorothy Parker as well) who asked, "How did they know?" And it was definitely Mencken who wrote Coolidge this epitaph: "He had no ideas and was not a nuisance." The line is readily adaptable to the current fruit of the Election Process. "He had no ideas and was a nuisance."
Meanwhile, two candidates with political hair and plastic faces are emerging in the showdown to become Decider Guy’s successor. I will mention no names, but one of these candidates seems old enough to rule Cuba, the other ambitious enough to rule anything in sight. I heartily endorse either, on the principle that when I endorse a candidate, that candidate has no more hope of being elected than Fritz the Cat. There remains a third possibility — a candidate who’s shown consistent signs of courage, intelligence, eloquence, and that rarest of traits in a politician, dignity. Again, I will name no names. I do not endorse him because I have no wish to jinx his chances. If the world were given a vote, he’d be in on a landslide. But it’s America doing the voting, and it remains to be seen if we’ve got the smarts to override our taste for plastic.
"Remember," advises a character in Chetan Bhagat’s novel One Night @ The Call Center: "A 35-year-old American brain and IQ is the same as a 10-year-old Indian’s brain… Americans are dumb, just accept it." One hopes, without an extravagant degree of optimism, that the national erections show otherwise.
John Liechty [send him mail] currently teaches in Muscat, Oman.