A new book says politicians need more Harry Truman 'Turnip Day' moments. It's wrong.
Even turnips wouldn't help Bush
A new book says politicians need more Harry Truman 'Turnip Day' moments. It's wrong.
I love this thing about Stephen Harper being too (dread word) “presidential.” Tony Blair gets accused of the same thing. It’s usually over stylistic tics: “God bless Canada,” in the case of Scary Stephen; the Rose Garden-type lectern Blair started using to make stand-up statements from the pavement in Downing Street.
Arthur Haberman, the big history prof at York University, says the American President has “a power and deference unknown and inappropriate to parliamentary governments.” In fact, the president of the United States has far less power than a prime minister under the Westminster system. The presidency is a rejection of the excessive powers of the Crown; the prime minister is the latter-day wielder of the excessive powers of the Crown. To be sure, there are regional variations: unlike Blair, Harper can’t appoint Anglican bishops. But the Labour Prime Minister was able to abolish the old House of Lords and replace it with what’s more or less a Canadian Senate stuffed with his cronies. If Bill Clinton had been able to do that with his upper house, there would never have been an impeachment trial. Bush can bomb Iraq and France, but his power over Vermont or South Dakota is far more circumscribed.
So the complaints about “presidential” PMs are less constitutional than tonal: they seem a bit too full of themselves when they’re getting out of the limousine. That’s also a bit of a stretch (the argument, not the limo). I’m not unsympathetic to the notion that a minister of the Crown should be a dull old stick with zero charisma, but, given what we now
expect from government, unassuming nonentities hardly seem the type to be attracted to the job. Watch those little vox pop moments they broadcast before an election debate, from alleged ordinary members of the public: “I really want to hear what he’s going to do about health care/child care/the global environment/AIDS in Africa/racism/college tuition costs/my pension/the price of oil...” When critics scoff that Tony Blair has become “messianic,” why wouldn’t he be?
Even Americans are sniffy about Americanized politics. Joe Klein has a lovely book out called Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialized By People Who Think You’re Stupid. The title makes it sound like just another of those full-length whines by Democrat losers anxious to attribute the voters’ antipathy to them to various malign forces. But, in fact, Klein’s book is a beautifully written meditation on politicians and authenticity. His big image is the “Turnip Day” moment—a reference to Harry Truman’s speech at the 1948 Democratic convention. Truman was widely considered to have been just minding the store since FDR died; Thomas Dewey was expected to win the election; and Truman’s own party had split three ways, with Henry Wallace running as the darling of the left, and Strom Thurmond siphoning off the segregationist south on the Dixiecrat ticket. So the little haberdasher comes out and, in terrible circumstances, accepts the nomination—without a prepared speech. Instead, he riffs about the “do-nothing Congress” and, in the course of so doing, says, “On the 26th ofjuly, which out in Missouri we call Turnip Day, I am going to call Congress back and ask them to pass laws” to do this, that and the other.
Klein adores “Turnip Day,” even though Truman actually got the date wrong (the Missouri adage runs “On the 25th ofjuly / Sow your turnips wet or dry”). But he was improvising. The political consultant Bob Shrum says of the cracker-barrel speaking style that Truman “never sang, but goddamnit his offkeyness touched people.” And that’s really all Klein’s looking for: an authentic Turnip Day moment. Some clue that there’s someone real down in there.
Half a century later, when Bob Dole accepted the nomination at the ’96 Republican convention, the newspapers were full of profiles of his speechwriter, the novelist Mark Helprin. Politics today is like the Pompidou Centre in Paris: the plumbing’s all on the outside. So, in a perfect distillation of the postmodern campaign, pundits discussed how effective Helprin had been in recreating Dole as an authentic human being, by putting in lots of pseudo-Turnip moments about the senator’s supposedly beloved small town in Kansas, the grain elevator and so forth. Dole lives at the Watergate Building; he’s not a small-town boy, he’s the ultimate Beltway insider. He has a dark sardonic wit. Hiring a professional writer to reinvent him as Mister Grain Elevator was a disaster. About the only thing he does well is mordant one-liners. Everything else he muffs: he mangles the scripted folksiness and the rest comes out in impenetrable Senatese. Dole gets a passing mention in Politics Lost when Klein accompanies him to a middle school. A young girl asks him what he plans to do about acid rain and he replies, “That bill’s in markup.” Inspirational.
Klein’s book is full of telling anecdotes. He’s an old-school Democrat and he doesn’t really get the Republican party or conservatism, and his efforts at even-handedness mostly stop at a sneaky admiration for Repub-
licans who are authentically mean. He’s partial to Nixonian snarling, impressed at the way Roger Ailes (latterly the presiding genius at Fox) liked to let anti-Vietnam protesters into GOP campaign events to bait Tricky Dick because it made for better TV when Nixon took them on and demolished them. In fact, Dick emerges as remarkably unTricky: in 1968, he writes his own TV spots, memorizes them without a TelePrompTer, and in one studio session improvises an ad about a New York teachers’ strike off the top of his head—evidently to his satisfaction: as he remarks afterwards, “Yep, this hits it right on the nose. It’s all about law and order, and the damn Negro-Puerto Rican groups out there.”
But the reason I started thinking about Harper and Blair and “presidential” prime ministers is because, in the end, sobering laugh riot though it is, I think Klein’s book is barking up the wrong tree. What does he want in a politician? He tells us pretty much on page one: he wants Robert Kennedy on the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Kennedy spoke that evening at a park in a poor part of Indianapolis, to a black crowd who didn’t yet know that King was dead. He spoke for five minutes, about King, about his brother, a quote from Aeschylus, very dignified, sincere, heartfelt. And Klein recreates the moment very vividly, as both a “sublime example of the substance and music of politics in its grandest form” and “the end of an era: the last moments before American political life was overwhelmed by marketing professionals, consultants, and pollsters.”
Oh, come on. Look, it was a fine speech. But it was given by a scion of Democratic party royalty and the heir to a slain president in the wake of the murder of another iconic figure. How much general application does it have? Let’s say my brother was assassinated early in his premiership and a couple of years later, just before a campaign stop in a potentially hostile part of the Gaspé, I hear
another beloved Canadian—I dunno, Don Cherry, Margaret Atwood—has been cut down in his or her prime: I would hope to be able to rise to the occasion. But, if that’s the standard, if those are the necessary preconditions, my campaign for town council is pretty much doomed. And so are 99-99 per cent of political campaigns in the Western world.
Klein’s missing the point. The same media that bemoan Harper and Blair’s presidentialisms are the same media congenitally unable to focus on anything but horse-race personality politics. Fleet Street is particularly grim in this respect. But it’s surprising to see as shrewd an analyst as Joe Klein make a rather more elegant version of the same mistake. For all that he bemoans the blandness of consultant-controlled candidates, one would hardly say that was the abiding sin of the present crowd: Republican senators like Trent Lott can barely disguise their contempt for their own base; Democrat leaders like Nancy Pelosi recycle the kookiest talking points of left-wing nut sites; Al Gore is predicting the Apocalypse not just for earth but for the rest of the universe—and he’s never gotten better notices. The son of Klein’s hero, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., has just written a piece claiming that Bush stole the 2004 election. Gruesome as all the preceding may be, inauthenticity would seem to be the least of it. If anything, it’s somewhat excessive on the authentic front.
If you think politics is about great men, you’re bound to be disappointed—at least in a democracy. The present disenchantment south of the border arises in part because in
Washington the alleged greatness of the
“great men” has become entirely unmoored from the great questions of the day. It’s like watching a sporting fixture where you can no longer tell what game they’re playing. Seeming “presidential” and having a “Turnip Day” moment are fine and dandy, but at this moment a great man is only as great as his sense of the times. M
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