Presidential Death Match (11/99)


After Zippergate and the Starr Report, could politics get any more warped? You wouldn’t think so. After all, in little more than a decade, we’ve gone from arms for hostages, covert war in Latin America, and prime time bombings in Iraq to the wall-to-wall circus that placed the president’s penis in the center ring for a constitutional trapeze act. But then the corporate pimps, media sycophants, and political fixers who convinced voters to put a B-grade actor, a drugged-up Yalie, and a world-class narcissist in charge of the world’s only superpower came up with a blockbuster not even DreamWorks could have packaged.

Yes, sir, it’s the title bout of the century. Presidential Death Match 2000. You don’t need a ticket to get a seat for this $2 billion fatal distraction. But there’s no way out until the last pundit sings.

When he retired from the Senate, that great white hoopster Bill Bradley, now offering up his "authentic inner core" in the presidential race, said "politics is broken." But it’s worse than that. If the candidacy of George "Dubya" Bush is any indication, it’s become a rite of succession that makes the presidency look more and more like an inherited crown.

Deep Pockets, Demagogues, and the Democrat’s Big Sleep

Apparently, the two crucial traits that endear Dubya to GOP stalwarts are his fundraising prowess and family pedigree. Sure, he’s also a governor — in a state where the job is as taxing as hosting a celebrity golf tournament. Mainly, he’s taken credit for reforms that were already in the legislative pipeline. But then again, Texas does rank first in executions, proving at least that the younger Bush has the killer instinct essential for any "compassionate conservative." And he was the brains behind Texas’ "war on sex," a proposal with a $9 million price tag to "encourage young people to save sex for marriage."

Barring divine intervention, Dubya will likely waltz through primary season. The climax will be a coronation by power-starved Republicans who’d rather back a born-again frat boy with a fat bankroll than face the reality that their rescuer has the moral compass of a turkey buzzard. Meanwhile, Democrats struggle to stay awake long enough to see whether their incumbent vice president, who had the nomination wired a year ago, can stave off a challenge from the politician formerly known as Senator Sominex. The pundits are calling the Gore-Bradley contest a legitimate horse race, but so far it’s like watching pelicans mate in slow motion.

Even when these two raise "serious" issues, the goal is to talk tough while taking as few risks as possible. How else do you explain Gore’s lame attempt to turn concern about sprawl into a bold departure? And I hate to disillusion people who think Bradley is fighting for universal health coverage, but subsidies for the poor and tax breaks for the middle class — two major chunks of his "big idea" — won’t fix the mess created by HMOs and insurance company bean counters.

So, forget substance. The real question is whether Bradley’s awkward warmth and celebrity status can overcome Gore’s effective exploitation of patronage and federal pork to win early support from elected officials and party hacks. It’s an image battle in which both contestants badly need a personality transplant. 

And as if this isn’t weird enough, Reform  — Ross Perot’s facsimile of a party, linking na├»ve populism with potentially dangerous nativism — may feature the most contentious nomination fight of all. Many Perotistas now prefer Jesse "the gov" Ventura, the most cheeky demagogue since Huey Long. But Ventura, who hasn’t hesitated to trash religion and revel in junk culture, is being coy about running. Instead, he’s thrown up alternatives such as Lowell Weicker and Donald Trump. In 1990, Weicker, a former GOP senator, did wage a successful third-party campaign for governor of Connecticut. But he’s yesterday’s news. And running The Donald? That would be like spraying the party with voter repellent.

Which brings us to Pat Buchanan: Nixon apologist, CNN commentator, and the man who declared our current "culture war" during his 1992 bid. At the time, columnist Carl Rowan called Buchanan’s convention speech "the closest I have ever heard to a Nazi address." 

Since his last presidential run in 1996, Buchanan’s status has changed dramatically, from right-wing avatar to potentially "radioactive" weapon of GOP destruction. George Will, the conservative spear-carrier who trained Ronald Reagan for his 1980 presidential debates, recently came close to calling his fellow tele-columnist a fascist. He and other conservatives wish he’d just disappear, uncomfortable having him either in or out of the Republican Party.

Buchanan has other ideas. Determined to debate Dubya and whoever bores the Democrats least, he’s finally opted to jump ship for the Reform nomination. Earlier, Perot welcomed the interest. But now that Pat’s isolationist take on Hitler and WWII has brought his other mutant ideas into question, that could change. Unfortunately, it’s too late. Scorned by most Republicans, with the mysterious exception of Dubya — who appears to live by that old Mafia proverb about keeping enemies close — Pat apparently sees no choice but to lead his pitchfork brigade into Reform for a hostile political take over. 

The guy is like some tenacious alien creature that can only be killed when projected deep into outer space. And maybe not even then.

Looks ARE Everything

Sometimes I suspect this political season is some sort of conspiracy, a made-for-TV event designed by media moguls to boost ratings and transfer escalating production costs to campaign contributors. They’re already the beneficiaries of federal matching funds, which largely go toward paying for TV ads. Think about it: US media is basically controlled by a handful of conglomerates, and the key players probably all pee on the same tree at Bohemian Grove. Since they’re forced to cover presidential candidates anyway, maybe they just decided to handle the casting and plot points as well.

But no, they’re not that clever. And anyway, not even the WB would air a series in which the callow son of an ex-president is challenged for the nomination by the wife of a former nominee. That’s pushing suspension of disbelief too far, isn’t it? And yet, until recently, there they were — Dubya and Liddy Dole — living proof that the US does have a political aristocracy. Now that she’s dropped out, the only thing left is a royal wedding at the GOP convention. Imagine the ratings for that.

Still, this is the most media-driven campaign ever. For example, the first question about every candidate nowadays is how he or she comes across on the tube. The next — long before we know much about their positions — is whether they’re capturing sufficiently high ratings to get picked up for the second season. Cokie, Sam, and the rest of the punditocracy talk about each candidate’s fundraising ability as if that’s the main qualification for office. Surrendering to this logic, Dan Quayle recently admitted he was dropping out essentially because Dubya’s $60 million war chest proved he was the best man for the job. So much for ideology.

To make an impression, most candidates turn themselves into stereotypes. If they don’t do it, talking heads and late-night hosts will. The name of the game is image management. Steve Forbes even thinks he can buy an image and, perhaps, the presidency itself. He’s wrong. No amount of money can compensate for his pervasive nerdiness, not to mention eyes that make you wonder whether his father, the even more bizarre Malcolm, had Steve built in an underground lab. Luckily, we’re not yet ready to elect someone with the affect of an android — with the possible exception of Gore. 

To paraphrase Billy Crystal’s Fernando, it’s better to look presidential than actually say too much. In a way, the less said the better. Having learned that lesson, John McCain — the GOP’s anti-Bush — gives monosyllabic responses to issue questions, yet drips sincerity whenever he gets the chance to talk about God and country. His mantra is simple: As a war hero, I love America so much it’s simply my duty to be president. McCain doesn’t have to mention being a POW. He knows the media will make the connection, and play clips of him in captivity so often many people will want to invade Vietnam all over again.

As image takes center stage, it stands to reason that the best candidate is really just the best actor. And that makes Warren Beatty’s possible run something to consider more seriously. He’s certainly telegenic, and he’s been playing roles for 40 years, including an effective turn as a suicidal senator. He knows how to raise money for big productions, and also understands the importance of marketing an image. Plus, he wants public campaign financing, which would at least make the race a more balanced ensemble piece.

Sneak Previews

Until money is removed from the equation, we might as well think of primary races as a series of TV pilots, each competing for the best advance notices. From Stiff Neck Productions, for example, comes Fistful of Moolah. It’s a modern-day Western in which Dubya plays the Man with No Scruples, blowing away bible-slinging rivals like Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes with tough love and silver bullets. Even Pat Robertson sacrifices his principles before Dubya’s altar of expedience. The Moral Minority gang doesn’t have a prayer — unless the Man ultimately discovers that El Dorado is place called Family Values.

Empty Promises Unlimited is offering a science fiction saga, Millennium Man. In this US-Chinese production, Gore is cast as The Chosen One, a loyal cyborg who struggles to overcome his programming by returning to the heartland. But his mission is undermined by the arrival of Morpheus, a famous athlete-turned-preacher with the power to lull the masses into a false sense of hope. At the preview I attended, most people didn’t believe either hero could save the nation from terminal ennui.

But the season’s surprise hit may turn out to be Mission Improbable, produced by Oddball Enterprises in association with a consortium of casino owners and the World Wrestling Federation. In order to save the world, a team of highly-decorated misfits wages psychological warfare on the two major political parties. The problem is that they can’t resist trashing each other. Perot makes a guest appearance as the cranky team leader, who gives incomprehensible assignments and can’t help upstaging his own men.

Beatty may also launch a series called The Paranoid View. But so far he’s been unable to develop a story line in which he isn’t assassinated.

Diehard on the Campaign Trail

If I were in tinseltown right now, I’d pitch a political thriller that takes all this insanity to the next level. The timing is perfect for a high concept property ripped from the headlines, I’d explain. Just give us the green light, and I guarantee this will make Air Force One look like a trip to the mall. (Sorry, Harrison.)

Set in the near future, the story revolves around a three-way campaign for the presidency. It opens at the Republican convention, where the front runner – played by Michael Douglas, doing his Gordon Gekko thing as a well connected governor with a huge war chest — has just locked up the nomination. He’s born to rule and totally ruthless. In the opening sequence, there’s an assassination attempt by some lone nut. Manchurian candidate stuff. The crowd goes wild, the nut becomes Swiss cheese, and the candidate gets a huge sympathy bump. It’s all very convenient. After the smoke clears, Michael fires up the delegates with a killer acceptance speech about courage, the virtues of greed, and crushing any "extremists" who get in the way.

But he has a problem — and it’s not his major party opponent. I see Kevin Costner for that role. He’s perfect to play the former basketball star turned politician. Kind of Mr. Smith in Washington, full of principles, but no instinct for the jugular. Even friends say he’s charismatically-challenged. No, Michael’s real trouble is the growing support for a third party insurgent, a tough-taking former talk show host and Dubya-Dubya-FU pro wrestler. The part has Schwartzenegger written all over it. But we need to move fast, since Arnold may run for governor of California if his next pictures bomb.

So, Michael is obviously worried; the way things look, he could lose the race to a jock, either way. He isn’t about to let that happen.

After the usual complications — Kevin cheats on his wife but regrets it, Arnold has a crisis of confidence when his campaign is dogged by dirty tricks — we get to the big debate. What Kevin and Arnold don’t know is that Michael, who maintains secret ties to Islamic fundamentalists through the Christian Right, has struck a deal with a charming but insane terrorist. Think John Malkovich. The plan is that Malkovich’s hit team will take out Arnold right on TV — shades of Network — clearing the way for Michael to ride the ensuing tidal wave of paranoia into the White House. Malkovich’s reward: Afghanistan. Michael promises to pin the blame on Ghaddafi or Saddam, and bomb their patsy’s nation back into the Stone Age.

The plot misfires, of course, and Arnold goes on the warpath, hunting down Malkovich in some Middle Eastern hell hole, and eventually cornering Michael in his high-security estate. Plenty of kick-ass executive action. In the end, Michael is either indicted or impaled on a replica of the Statue of Liberty. Depends on how the test screenings go. In any case, Kevin becomes president. But Arnold doesn’t mind. He’s realized that self-respect is more important than popularity. 

Arnold delivers the film’s catch phrase just after smashing some fundamentalist thug’s head through a camera lens. "Smile," he growls, "you’ve just been nominated."  

The title? Momentum. And below, in the ads: "Some people will do anything for it." Ain’t that the truth. And the beauty part is that the movie’s bound to cost less and entertain more than the real thing.

Eugene M. Scribner, a retired political consultant, currently lives on nuts and berries in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.