SONNY SCOTT: Political system usually pits two mediocrities against each other

By Sonny Scott

Who you go for?” I didn’t know the kid, but I’d seen him around. “Excuse me?”
He rolled his eyes. “The World Series…” (“you idiot” not spoken, but implied.)
Oh. The first game of the Fall Classic had been the previous evening. He cast his lot with the winner, and was looking for an opportunity to gloat. I replied that I had no favorite, since my Cards had faded in the September Stretch that year.
Not to be denied, he chortled, “Aw, Man! Yo’ team REALLY sucks!” and strutted off to the riotous laughter of his buddies in the chorus – the implicit “and so do you!” being clearly understood by all.
I find myself remembering this exchange from a quarter of a century ago whenever I try to remember what once made politics so fascinating to me. My inquisitor had no substantial interest in baseball, or knowledge of the game. Night time World Series games had become a spectacle not to be missed – the circus for the plebeians of our time. Each of the kids picked his favorite and spent the week boasting and gloating, or making excuses and arguing.
Presidential elections are similarly entertaining for those who like that sort of thing. It’s something on the order of the Olympics, wherein we’re entertained for a few weeks by people that most of us had not heard of before. The extent of the dialogue seems to be “Your side …,” well, you know. It is a long, made-for-TV extravaganza, featuring two opponents who are as indistinguishable to most of us as the Mets and Red Sox were to those Houlka kids that fall. Just pick your champion and deride the other side.
Memory has it that it has not always been so – that once upon a time there were real differences between the parties, and that elections settled matters of public policy. Re-reading Theodore White and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. brought me up short. The differences have always been more apparent than real, and style differentiated the candidates more than substance.
The political pundits adhere more or less to the Marquis of Queensbury Rules, so to speak, while the guys at the end of the bar or on the loading dock engage in verbal street brawls. In his private journals, Schlesinger confided his opinion of LBJ and Nixon in the language of the gutter even as his polished for publication prose sparkled and flowed like wine. Today, George Will and Alec MacGillis use the Queen’s English like world class fencing champions use their foils, while Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher slug it out like street drunks – biting and eye-gouging. At the end of the day, it all comes down to “Your side…!” etc.
George Wallace characterized the parties as ‘Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum,” which I thought mind-numbingly ignorant then, but now I’m not so sure. Couple of cases in point: In 1968, millions of Americans voted for Nixon because they thought it more likely he could extricate us from JFK-LBJ’s Vietnam, much as Eisenhower stanched Truman’s Korean bloodbath into a clotted stalemate. We remained fully engaged until the sham treaty of 1973 and were driven out in 1975. In 2008, many hoped that Obama could get us out of another ill-advised war. Now it seems that we are likely to be fighting in Yemen, Pakistan, Iran and Somalia in short order, even as our patchwork in Iraq unravels and Afghanistan still bleeds. Does it really matter who is president – except to determine who gets the graft?
So why don’t we flock to the polls and elect someone capable and willing to change the course of history? The sad truth is that it is unlikely anyone can. Group dynamics (not to say mass hysteria) govern the affairs of men, and even those who know better get swept up in the tide. Furthermore, our system usually winds up pitting two mediocrities against each other, not as the best we have to offer, but as the least objectionable. We are not likely to find a Yankee Churchill.
Maybe Jack Nicholson’s character in “A Few Good Men” had it pegged. Maybe they can’t tell us the truth because we can’t handle the truth. In any event, go ahead and pick “who you go for.” Just don’t expect me to fuss with you about your choice.
Sonny Scott is a Chickasaw County resident and a community columnist. Contact him at sonnyscott@yahoo.com.