Greasy Pole: Making the President

To accept the spectacle of the presidential election requires a massive feat of amnesia or delusion by the working class

Throughout almost the entire length of this year’s American presidential elections the pollsters—those obsessive people whose finger is always firmly on the pulse of public opinion—said that Republican George W. Bush was the nation’s favourite. And then they suddenly changed their mind and put Democrat Al Gore out in front. This sent all the strategists and analysts into confusion but it did not take them long to come up with the reason for the dramatic turnaround. It was all down to what happened at the Democrats’ convention in August. Gore’s success since then was due, not so much to what he said—indeed he had assured the convention that he is a pretty boring man—but because he had kissed his wife. Nothing unusual in that, of course—politicians often kiss their spouse at moments of intense vote-cadging or before numbingly compliant audiences. The difference was that the Gore kiss was, in the words of more than one witness, a snog—prolonged and smothering enough to raise anxieties about whether Mrs Gore was about to be suffocated. But she survived, breaking and smiling and supportive and Gore’s ratings began to rise and rise . . .

It was just as well that Gore did something out of the ordinary because there was nothing in his speech to the convention to set the blood racing. “Every hard-working American family,” he said, “deserves to open the door to the American dream.” This is not the first time we have heard about this elusively defined thing. It has been around in politicians’ rhetoric for long enough to make us wonder why, after all this time, there are any people in America who are stopped from enjoying it by a closed door. “I ask for your support,” Gore clamoured, “on the basis of a better, fairer, more prosperous America.” He did not explain why, after eight years as Vice President, he still thinks there s so much room for improvement in the country. But he did say he wants another four years.

It was no better with Republican candidate George Bush. In a sideswipe at Bill Clinton and his peculiar handling of cigars he promised to change the tone of Washington to one of “civility and respect”. Shortly afterwards he gave an example of this by describing a journalist at one of his press conferences as “a Major League asshole”. After outlining some of his policies to the convention he assured them, “We will seize this moment of American promise. We will use these good times for great goals . . . We will extend the promise of prosperity to every foreign corner of this country . . .” The assembled Republican faithful loved it and gave it, according to one reporter, an “ecstatic, deafening response”. They would not have been in the mood to reflect that Bush spoke in the vaguest of platitudes; to analyse his rantings would have been like trying to hold smoke.

The ringing, empty phrases spewed out by Bush and Gore had been painstakingly crafted over hours of toil and argument, to promote an image of each of them as historically clever, strong, sincere, honest. This is not an original technique. For example in May 1991, Bill Clinton, then a rising star in the Democratic Party with his ambitions centred firmly on the White House, said to the party’s leadership council: “Our burden is to give the people a new choice rooted in old values. A new choice that is simple, that offers opportunity, demands responsibility, gives citizens more say, provides them responsible government, all because we recognize that we are a community.” It sounded very will, enough to convince a lot of people—a typical piece of Clinton oratory. An earlier speech, on the same lines, had persuaded a disillusioned campaigner to become enthused enough to tell Clinton “I feel two emotions in this room that I haven’t experienced in a long time—pride and hope.” It would be interesting to know what emotions that man feels now, after eight years of Clinton sleaze.

Yet the fact is that such blind enthusiasm is capable of surviving the most compelling reality. No American president has come to power with such favourable prospects as John F. Kennedy. Rich, handsome, politically slick, bathed in glamour and the style which came to be called Camelot, he convinced millions of people throughout the world that we would leave the place in a much better state than it was when he took office. Such was the devotion for him that nobody threw up when Marilyn Monroe, in that dress, before a huge audience, sang Happy Birthday to him.

In all the excitement it was largely overlooked that the Kennedy family fortune was principally due to some nasty deals during Prohibition. There was a convenient blanket of amnesia over the President’s father, the odious Joseph Kennedy, who can best be described as a ruthless gangster with an obsession that one of his sons would one day inhabit the White House, whatever it costs. In the massive publicity surrounding Kennedy there was little attention given to his connection to Chicago Mafia boss Sam Giancana—a friendship fertilised with large, regular bundles of money. Giancana’s influence was applied to ensure that Kennedy won the 1960 presidential elections. At the time the defeated Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, knew that the election had in effect been bought. But he was no slouch himself at such tactics so he allowed that particular sleeping dog to lie.

In 1963, before the Vietnam war got under way, the president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, was showing a willingness to negotiate with the Vietcong. If the negotiations had happened it is possible that tens of thousands of people on both sides might not have been killed. But at that stage a negotiated settlement did not fit in with the Kennedy government’s policies in the area. The situation was dealt with by Washington tacitly supporting a military coup in which Diem and his brother were executed. The fact that Diem was supposed to be a personal friend of Kennedy did not save him. It was a solution worthy of the president’s Mafia friends. Diem’s charge d’affaire in Washington remembered the affair: “You had a group of people who pursued personal and political ambitions. It was like the Mafia.”

Kennedy’s Mafia connection was useful to him in other ways. He had an affair with Judith Exner, who at the time was in a relationship with that same Sam Giancana who had manipulated his 1960 election victory. Exner was only one of a veritable mass of such liaisons for Kennedy. One of the Secret Service agents assigned to protect the president “grieved that he would conduct himself in such a way as to make us so vulnerable and make the country so vulnerable.”

These activities would have been of no concern except that at the same time as he was devoting so much of his time to them Kennedy was being portrayed as a devoted husband and father, with the kind of family ideal to society. After his assassination a memorial fund was set up and publicised with a photograph of Kennedy walking barefoot along a lonely beach hand-in-hand with his toddler son—a touching picture of a supposedly caring family man. The contrast with the reality of Camelot illustrate the extent of the cynicism which powers the presentation of political leaders—and the miseries of delusion among the voters.

Nixon & Reagan
Kennedy was not unusual in this. During Richard Nixon’s time as president he was represented as very different from the man who drank too much, depended on prescribed drugs and sometimes beat the wife who, in the customary pattern, was supposed to be the object of his adoration. Nixon died with the reputation of the president who brought peace to Vietnam. In fact, in the run-up to the 1968 election he tried to boost his chances by doing his best to undermine Lyndon Johnson’s first moves to negotiate an end to the war.

Ronald Reagan’s popularity was so overwhelming that one Democratic strategist moaned that the party had given up running against him. His support was based on an image of a decisive, self-confident representative of homely values, modest courage and happy endings, like an old cowboy movie. In fact he was often detached from the process of government, with the job of articulating the myths so beloved of the voters—America the best country in the world, strong and proud and free where every decent main’s wife was called Nancy . . . He was very, very adept at playing that role which the political manipulators around him polished and packaged and publicised.

That is a good point at which to sum it up. The majority of people—the working class, the useful, productive people in this society—are content to keep capitalism in being under the delusion that it is rather like a movie in which the baddies come to a sticky end and the hero and heroine just have time to embrace before the end. The problem is that there are so many baddies—war, poverty, starvation, mental stress, homelessness, alienation, crime, disease . . . And the “heroes” and “heroines”—Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan and the rest—are powerless to do anything about it. To accept all this and to forget the impotence of those leaders requires a massive feat of amnesia or delusion by the working class. And to help them to be like that there are all those speech writers, strategists and spin doctors—the kind of people whose job is to tell Al Gore that if he didn’t stop being boring and serious he would lose the election so he had better get out on stage, get hold of his wife and . . .


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