Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Broken Chimney Pots

It might have in the long run been a bad thing when John F. Kennedy debated Richard Nixon. Oh, it seemed like a good idea at the time. I was a senior in high school. The Presidents I'd had any experience of were first Truman, a man in a hat making speeches now and then on the news reels at the movies, who had something to do with the war going on in Korea. And then Ike,an elderly gent who made speeches on the news reels at the movies, played golf, seemed more and more unengaged in a vague way. Everyone in my family revered FDR, and in the personal vein, as in he saved us during the Depression. Not that I was particularly engaged in anything much during the 1950s beyond the world of home and school. The days and years flowed past. I'd read the box scores, following Mickey Mantle's remarkable homer totals, and the terrific string of World Series Championships. There was the 32-0 season the Heels put up in '57, defeating Wilt Chamberlain's great Kansas team to cap it off. I remember Larsen's perfect game. Delivering papers on my bicycle and getting pretty good at tossing 'em on porches on the fly. The headlines? Whatever.

There was one fall a "paper drive." The Raleigh Times had all its delivery boys get into a contest to see who could get the most new subscriptions. I wasn't really interested in selling, but I was paired for some reason with a serious salesman kid. He knew how to press and close. Wandering around my route with him in the early evening, we rang doorbells on all the houses that didn't subscribe. Damn if he didn't score about twenty or so new subscriptions. He got the credit, and maybe even won the prize. I delivered his new subscriptions. After about two months, almost all of them had dropped off. His method was to get people to give up. Anything to get him out of the living room.

When I was a senior, Kennedy debated Nixon. When Kennedy won, a lot of people breathed a sign of relief. Then it turned out it was pretty neat to have a President who was engaged with America, who had a vision, who wanted to do things. In a vague sort of way, Kennedy's energy and optimism merged with the spirit of the Civil Rights struggle and seemed to give the dream of finally equal rights and treatment some possibility. And after Nixon finally did win, and after the promise of the Civil Rights victories was swirled into the ghastly horror of Vietnam, all to the soundtrack of the Stones and the Beatles and Bob Dylan, it looked even more like the Presidential Debates of 1960 were some how a grand solution to the grand problem America has every four years, of finding someone capable of doing this absurd job of being President, of getting behind the wheel and driving this gigantic engine that's been running away down the tracks. Looking at Nixon as President, you had to say that the Debates had saved us from him once at least.

But these debates are in fact a singularity. They seem, today, like many other familiar things, like sports contests, like a chess game, like Jerry Springer. They are some sort of special Olympic reality show. The media which carries them treats them as a singularity. Every channel brings with it a panel of oracles trying to explain what happened to the people who just watched. And, as in the Kennedy/Nixon template, it becomes mostly about performance and affect. Romney was animated, engaged. His eyes were wide. There was sweat on his lip. Obama came walking in with a bounce, but tended more and more to look down, to look away. Obama seemed to have no real closing statement, just a crumpled piece of paper that looked too much like an apology. Romney, therefore, "won."

The viewers know what "won" and "lost" mean. For the past week now, leading up to tomorrow's debate of the stand-ins, every oracle has told the viewers that Romney won. Polls are now showing him leading Obama, or about to lead the President. The polls reflect the reaction to what the media told the viewers about the debate, who won and lost, and of course the polls also reflect whatever else aggregates in the viewers minds and emotions. NC State won, Florida State lost.

As we elevate the debates to the level of myth, all the obvious facts already available concerning each candidate tend more and more to be eclipsed. Romney has a long record as a businessman, as a governor, as a master prevaricator who has taken vivid and vehement positions on every side of every issue. Obama has been President for nearly four years. Does historical record, factual decision-making, matter in the least? Core beliefs, including religious convictions? Apparently the Debate has spoken, at least for today, and a trend is developing, possibly a tide. We might be seeing a moment when a man who is better at whatever this thing, this "debate," really is, wins over a man who is better at actually doing the job this "debate" is supposed to help us decide. How strange is that?

In a month one of these guys will get back behind the wheel of the biggest locomotive humans have ever constructed. It's already going faster than anybody who turned a wrench on it had any idea was possible.

[photo by John Carr, ]

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