June 27, 2009


Let’s Burst the Bubble: Politicians will, almost by definition, be deeply weird. (Mark Steyn, 6/27/09, National Review)

[B]eing nominally a republic of citizen-legislators, we have inaugurated the post-modern pseudo-breakout from “the bubble,” in which the president and his family sally forth to an ice-cream parlor in Alexandria, Va., accompanied only by 200 of their most adoring sycophants from the press corps. These trips, explained the New York Times, enable the Obamas to “stay connected” with ordinary people, like White House reporters.

The real bubble is a consequence of big government. The more the citizenry expect from the state, the more our political class will depend on ever more swollen Gulf Emir–sized retinues of staffers hovering at the elbow to steer you from one corner of the fishbowl to another 24/7. “Why are politicians so weird?” a reader asked me after the Sanford press conference. But the majority of people willing to live like this will, almost by definition, be deeply weird. So big government more or less guarantees rule by creeps and misfits. It’s just a question of how well they disguise it. Writing about Michael Jackson a few years ago, I suggested that today’s A-list celebs were the equivalent of Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria or the loopier Ottoman sultans, the ones it wasn’t safe to leave alone with sharp implements. But, as Christopher Hitchens says, politics is showbusiness for ugly people. And a celebrified political culture will inevitably throw up its share of tatty karaoke versions of Britney and Jacko.

I was asked the other day about the difference between American and British sex scandals. In its heyday, Brit sex was about the action — Lord Lambton’s three-in-a-bed bi-racial sex romp; Harvey Proctor’s industrial-scale spanking of rent boys; Max Mosley’s Nazi bondage sessions, with a fine eye for historical accuracy and the orders barked out in surprisingly accurate German; Stephen Milligan’s accidental auto-erotic asphyxiation while lying on a kitchen table wearing fishnet stockings . . . With the exception of the last ill-fated foray, there was an insouciance to these remarkably specialized peccadilloes.

By contrast, American sex scandals seem to be either minor campaign-finance infractions — the cheerless half-hearted affair with an aide — or, like Governor Sanford’s pitiful tale (at least as recounted at his press conference and as confirmed by the e-mails), a glimpse of loneliness and social isolation, as if in the end all they want is the chance to be sitting at the bar telling the gal with the nice smile, “My wife, and my staffers, and my security detail, and the State House press corps, and the guy who writes my Twitter Tweet of the Day, don’t understand me.”

Small government, narrow responsibilities, part-time legislators and executives, a minimal number of aides, lots of days off: Let’s burst the bubble.

Sure, if we got these guys out of the bubble we'd be putting them at some risk, but that seems a reasonable trade-off for bringing them back into contact with normal life and their fellow citizens.

When I worked on the NJ gubernatorial in 1985 we were campaigning on the cheap, which meant that on weekends--when our assigned police detail was off--I was the driver, advance man, press contact, and security. Inevitably we had the occasional squirelly character come up to the candidate and it was seldom pleasant. Being responsible for the candidate's safety, even if only secondarily, was nerve-wracking at times. Were it your sole responsibility and were they a likely target of crazies it's easy to see why you'd put them as deep in the bubble as you could.

But the fact of the matter is that staying safe is in not the primary role of our elected leaders. And when we allow their security details to make it so and allow their staff to further isolate them from any unscripted interactions with the public we lose that republican sense that they are just normal citizens. That hackneyed old canard about George H. W. Bush not knowing what a supermarket scanner was endures for a reason: we find it entirely believable that the governing class is so removed from day-to-day life that even a simple trip to the grocery store would mystify them.

The NY Times editorial board had a long-standing tradition of interviewing every candidate of both parties in NJ, just so they could pretend they covered the state. But with Tom Kean headed to easy re-election they had no interest in meeting with his challenger. When they were finally guilt-tripped into doing so, they tried to reschedule because the Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, was flying into NY that day and they wanted to meet with him. Our campaign insisted so they did the boards back-to-back. One of the cops was driving that day so we dropped the candidate off and went to get a cup of coffee. As we were walking back a caravan of black Suburbans whipped up, filled with folks in black suits and sunglasses, the occasional Uzi visible as they scrambled around. Peres was hustled into the Times building like a child molester being saved from an angry mob, even though we were nearly the only two people on the street. No one will ever wonder why Israeli and American security details would be overprotective of the latter's leader, but he was essentially treated as an object to be moved somewhere.

Edmund Morris opens his great Teddy Roosevelt biography at the White House on New Year's Day, where the President insisted on greeting and shaking hands with "all citizens who are sober, washed and free of bodily advertising." Obviously we're never returning to such a time. The assassinations of the 60s, in particular, ended that sort of openness for all time. But there has to be a better medium we could find between John Adams walking down to the Potomac to swim naked and George W. Bush being hustled off to Nebraska on 9-11 to be hidden away by the Secret Service.

Our political leaders have always faced certain unique dangers as a function of their offices. Just as arsonists like to burn down churches, so do crazies like to target those who govern us. Some risk is built into the job. If there are those who would not seek office were we to relax the security around them, so be it. If we were to lose another president because we popped the bubble, that seems a worthwhile trade-off for re-integrating them into normal life. After all, it's a republic, there are plenty of other citizens who can step in and do the job of the fallen. To treat them as if they were indispensable is antithetical to our very system of government.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 27, 2009 6:38 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus