John Edwards came to Houston last week. He was trolling for money, as national candidates do from time to time, and he spoke to a fundraiser where people pay $1000 a plate for reheated chicken, and listen to reheated speeches. I didn’t go, of course; I don’t have a thousand dollars to throw away, and I wouldn’t spend it on a millionaire who wants to raise my taxes, anyway. But I saw his speech on tape, so I got to see him in action. Edwards strolled left and right, smiling at people he’d never met before like he was their old college pal, looking around at individual people as he made his points, as if they had prompted him to think of it just then, and he was personally responding. I could understand how Edwards had made so much money by suing people into bankruptcy; he had the smooth moves, so focused yet carefully non-aggressive, like a cobra on Prozac.
Texas is not a swing state, and the conventions have not happened yet, so we got the standard “Two Americas” speech. Edwards is very proud of that speech, he tells it quite a bit. But something about it bothered me. As I listened, I became able to filter out the oily lawyer-speak, the predictable insinuations that every campaigning politician plugs into his speeches, and finally I realized what I hated about that speech. Neither of the situations described by Edwards was really America; they were just strawmen, drawn up to push people in the direction of Kerry & Edwards. And the resulting counter-spin by some on the Right, does nothing more than try to push people to Bush & Cheney. In the meantime, people like me, including a number of both liberals and conservatives, wonder when someone will get around to addressing our concerns. This is not to say that there is no difference between Senator Kerry and President Bush. There is, but there have already been a number of good columns written to describe that measure. But there are valid questions which go unanswered, valid dissent which goes unnoticed, valid possible alternatives which are not considered, and I began to wonder why. I realized, it’s because there is one America, but two usurpers of our attention and debate. It's as if you went to restaurant for a nice dinner, and the waiter insisted you had to accept either roaches or rats for your entree.
I'll begin with automobiles. America has been a car-loving nation, even before we had freeways and Corvettes and Thunderbirds. And of course, people like Ralph Nader have been with us for a very long time, even when he wasn't running for office. I have to say, there is something to be said about mercantile imbecility. I am talking, of course, about mobile homes like the Hummer. I'm sure the people who buy and drive these things have their reasons, and like their zip-code-sized rides, but they're ridiculous in any sense of normal transport; they have rotten mileage, they don't even fit into normal garages, and theirdrivers seem incapable of realizing that nearby traffic is there. A recent review described their handling as "like teaching a grizzly bear to use indoor plumbing". Not the sort of thing you want to read about a vehicle which will be sharing the road with, say, school buses and emergency vehicles. Worse, there is a pervasive arrogance in some of the SUV drivers' attitudes. Drive like an idiot, in an ice storm, speeding, weaving in and out of traffic, and don’t wear your seat belts. If you’re in an SUV, you can still claim it’s the SUV manufacturer’s fault. For all of that, I deeply resent attempts by groups to ban SUVs, or terrorize people who happen to own them. SUVs follow the same emissions and inspection and registration laws as any other vehicle. They are legal for the roads in every city and town, and if a driver chooses to break the traffic and safety laws, SUV drivers are just as liable as any other driver. SUVs get rotten mileage, but so do freight trucks, limousines, and the news trucks that televise the "SUV-Bad" stories. I want to be able to buy a car which is comfortable, safe, and practical, which is becoming increasingly difficult. But if I want to be an idiot and buy a car which makes no sense, that is also my right. Speaking of the Environment (since the debate about cars always seems to drift tree-ward), I get fed up hearing only from the extremists on either end of that fracas, too. On the one hand, I don't need to see or hear sermons from advocates, until they accomplish what they promise. I get tired of auto emissions standards always getting stricter, while factories are allowed to 'grandfather' equipment to sidestep expensive and difficult improvements. I also am sick of hearing excuses for extreme environmental activists. Burning down buildings and destroying libraries is not an effective way to win my support. If I am spending more and working harder, just for someone's "green" image, I am going to become angry about it, and vote accordingly. Note to Mr. Nader - I am all for safe cars and a healthier world, but precious few of your stated plans work out, when I check the details and the cost. The government side of things is pretty dubious, too. The Federal government's achievements in the arena of the Environment always seem to come down to money. The Superfund has a budget now more than twenty times its original numbers, but its accomplishments have been so limited, the EPA has changed how it considers their work, counting even minimal changes as “success”. Call me cynical, but that sort of thing leaves me cold on the present course, as well. Especially when you can't be a Democrat without wanting to trash the existing business and industrial infrastructure, with no clear plan for a feasible improvement, and you can't be a Republican without supporting an infrastructure with a history of serious problems. We all deserve better.
This brings us to the election. Most Americans have a pretty even keel, but it's getting hard to have a civil debate on the issues. Just looking at the web, if you Google "Bush" and "Hate", you get 1.6 million responses Google "Kerry" and "Hate", and you get 666,000 responses. For comparison , "Clinton" "Hate" only gets 747,000 responses , and "Nixon" "Hate" gets a mere 187,000 responses . Did you get that? Both Kerry and Bush each get three times more "hate" responses than 'Tricky Dick' Nixon! That would seem a fair barometer for the mood this year. I won't even go into the available comment sites, partly because there are so many which invite personal attacks and profanity, some even including it in their site name! Bush has opened up the borders to Latinos in an unprecedented amnesty. This offended a number of conservatives . Yet some Hispanic groups still call Bush “repressive” and many rejected his actions as only a political ploy . I have yet to read a piece where the merits, costs and likely effects of the plan are seriously addressed. In years past, serious issues involving the welfare of tens of millions of people might be hotly debated, but at least they were not casually dismissed as merely a political tactic. There is a funny video going around, on JibJab , but it's funny because it reminds many people of the sometimes-juvenile sparring between the parties. President Bush and Senator Kerry largely remain above the fray (though during the primaries, Kerry made a few regrettable comments, like his Rolling Stone interview and his attacks on President Bush's National Guard service , while demanding his own service not be criticized, even implying that because he fought in Vietnam, his voting record as a Senator was above reproach ). Cheney proved he was also willing to take the gloves off, with a similar choice of retort to Kerry's earlier slur. Both sides have their attack dogs, and their more reasonable advocates. But all in all, most of us would like to have our questions answered, and not be served up the same rhetoric again and again.
I was getting pretty frustrated, when I saw an interview on "Dateline" last week. I had gotten used to hearing stars talk down to us average folk, as if we needed to be doing things more towards their perfect satisfaction. And yes, it happened again. But this time, one of the golden folk spoke up as if he understood the ordinary mind. So, there she was, Katie Couric, America's Sweetheart when she wasn't hoping Saddam might have escaped into Syria, or asking Marines if they were screwing up, talking to the stars of the new remake of "The Manchurian Candidate". She started off by homing in on Meryl Streep's hatred of President Bush's personal faith:
"Couric: "I know you were there. And in fact, I read your quote. You said -- you talked about President Bush and his invocation of religion and you said—"
Streep: "No, of Jesus."
Couric: "Of Jesus, sorry."
Streep: "Through the shock and awe, I wondered which of the megaton bombs Jesus, our president's personal savior, would have personally dropped on the sleeping families in Baghdad."
Such cheap shots went on for awhile, until Couric turned the mike to Mr. Denzel Washington, who quickly corrected Ms. Streep, with exchanges like this one:
Streep: "The money-changers should get out of Congress, I agree. And I agree, but he didn't—"
Washington: "He didn't. He didn't only say turn the other cheek though. You’ve got to read the whole book. That's not what all he said."
Streep: "Oh, I do read the whole book."
Washington: "I do too. And that's not all he said."
Washington: "Like I said, he did go into the temple and cleared the place well—"
Streep: "Of money, yeah."
Washington: "Okay, well, we're all—"
Streep: "Money's bad."
Washington: "We all make money. So does that make us bad? Maybe he's talking about us?"
Streep: "Well, yeah, maybe."
Now, I have no idea whom, if anyone, Denzel Washington plans to support for President, or if he'll even vote. But in that interview, I saw a man who not only understands his influence as a celebrity, but also accepts his responsibility for how he applies that influence. Even to the point of reminding some of his proud colleagues that they are actors and actresses, not authorities fit to pass judgment on Senators and Presidents on national television.
Just maybe, Denzel Washington represents that long-lost character in Hollywood. Maybe we can even get him to be an ethics donor for Washington, D.C.