When he published his brilliant cartoon in the Washington Post on Dec. 12, 1961, American cartoonist Herblock, may, oddly enough, just as well have been addressing one of the primary concerns of today’s political debate in the United States.
In that cartoon, arch-conservative Republican Barry Goldwater has stopped on the street in front of a destitute mother who is sitting on a doorstep with her three children.
“If you had any initiative,” scowls Goldwater, gripping his bulging leather briefcase, “you’d go out and inherit a department store.”
When Goldwater’s father passed away in 1929 he bequeathed a chain of department stores to his 20-year-old son. Being the first year of the Great Depression, it was a good year to get a shot of capital in the arm that carries the briefcase.
Look back, if you will, at the presidential race of 1964 that pitted Goldwater against the incumbent Lyndon Johnson, who had become president as a result of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and had not yet won an election in his own right as a presidential candidate.
Goldwater was stalking the highest reaches of the moral ground with his campaign slogan: “In your heart you know he’s right.” But Democrats retorted with “In your heart you know he might.” In this case, the “might” meant “might push the button and start a nuclear war.” Others in the Democratic Party went a step further in the direction of invective parody with “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.” The result: Johnson won the election by the largest landslide in an American presidential election in nearly a century and a half.
Will the presidential election of 2012 be a replay of the one in 1964? Whatever, the Republican primaries of 1964 were certainly a prequel of those we are mercilessly compelled to observe today in our multifaceted media.
The heavyweight fight then was between Goldwater, the senator from Arizona, and Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York. As I write, the frontrunners in the primaries are the Goldwater-conservative ex-senator Rick Santorum and the Rockefeller-slightly-less-conservative (but almost as rich) governor Mitt Romney.
The analogy extends further across the decades. Then, as now, it was what Americans mistakenly call “American values” and “social issues” that were intruding on the country’s real problems. The working definition of “values” is “whatever underpins American supremacy in the world.”
Way back in 1964, the prominent so-called social issue was divorce. Not only had Gov. Rockefeller been divorced, he had remarried a woman who herself had been recently divorced. This sure did put one hell of a big dent in the governor’s golden armor, allowing the holy rollers of the Republican right to deliver the thrust that killed off his candidacy.
In the 2012 replay of that “Tournament of the Poses,” it is once again religion that heads its ugly rear. For in the lexicon of American politics, one should invariably read “religious” for “social,” though the social issues that are perennially wormed into the fabric of the American political debate are, in effect, pseudo-religious ones. In 1964 it was divorce and infidelity. (Rockefeller’s new wife had abandoned her husband and children to marry the governor.) If these still counted as decisive prerequisite qualifications for high office today, you’d have to forage for prospects among the enthusiastic teenage membership of your party to front up a candidate.
In our presumably more enlightened day and age, the primary social issue in the United States of America is not divorce but rather the right of a woman to control her fertility. In that sense, the people of the U.S. are more closely allied in temperament to the people in fundamentalist Muslim countries than they are to those in the world’s secular democracies. Ex-senator Santorum, who has denounced “Islamic fascism rooted in Iran,” might view that nation more sympathetically if he took a good look at their stance on “the social issues of the day.” There’s more common ground between the two than either side would dare admit.
It is impossible to know at this stage how the Republican primaries of 2012 will play out. But there is an eerie resemblance to those of 1964 that should be worrying the Romney camp.
It’s not about the money, however. Unlike Rockefeller and Goldwater, who both inherited their millions, Romney amassed his fortune the hard way, working in the management consulting firm Bain & Company. Now, Americans worship their rich folk and are not overly fussed about whether they acquired their funds by the book, the hook or the crook. They don’t even mind if they pay less tax than people with a fraction of their wealth. But woe betide the candidates who blot their copybook with the smudge of the immoral. The bildungsroman of the characters who people Washington, D.C., is not “The Great Gatsby,” it is “Sex and the City.” Get caught out in the latter plot, and you will be pilloried in the public arena.
Mr. Romney, father of five (three less than Mr. Santorum has fathered), has impeccable personal moral standards. This distinguishes him from his primary predecessor, Mr. Rockefeller. So, no analogy there.
But like Rockefeller, Romney does not excite his base. In fact, he doesn’t seem to excite any base at all. Primaries are about heat, not light. Both Rocky and Romney left and are leaving their constituencies much too cold for comfort.
And there is another replication of the 1964 race. That era, like ours, was one of heated ideological polemics, but they were polemics focused on issues of power and high purpose. In post-WWII United States, with the U.S.S.R. seen as a real threat to American supremacy, the question that seemed to be facing Americans was this: Will we remain the sole beacon of light and hope for the rest of the world? In order to do so, Americans believed they had to be spiritually, as well as technologically, superior to all other nations, friends and enemies included. That is why the question of American values looms so large above the horizon of presidential elections. Candidates are required to assure and reassure the electorate that they live in Heaven on Earth.
In order to accomplish this, Americans need to see themselves as living through a perpetual moral crisis. In 1964 it was: Can we defeat a demon-communism that is spreading evil around the world? Will we cease to be the world’s angelic alternative? The only way to ensure the continuance of American power is to convince the American people that they are morally superior to all other peoples in the world. When Americans say that their country is “the greatest in the history of the world,” do not mistake their intent. They mean not only the most powerful, but also the most righteous. Once convinced that they are the single most righteous power in the world, they naturally feel free to prove it by force.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, terror became the new communism. But the war on terror has petered out as a viable political issue. Is Iran taking its place? Will China prove to be the new devil incarnate of the 21st century?
Whichever, you can’t play God if there’s no Devil in your sights. The targets are the same: nations that threaten American exceptionalism and supremacy. Anyone who denies those two homeland truths is fair game for attack.
The big guns of the Republican party are loading and reloading their old trusty weapons. The issues of the primary campaign sound heady, but the shooters are all aiming below the belt. Forget about the fact that the real needs of the people — job security, health care, education, guarantees of personal safety — are being neglected.
Americans want a president who will continue to tell them they are morally fit to rule the world, a person who can play God for four years and protect the nation from reality.
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