The thing about any presidential election is that it could be an event in which sober and intelligent men and women stage a thoughtful and serious debate on the high-stakes issues of our time, guided by the principle that the American people, if nothing else, simply deserve it. On the other hand, it could also be a welter of low-blow stupefaction and soul-exsanguinating venality that leaves you with the feeling that this American experiment should be mercifully drowned in a bucket of ranch dressing. What path will 2016's looming civic pseudo-event take?
Well, let's consider the strange controversy that recently embroiled the nascent proto-campaigns of former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as an amuse-bouche before the meal to come. On Dec. 30, the U.S. News and World Report's David Catanese published a lengthy profile of Webb, seeking to elucidate the Democrat's possible motivations for jumping into the 2016 race. Well down in the piece, Catanese reported that "Clinton loyalists are keeping an eye" on Webb, and that in the days before the Thanksgiving holiday, "staffers of Philippe Reines, Clinton’s longtime communications guru, pitched talk radio producers on the racy, sexually charged writings in Webb’s novels, according to a source."
There was, as you might suspect, some immediate pushback. Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill told Catanese that his source had told "an unmitigated lie." Catanese granted his source both anonymity and the final word on the matter, reporting that he or she "stands by the account." This week, the contretemps ended up as the basis for a Media Matters post. In large part, Media Matters simply took Merrill's denial at face value and declared the matter to be closed -- which, when you think about it, is a strange position for a media watchdog organization to take, and one that I have severe doubts will be applied in consistent fashion going forward. (Catanese, by reporting that his source stood by the earlier claim, stands accused by Media Matters of "doubling down," proving once again that the term "doubling-down" has become tragically untethered from it's original meaning.)
But look, I'm not interested in doing a twelve-part podcast investigating who was shopping Jim Webb oppo to whom back in November. What I am interested in pointing out is that using the contents of Webb's novels as some sort of brickbat in 2016 is stupid as hell. I am astonished and bewildered to have to confront even the potential that this could be a thing that gets litigated as a part of 2016's festival of nonsense.
Or, to be more precise, re-litigated, because Jim Webb's novels were the subject of desperately dumb political horseplay back in 2006. Let's take our wayback machine to this Oct. 27, 2006, CNN report:
The bitter Senate campaign in Virginia turned uglier Friday when the Republican incumbent pulled up sexual passages from novels written by his Democratic opponent, who called the move baseless character assassination.
In a news release and list of quotes posted Friday on the Drudge Report Web site, Sen. George Allen accused his opponent, former Navy Secretary Jim Webb, of "demeaning women" and "dehumanizing women, men and even children" through his fiction writings. At least two of the listed passages include children in sexual situations.
Allen's campaign did not include the press release and list of passages on its Web site, where press releases are generally posted.
There was, however, a Thursday statement from Chris LaCivita, general consultant for the Allen campaign, saying some references in Webb's novels are "disturbing" and "portray women as servile, subordinate and promiscuous."
At the time, Webb defended his fiction writings, to what should have been to the satisfaction of anyone who's ever read a pulpy potboiler. But let's consider the first reason why dredging anything like this up in 2016 is well beyond idiotic: This was the desperation play run by George Allen, for Pete's sake. To be more specific, a play run by a post-Macaca George Allen. It staggers my mind that I find myself having to point out that going to George Allen's October 2006 playbook for some hawt 2016 strategery is just not a good look for anyone.
But even if Allen had never existed, this is still garbage politics. Diming out Jim Webb on the sex scenes from his novels? In a world where middle America is content to contemplate a full "Fifty Shades Of Grey," concern-trolling over Webb's books seems to be hardly of the moment. Anyone dishing it around looks like a prudish scold -- a throwback creep cultural prosecutor from a half-century ago. And unless you're authentically a cultural conservative -- like, say, Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum -- then you don't even really harbor genuine grievances with novelised erotica. If the person in Catanese's original report is telling the truth, then they have painted themselves as an unserious and insincere person.
Again, I can't speak to the authenticity of Catanese's original source on all of this mishegas; neither do I want to cast aspersions on his reporting. But in terms of distant, early warnings of disasters to come, I take the mere fact that this past-its-sell-by-date "oppo" even came up in the discourse at all as a sign of an impending crap-aclysm. There's still time for everyone to resolve to do better, of course. Surely the voters deserve some seriousness. Still: Better get used to the dust in your lungs, my little canaries.
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