THE PRIDE WORM
Power's a funny thing. It's like one of those worms on the television show House, which goes in through your upturned nose and invades the brain. It goes straight to the ego portion of the brain, which is fused to the decision-making center. And the Pride Worm changes the way a politician makes decisions.
Some politicians are immune to this Worm. They live to serve - and power rests easily on their shoulders. Presidents like Harry Truman. Senators like Joe Lieberman. People you can trust.
Some politicians - like Tricky Dick Nixon - change when the Worm enters their brains. Power affected him deeply. He became paranoid. He forgot that he had been elected by the people. He forgot that the office of President is a public trust.
Politicians under the influence of the Worm begin to believe that as President, God is on their side, rather than believing that it is their task to discern whether we are on God's side.
The humility needed to govern justly shows itself most clearly by how the candidate listens to others. It's arrogant to flash your own personal God Card. It means the Worm has sunk its claws. The poison has begun to spread. If the victim is President, the various organs of the Republic are at risk of becoming infected.
FIRE VS. ICE
I've been thinking about the current candidates. Which understands that a President is first of all a Public Servant?
Who believes that the President is answerable only to himself?
Presidential scholars have already argued that Vice President Dick Cheney believed this from the start - and that this quickly infected the Presidency of George W. Bush. That their administration has been a massive attempt to strengthen the Presidency's executive powers, to make the Presidency less responsive to the people - and more godlike.
What about the current crop of presidential candidates?
I wonder about Barack Obama. I see symptoms of the Pride Worm in his tendency towards intellectual arrogance. Many of my friends in the Midwest have written him off because of his condescending statement about people who "turn to guns and religion."
But when Obama faces problems - and the pressure bears down - he thinks. He ponders. He asks advice.
But I still wonder. Will Obama be able to make good decisions under pressure? Will he freeze? As Commander Adama of Battlestar Galactica would put it, could Obama decide and then live with the results of his decisions - bad or good?
I look at John McCain. When faced with pressure, he explodes - and excuses his actions by calling himself a bad boy, an excuse that reveals his immaturity. Hasty decisions fueled by a bad temper - is that what we call the finest example of leadership in America today? Because shouldn't we be electing our finest leaders to the White House?
McCain's immediate response to anything seems to be tough talk. The financial markets really brought it out of him. He gave decisive advice one day, and then had to completely reverse his advice the next, because he hadn't thought it through the previous day. His flip-flops seem to indicate that he believes that saying something, anything, is better than remaining silent. He has to act - NOW! This seems eerily familiar.
As President, how much damage could this Lion in Winter do - if he refused to ask advice before making a decision that could change the future of our planet? What if he operates from the gut, deciding to "teach Iran a lesson" by unleashing the dogs of war? What if he refuses to act pragmatically?
"Some say the world will end in fire," says the poet Robert Frost. "Some say in ice." Is the choice between McCain and Obama the difference between reaction and forethought?
The Pride Worm seems to emerge in Joe Biden via his words - he cannot seem to shut up. Because he has seen so much, and because he knows so much about foreign policy, he wants to be the Honored Teacher, the person to whom people listen, but who listens little. Will he be able to shut up already? It's hard to take your advisors seriously if you always know more than they do.
Governor Sarah Palin may win her debate with Biden merely because she's not afraid to admit that she doesn't know everything - but she'll still come to the mat to fight. People like that.
Incidentally, how has the Pride Worm affected her?
More than any of the other candidates, Sarah Palin has been affected by the McCain campaign's controllers - Tucker Bounds and Steve Schmidt. Their philosophy has descended directly from Karl Rove. Their influence has invaded Palin's brain, making it hard for her to work across party lines.
Has the Pride Worm made her blind to what her handlers are doing to her? Does she see the way her personality is changing?
Perhaps Governor Palin is simply unaware of the way she is being manipulated. This would indicate an inability to see through people - not a promising leadership quality. On the other hand, if Governor Palin is aware of what her handlers are doing, does this mean that she's uable to maintain her moral center while adapting to new power?
Or was she already wormified and we just lacked enough knowledge of her past to know this?
Governor Palin's strong suite used to be her ability to build consensus. Not anymore. And her abrupt change - from bipartisan to pit bull - has left some Alaskans annoyed.
Has the Pride Worm lured her into reinventing her personality to fit the demands of the McCain campaign's philosophy?
HOW WOULD A PRESIDENT PALIN RULE WASHINGTON?
Most important, what do her recent actions say about the way Sarah Palin would operate as Vice President or President? Can we find evidence of the Pride Worm's presence in her actions?
There was another popular governor who fell under the sway of Mr. Rove. That governor was George W. Bush. Until then, his greatest strength as Texas governor was his ability to work across party lines. But after he began to run for office, that changed.
Bush said he was going to Washington to change its tone. And that's exactly what he did. Under the Bush administration, even the pretense of Republicans and Democrats working across party lines has died. Its corpse lies rotting in the public square.
Two states known for their love of cowboys. Two governors known for being able to work across party lines. Both transformed by the same philosophy.
THE ROVE INSTITUTE
Before he became a Fox News commentator, Mr. Rove operated on the assumption that the way to win the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections was to arouse the base, not the middle.
The Hard Right is a group of people who will not mix with the Hard Left - and vice versa. Oil and water, there. Let's see if we can understand the difference.
On the Left, people believe that the way to solve any problem or learn any skill is to study it, take another class in college, get another degree. Many on the Left confuse superstition with faith - and they distrust both. They recognize the devastation caused by religion. They lump together all of history's religious wars, the persecution of witches and other heretical groups, and the genocide and terrorism going on in the world today. They prefer to solve problems through Government, where god and religion have been safely excised from the decision-making process.
On the right, people see the godless government as THE problem. They use the myth of the Western to explain the way America should work: small communities working together to fight evil, led by a leader who operates according to gut instinct blessed by the Divine. In the Old West, life was better before the railroad arrived with its slimy government men representing Washington, that cesspool of evil. God is a good thing, and the more of Him the better. He's ordered us to smite down godless enemies like the Soviet Union or even terrorists who worship the wrong god.
Ironically, the Hard Right believes that every word of the Bible is literal - yet somehow God's promises of blessing to the People of Israel found in the Old Testament have become God's promises of blessing to America.
Thus, the Hard Right distrusts modern Government, because God isn't at its center. The Hard Left believes in modern Government precisely because God isn't at its center. Government - both sides rightly believe - is NOT influenced by religion.
A POLITICAL RORSCHACH TEST
Here's a Rorschach Test: What do you think of the film Gone with the Wind?
Do you love it or hate it on a visceral level? Think about it.
Liberals tend to hate this film. They see the Southern Plantation through the eyes of the slaves. They believe the story glorifies repression and the male patriarchy, because the strong woman who survives without submitting to her Man is seen as an unhappy rebel.
Conservatives tend to love this film. It opens in the glorious mythological world of the Southern Plantation, where men ruled gently, and ideals of tradition and beauty were valued. Women knew their place.
Liberals tend to believe this film glorifies the degrading institution of slavery. Ultimately, the new equilibrium allows Whites to recover most of their power, and the rebellious female is punished - she loses what she loves, and she's made unlikable because she refuses to submit to the patriarchial order.
Conservatives tend to see this film through the eyes of the White Southerners. They're saddened by the ending, wishing that Scarlett could have become the feminine ideal and submitted to the man she loves - because they know that by restoring the patriarchy, the romance of the South will be restored.
So. What did you learn about yourself?
Me? I love the film. I hate the film. I find myself torn. I'm torn because I believe life is more complex than a simple parable like Gone with the Wind. Thus, this Rorschach Test reveals me as a moderate who hates extremes.
THE COWBOY MYTH
I just watched JibJab's It's Time For Some Campaigning. The most interesting contrasting images are those of Obama and McCain.
McCain's voice is Patton-tough, and he's pictured with a tank.
Obama's voice is tenor-light, a lover boy, and he's a knight on a white, bouncing unicorn that would fit in any nursery. Images from Disney's Bambi float by.
What's going on here?
I think the uncertainty Americans feel right now about McCain and Obama is found in one thing: America wants a cowboy for a president, and neither of the top candidates fit that myth. Neither does Joe Biden.
In fact, the candidate who best fits the bill is a woman: Governor Sarah Palin. She shoots wolves, doesn't she? She rides snowmobiles and kills caribou? All she needs is a horse. And you can bet Schmidt will have her on one quite soon. While chopping wood, no doubt.
But like all cowboys, Governor Palin has some baggage. Her belief system seems a bit extreme - against abortion even for incest or rape? Doesn't believe in global planetary warming? Thinks Creationism should be taught in schools and not sex education? Then there's that little investigation called Troopergate that refuses to die - with the McCain campaign now in full-stall mode.
If Palin and McCain win, don't expect Palin to wear too well in Washington, especially with the sounds of Bush resonating on the lower levels of her vocal register when she gets tough. And McCain may believe he can relegate her to a tiny office with only a spittoon for company, but I wouldn't bet on it. Governor Palin's taken on tougher moose than John McCain - shot them deader than yesterday's grillled steak.
Ultimately, it won't be Sarah's strength that causes problems between her and McCain. Nope. The ticking bomb in the bedroom is Sarah's loyalty - she's bitten the hand that feeds her in the past. They didn't call her Sarah Barracuda in high school by accident.
Who'd like to bet that if the two of them are elected, President McCain gets hauled up on some sort of corruption charges, with his own Vice President overseeing a successful impeachment as President of the Senate. You think the conservative wing of the party is going to defend the maverick with disconcerting liberal tendencies? Just imagine.
I agree, Mr. McCain. Being a maverick is cool. But having to work with another maverick is difficult.
COME BACK, ANNIE OAKLEY
Governor Palin's lack of experience or knowledge doesn't concern me. We've had fine presidents who lacked national leadership experience - President Woodrow Wilson, for example, whose primary executive experience was being president of Princeton University. And he led the nation through World War I. It's arguable that no one comes to this job with experience unless he's been vice president, and American voters tend not to like those - President Harry Truman, for example.
No, it isn't Governor Palin's lack of experience that worries me - it's her response to public scrutiny. Bounds and Schmidt seem clueless about how the public will respond to being stonewalled. It isn't the original sin that destroys you. It's the cover-up.
Reformers must live in glass houses - it's where they get the moral authority to act - and curently, Steve Schmidt is trying to erect the Great Wall of China around her past.
How would the cowboy Reagan put it? "Tear down this wall, Governor Palin."
Before she was nominated, Governor Palin's public stance seems to have been open and inviting. Even Democrats loved working with her. She wasn't afraid to admit that she didn't know everything. In spite of this (or perhaps because of it), she successfully took on the Old Boys Club - and beat them. Alaskan voters liked that.
Since her selection as McCain's VP candidate, Governor Palin has taken that openness - what was arguably her greatest strength - and flushed it. She's become paranoid. Her constituents are redirected to the McCain campaign when they call, the press gets almost no access to her, her family has not been permitted to talk - it's like the Corleone compound after the Godfather's shooting.
So if you're normal in America, you're asking yourself: Why has Sarah Palin put her past into cold storage? What is she hiding? What's there to see?
Note to Governor Palin:
You might as well quit trying to become Machiavelli and return to being Annie Oakley. The former doesn't suit you - the latter could work. The American press (and its blogger cousins) get real focused when they think there's a secret to be found, and your recent actions have convinced them there is.
So give it up. Much better liars than you have tried to outsmart them. Gary Hart, anyone? Bill Clinton?
SCREW THE FACTS - PRINT THE MYTH
It was John Ford, the filmmaker, who traced most indelibly The Cowboy Myth According to John Wayne. It clutches our national psyche because it's powerful on a subconscious level:
1) Cowboys make decisions on their own because they're loners
2) Cowboys look tough, weather-beaten. They look good on a horse. Cowboys ride off alone afterwards. They don't fit into crowds.
3) Cowboys have ZERO traces of effeminate behavior. They are masculine.
4) Cowboys are unaffected emotionally by what is going on around them.
This image of the cowboy had little to do with reality or psychological health. Ford merely created the heroes Americans believed themselves to be.
Ronald Reagan tapped into this myth most successfully. He cleared brush on his ranch. He rode horses and wore a cowboy hat. He joked about bombing the Soviets. What did it matter if he was an actor? Reagan realized that creating an image in the media was more important to his success than anything else. And in the process, he became that iconic myth.
"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend," said Ford in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I keep thinking about that as I watch Sarah Palin's image being reconstructed by Rove, Schmidt & Bounds. They are depending upon that statement to be true.
But perhaps this time the press will prove Ford wrong.