Magazines: Blood and Democratic Guts


For the Democrats, 1988 was a scary year. As the S.S. Dukakis smashed against the electoral rocks, Democrats around the country manned the life rafts and debated which of the survivors were to be thrown overboard.

Even on election night, recriminations had begun. Famed "gonzo" journalist Hunter S. Thompson addressed 1,200 groupies at the Ritz, a trendy New York nightclub. The great man, In These Times reported, did everything possible to disappoint his audience. Not only was he two hours late (due, he claimed, to an incredible conspiracy on the part of his organizers) but, in a two-hour show, "the renowned writer uttered less than 10 minutes of intelligible language." Disappointed that he would not chair the National Endowment for the Arts in a Dukakis administration, Thompson smashed a grapefruit with a swagger stick and "lovingly fondled a large-caliber rifle and then waved it at the face of George Bush on the TV beside him."

Even bloodier recrimination was still to come. In the December 12 New Yorker, Washington correspondent Elizabeth Drew sharpened her stiletto and swung it wildly. Long years of punditry have made Drew's cliche generator highly efficient. "The dew" is on George Bush, she wrote, "as it always is, for however long, on our new presidents."

Why did George Bush win? Translating from Drew-ese, Bush wanted to be president, (sorry—"he slipped the yoke of simply being Vice-President…[and] had all the desire required of someone trying to become President"). Dukakis, on the other hand, really wanted to be governor of Massachusetts, leading a carefree life of tax raising, bureaucracy bloating, and nightly dinner with the charming Mrs. Duke. But evil advisors, Drew warned, such as the dreaded John Sasso, pushed Dukakis into the race and then forgot to tell him what to do to win. (In Drewese: Dukakis was "unable to find a coherent rationale for his candidacy.")

With the spite of a rejected lover, Drew stuck in the knife and twisted it; Dukakis was not only arrogant and humorless, but "his lack of commandingness [sic]…raised questions about whether he was large enough for the job." (This is new—a minimum weight requirement for presidents.)

By the end of her interminable piece, the thrifty Drew recycled the challenge with which she has greeted every new president from William McKinley onward. "Winning the Presidency does wonders for a man's confidence.…After a long struggle, to which he gave a lot and paid a price, George Bush has realized his life's dream of becoming President. Now he has to govern."

Leftists ranting about the dominance on television of right-wing columnists need look no further than Elizabeth Drew's works to understand why liberals seldom make the talk shows these days.

Meanwhile, pundits at The New York Review of Books were groaning about limiting their analyses to 1,000 words. I confess that I don't normally read the Review: I lack the gene that enables me to digest its articles. (This is why I will never be an intellectual.) But thankfully the Review's tendency to allow writers to rant interminably was kept in check.

Most of the authors' comments (in the December 22, 1988, number) were predictable. Garry Wills said Bush was much more "respectable" than Reagan. (Translation: he will appoint people who agree with me.) Conor Cruise O'Brien claimed that "there was no more terrifying thought" than the prospect of President Dan Quayle placing his finger on the nuclear button. (How about Mikhail Gorbachev pressing the button?)

But Washington Post reporter Thomas Edsall had the scariest thought of all—Bush's victory was due to racism. Diabolical media manipulators, Edsall pontificated, shifted the focus of the campaign to such "racial issues" as crime, gun control, capital punishment for cop-killers, and the Pledge of Allegiance, thus ensuring that southerners and ethnic whites would vote Republican.

Many of these issues, as Edsall knows, aren't racial; blacks are far more worried about crime than whites (and as REASON readers know, blacks are also increasingly concerned about gun control). But I've been skeptical about advertisers' ability to manipulate minds ever since the large corporations that were supposed to be sustained by mesmerized consumers began to fail as consumers mysteriously changed their minds.

If the New York Review of Books tended to bloviate the most about the election, The New Republic had the most wit and style. Their special "Quadrennial Recriminations Issue" (December 5, 1988) featured, on its cover, a whole army of liberals punching, kicking, biting, and crushing each other. Each recriminator on the cover was allowed to rant; my favorite line was: "He should have promised universal VCR repair!"

Perhaps the best of TNR's analysts was the American Enterprise Institute's William Schneider, who noted that Dukakis's call for "good jobs at good wages" told the 17 million voters employed in jobs created during the Reagan administration "that their jobs stink." Voters, Schneider added, "were asked to choose between a candidate whose theme was 'We're all right, Jack,' and a candidate who said 'Eat your broccoli.'"

While Schneider produced the best of the "Recriminations '88" articles, perhaps the most entertaining was Robert Kuttner's. Kuttner is the Snidely Whiplash of The New Republic. Given a choice between less government and statism, Kuttner always chooses big government. That's why I enjoy reading him; the steam I let off after watching Kuttner tie the taxpayers to the railroad tracks almost equals the amount I emit after the Baltimore Orioles lose.

Kuttner was shocked—shocked, I tell you, shocked!—to discover that millions of voters actually believe in "corny, Norman Rockwell/Reader's Digest stuff." To win elections, Kuttner says, Democrats should humor these foolish reactionaries and pretend to embrace some traditional values. Let's face it, Kuttner whined; millions of people don't like government coming in and imposing ridiculously low speed limits and barring kids from praying and saying the Pledge of Allegiance. Worst of all, millions of Americans like guns. "Gun-loving is simply one of the historical oddities of the United States of America," Kuttner sobbed, "and we're stuck with it."

But while many Democratic pundits were bewailing George Bush's victory, still others were thinking up crackpot ways to recapture the White House. After reading countless screeds, I've come up with three particularly dumb ideas. To ensure Republican victories, I suggest the Democrats try all three.

For the Democratic Disaster Awards:

• Third prize goes to the World Policy Institute's Eric Alterman, who, in the November 27, 1988, Washington Post, called for Democrats to split into two parties—true-believing progressives and squishy southern and western Democrats.

It may be that having two Democratic parties would ensure that "progressives would have their first true representative since Henry Wallace." (What! George McGovern is now a crypto-conservative?) But a split left usually ensures that the more-conservative party wins. Ask Margaret Thatcher. Or Brian Mulroney.

• Second prize goes to Tikkun editor Michael Lerner. In the January/February issue, Lerner proposes that the Democratic Party transform itself into an employment agency for psychologists. Beginning with the fact that most Americans don't like their bosses, he proposes to solve this "crisis of meaning" by having the Democrats set up countless "training groups" for workers to rat on management (sorry—"creating a psychology of mass empowerment for the average American").

Well, I've had my share of bad bosses, but the key to improving people's happiness isn't the Democratic Party but having people work for themselves—and removing those barriers (regulations, licensing boards, high taxes, etc.) that block Americans from being entrepreneurs. As a small businessman, I'd much prefer a Democratic Party that works to lower punitive Social Security taxes than have a tax-funded psychologist knock on my door and say, "Hello, I'm a Democrat, and I want to share my feelings."

• First prize goes to free-lancer Dave Lindorff. In the November 16 number of In These Times, Lindorff says that Democrats should unite to prepare "a profound, grass-roots assault on the capitalist (and state capitalist) system." Capitalists, Lindorff argues, create waste, desecrate the environment, and force economies to grow by deluding consumers.

I'm sure the workers in East Germany rioting over bread or the workers in Romania ordered to trade in their tractors for horses know the effectiveness of socialism. And the Indians in Brazil who are watching their rain forest disappear thanks to World Bank loans, or the hikers in national forests where timber is being steadily consumed because of Forest Service subsidies, know that government frequently hurts the environment.

I hope the Lindorffs of the world don't dominate Democratic Party debates. For if the Democrats are ever to win, they should realize that government is not the answer to the world's problems. Some day, Democrats will learn this. When this happens, a Democrat may once again be elected president.

Contributing Editor Martin Morse Wooster formerly worked for Harper's and The Wilson Quarterly.