AT LONG LAST, HAVE YOU NO SENSE OF DECENCY?

Posted in Rants on November 17th, 2010 by Ed

In the latter half of the 19th Century it was common for presidential candidates to engage in what we call "Front Porch Campaigning." In short, they didn't campaign at all. They stayed home, perhaps emerging onto their porch (hence the name) to speak with the media for a few minutes once or twice per week. Convention delegates and party bigshots would bring important people (read: the wealthy) to the candidate's home instead of the candidate hitting the road and holding fund raisers.

There were several reasons for this, some of them practical. During the party-dominated era of nominating conventions before the advent of primaries, the candidate was nearly an afterthought. The party didn't much care who it nominated so long as he was, as a delegate said of Rutherford Hayes, "present (at the convention) and not considered overly obnoxious." Accordingly no one really cared what the candidate had to say. Elections were affairs of dubious honesty during that era, with party loyalties and voting behavior driven by a delicious stew of patronage, graft, fraud, and naked threats of violence. The candidate was a warm body, hence our post-Civil War string of anonymous bearded Ohioans and upstate New Yorkers in the White House.

The other reason, and the one that the parties were much more vocal about at the time, is that it was considered crass for candidates to do something as low-brow as campaign. It was seen as shameless groveling for votes, entirely unbecoming of such a high office. Over time, of course, this "taboo" fell by the wayside as more candidates began relying on their oratory (William Jennings Bryan and Teddy Roosevelt, for example) and populist appeals to build a base of support.

Today we'd be shocked if a candidate didn't campaign actively, but we still have certain expectations about how they should campaign. There is a level of decorum or dignity that we expect. It doesn't surprise anyone to see McCain or Obama on a talk show in a suit, maybe cracking a few jokes to emphasize their oneness with the common man, but it would be surprising to see them dressed in overalls (no t-shirt, of course) wrestling in pig shit to try to win a few more rural votes. Some things – participating in a pro wrestling match, taking pies in the face on D-list TV talk shows, or telling fart jokes on the local Morning Zoo radio show, perhaps – are just "beneath" a presidential candidate.

You know where this is going.

"Sarah Palin's Alaska", despite the premiere bringing in good ratings for a cable reality show, is indicative of a candidate who is entirely unconcerned about toeing the line between campaigning and a cinema vérité Three Stooges performance. For someone seriously contemplating a 2012 presidential run, the extent to which Palin has turned herself into a reality TV character is nothing short of incredible. Andrew Sullivan recently declared her "The Republican Snooki" and noted that the two are identical inasmuch as "The only thing that can destroy her is ignoring her." But people will never stop paying attention to her because there is no depth to which she will not stoop for more attention.

Right-wing columnist Jennifer Braceras calls this new paroxysm of exhibitionism on Palin's part "flippin' embarrassing", to quote the Grizzly herself. Now that she is reduced to parading her children around on camera for sympathy and spouting catchphrases like some attention-hungry hack contestant on Project Runway, it is not clear how Palin expects anyone (except for the 15% of the country that already idolizes her and always will) to take her seriously. This new performance is one step up from appearing in the center ring at Barnum & Bailey with a ball on her nose. She doesn't need a campaign manager, she needs an organ grinder.

We know that Palin is an attention whore. All politicians are. But there are unspoken limits. One must "look presidential", which is defined as Potter Stewart defined obscenity – no one can explain it but we know it when we see it. This ain't it. This is the 15th minute of fame for a flavor-of-the-minute singer. It is the last grasp at a paycheck from a washed-up soap opera star. It is KISS on its 10th reunion tour too many. It is Police Academy 6. It is Jerry Rice trying out for the Broncos when everyone on the planet except him could tell he was finished.

When Braceras asks in her column, "Isn’t such low-brow exhibitionism beneath the dignity of a former governor and potential presidential candidate?" she misses the point by a wide margin. Palin is a potential presidential candidate only in her own mind at this point. She and Snooki are equally likely to be living in the White House in the near future. After willingly suspending herself over (and her family) over the dunk tank full of sewage at the reality TV carnival, everyone except Palin herself realizes that her next gig is more likely to involve hawking fishing gear on QVC than delivering State of the Union addresses.

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