On Monday of this week, America went through what I went through roughly a year ago. It got a glimpse into the sausage-making of our politics, when the House voted down Hank Paulsen's bailout plan. It was not pretty. The resulting finger-pointing and political one-upsmanship just underscored the reasons why I decided not to run for Congress last December, which I write about in the current issue of GQ magazine.
Two days after the vote, I listened to former Rep. Joe Scarborough, now a candid and entertaining talking head on MSNBC, explain that, if he were still in Congress, he would have voted for the package - if he were in leadership. If, however, he were a backbencher, he said he would have voted against the very same bill. Huh? Shouldn't your vote be your vote, regardless of your personal, political circumstances? Not to sound naïve, but shouldn't your vote be predicated on what's best for the country?
I learned the answer to that during my three-month political career. I was reminded of what one congressman said to me during my pseudo-candidacy: "You don't think there are actually votes of conscience down here, do you?" One of the reasons I didn't run is that it felt like, to be successful, you always have to wear a mask, as Neil Oxman -- the brilliant, maddening political consultant -- had warned me. Every statement and thought would have to run a gauntlet of strategic calculations; as someone who has never had an unexpressed thought, the notion of suddenly subjecting them to my own nervous second-guessing made me suspect I'd grow to hate this new me.
My would-be opponent, Jim Gerlach, (who voted against the bailout bill this week), did his opposition research and knew this about me. Just before I pulled out of the race last December, he sent around an email about me, taking some swings. It was entitled ""Larry Platt's Worst Quotes," taken from my writings through the years. (Among the better ones: "I'm not at all into kids and all the parenting crap," and - ouch - "I see myself as a cultural anthropologist who goes into black culture to explain it to the white intelligentsia." My black friends started calling me "Jane Goodall" after that one.) He also sent a letter to his donors, saying it looked like he'd be facing me, someone with "no experience in elected office or public policy." He called me "opportunistic."
A reporter called to get my reaction: "I think it's pretty cool," I said. "It means there's a bald, goateed Jew taking up space inside his head."
Pretty clever response, huh?
"You're going to be a nightmare as a candidate," was political consultant Oxman's response. He argued that the clever response was usually not the strategic one. I granted him the point, but I also wondered: If you can't say anything memorable or interesting, how, in the end, do you differentiate yourself from someone like Gerlach?
The answer was on display this past week, when House members paraded before the TV cameras with their well thought-on strategic soundbites, designed to obfuscate their cynical political calculations. The answer is: you don't.