The tumor of the soul never went away
I’ve always been skeptical of deathbed conversions. Some of it has to do with this notion that seems to exist among conservative Christians that salvation has nothing to do with deeds, just faith. You can bugger little boys in the choirloft, cheat on your wife, embezzle money, burn down your neighbor’s house, and none of it matters as long as you believe Jesus died just so you could do all these things.
When Lee Atwater, who was Karl Rove’s mentor in the politics of destruction, was dying from a brain tumor, he called for an excision of the “tumor of the soul” in American politics. Horse, barn door, etc. Perhaps bigger people than I am can forgive, but when you look at what Atwater’s politics of destruction used against Michael Dukakis in 1988 led to, including the presidency of his then-employer’s son, it’s hard to look at what happened to Atwater as anything other than “Payback’s a bitch, asshole.” The only thing that kept me from doing that is the desire to be perhaps just a bit better. Not too much better, because sometimes trying to rise above people who want to drag you into the gutter just leaves you face down flat in the mud with a jackboot on the small of your back.
Bill Moyers talked about Lee Atwater a number of years ago:
Atwater may be best known for turning Willie Horton into not just a household name, but also a generic term, like “Kleenex”, for any kind of demonology done in politics. The most recent example, of course, is the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. But what I remember Atwater most for is how he turned the Pledge of Allegiance into a major campaign issue.
WHILE THE MEDIA were preoccupied with whether Dan Quayle had once squeezed Paula Parkinson a little too close, Mike Dukakis ran into some real trouble: tbe Pledge of Allegiance.
Dukakis explained what his problem was: the Massachusetts state supreme court had given him an advisory opinion that it was unconstitutional. “If the Vice President is saying he’d sign an unconstitutional bill,” Dukakis retorted, “then in my judgment he’s not fit to hold the office [of President].” Wrong answer, Mike,
Though in practice the Constitution means what the Supreme Court says it means, Dukakis must be the first to suggest it means what the Massachusetts supreme court says it means. He only made things worse byfalling back on New Class elitism: the judges know best!
Meanwhile, Bush, who had been down as much as 18 points in the polls, shot ahead by as much as nine points.
THE MEDIA themselves were shrieking that the Pledge issue was dirty pool. Newsweek charged that Bush had “seized the low ground,” Time loftily deplored “the efforts to impugn Dukakis’s patriotism.” The New York Times hauled out its own constitutional experts to declare Dukakis correct. Anthony Lewis sniffed McCarthyism in Bush’s tactics.
All these defenses may have compounded the damage to Dukakis. In a presidential campaign, you don’t want to be the sort of guy whose patriotism has to be debated.
And yet, the debate about what constitutes patriotism has infected our politics ever since. Whether it’s a photograph of John Kerry who just happened to be at the same Vietnam War rally as Jane Fonda in the 1960’s, or the “If you’re not with us, you’re with the terrorists” meme that Republicans have used as a cudgel with which to beat Democrats senseless for the last seven years, patriotism seems always to be defined as unquestioning acceptance of everything the head of the Executive Branch does– if that Executive branch consists of Republicans. When it’s a Democrat, all bets are off.
Now, Lee Atwater’s star disciple, Karl Rove, is preparing to convince Americans that their impending foreclosure doesn’t matter, that their job is moving to the Philippines doesn’t matter, that the dollar is now only barely acceptable currency in New York City, that billions of dollars have disappeared into Bush crony pockets in Iraq and that thousands of Americans are dead, that America is now hated all over the world — none of that matters. What’s really important is whether or not the candidate wears a cheap flag pin made in the very country that owns us outright now — China.
There are Democrats, particularly blue-collar Democrats, who defect to McCain because they see McCain as a patriotic figure and they see Obama as an elitist who’s looking down his nose at ’em. Which he is. That comment where he said, you know, “After 9/11, I didn’t wear a flag lapel pin because true patriotism consists of speaking out on the issues, not wearing a flag lapel pin”? Well, to a lot of ordinary people, putting that flag lapel pin on is true patriotism. It’s a statement of their patriotic love of the country. And for him to sit there and dismiss it as he did—
You’re not wearing a flag pin, Karl.
Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. But I respect those who consciously get up in the morning and put a flag lapel pin on.
And that, my friends, is the big issue for this fall’s election campaign, unless the Democrats stop assuming that Americans are too smart to fall for this. They did it in 1988. They did it when they were frightened about 9/11. And when the Very Scary Notion of someone other than an old white guy being president is added to the mix, it will probably work.