Joe Gandelman: American politics: Like talking to an empty chair?
PUEBLO, Colo. — When President Dwight D. Eisenhower presented Raymond G. “Jerry” Murphy with a Medal of Honor in 1953, he noted that Pueblo nicknamed “the Steel City,” has had several Medal of Honor recipients and wondered: “What is it ... something in the water out there in Pueblo? All you guys turn out to be heroes!”
And so the city and the Congressional Record dubbed Pueblo “Home of Heroes” due to its having more recipients per capita than any other city in the United States. In our political world, oh, boy, do we need the City of Pueblo to produce some now.
When you look at today’s mega partisanship, both parties dabbling in the politics of division, differing partisan worldviews of reality and a debate over whether stating actual facts matter, you have to wonder if there’s something in America’s water these days. Whatever it is, it’s a form of Kool-Aid more people are now swallowing than rejecting.
You have to wonder as American hurtles further into the 21st century if the next president or any future president will be given leeway by the other side to put their policies in place and govern. Are the once-respected concepts of consensus and compromise totally dead? Is there an American political hero waiting to emerge who can lift America from its D-R and MSNBC- Fox News divides, and reverse the current trend where American political debate has now devolved into snarky talk show-like personal riffs, in-your-face confrontations by people seemingly acting out personal issues, and silly juvenile publicity stunts?
Two recent events were symbolic of where America’s political culture now stands.
The first was actor Clint Eastwood’s absurd riff with an empty chair at the Republican convention as he was about to introduce GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. NBC’s First Read called it “the Eastwood debacle.” Democrats and many Republican analysts and operatives quoted in news stories agreed. Eastwood’s monologue shoved the excellent Romney biography out of the sole 10 p.m. hour the networks devoted to the convention that night and the next day sucked up discussion time that should have been devoted to Romney’s speech.
Even so, some GOPers began insisting it was a political masterstroke. Eastwood’s appearance was wonderful, they said, it’d help Romney win the election. On Monday, conservative websites, egged on by a BIG HEADLINE on the Drudge Report, even declared Labor Day “Empty Chair Day.”
In political terms, it might more accurately have been called Empty Head Day. Polls in North Carolina and Florida found voters did NOT like Eastwood’s riff, but still respected Eastwood, which is why some believe Eastwood may campaign for Romney. Empty Chair Day was thinly disguised name-calling. Precisely how many independent voters, unhappy Democrats and non-Tea Party Republicans was calling Obama an empty chair likely to win over? (Zilch.)
Another insight into our political culture came when MSNBC’s Chris Matthews got into what was reportedly a loud confrontation with delegates to the Republican National Convention in a Tampa restaurant. They taunted Matthews, who chose to go over and confront them, and it got verbally ugly. It was an insight into our new political soul: delegates were quick to move into personal, in-your-face-verbal mode and Matthews — rather than just moving on — decided to jump into the political trenches to confront them.
On so many media and political levels, American politics is now all about name-calling and in-your-face confrontation. Problem solving and serious discussion is secondary as the key driving force is a 24/7 need to restate and reaffirm existing beliefs, even if they’re not accurate. It’s all about getting to attain that nirvana moment when your own political sports team can give high fives in victory and gleefully, slowly, and deliberately rub the other losing side’s face in it.
Will America find a political hero who can help reverse the tide on the ugliness and stalemate being cooked into our political system? Or will he or she find it’s like talking to an empty chair?
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.