Sunday, June 04, 2006

A nice, decent man
I was about to comment on two things that I usually think of as liberal traits, but on contemplation, I think they might actually be general American peculiarities. You be the judge.

Atrios links to this truly damning column from The Hartford Courant by Paul Bass. Bass sets up a review of Joe Lieberman's record by pointing out how, during an election, the public tends to forget everything they know about a candidate and go along with the simple images that the candidates feed us through their commercials. Following this set-up, Bass pulls out his clipping file and takes the voters of Connecticut on a short walk down memory lane.
[I]n ads and public statements, Lieberman portrays himself as Regular Joe, a fighter for the little guy, in touch with blue-state Connecticut and mainstream Democrats on all issues except Iraq.

And somehow we - not just Lieberman - keep a straight face, as if he hadn't just spent 18 years helping Republicans hijack the Constitution and pick on little guy after little guy.

The Bush administration values Joe Lieberman because he has been a crucial ally in efforts to free Enron-style corporate crooks from regulation, transfer wealth to the wealthy, hound gays, trample on the rights of government critics and sacrifice the lives of thousands of Americans and Iraqis to dishonest, dangerous military adventurism.

It's a one thousand word column and Bass uses those word to provide plenty of examples that illustrate the real Joe Lieberman. Having made this damning case, Bass concludes with, "Finally, it's true that Joe Lieberman is a genuinely nice person, a decent man."

This is where I wave my hands in the air and shout, "Stop!" Maybe it's just me, but backstabbing and calculated deception are not characteristics I usually associate with decency. Most liberals--and maybe most Americans--lack the bloodlust necessary to carry out a verbal assassination. At the last moment, when we should be going in for the kill, we pause and say something nice about our opponent--something nice and completely irrelevant.

It's probably true that Joe Lieberman is nice guy when you meet him one-on-one. Up close, most politicians are friendly, charming, and attentive. These are basic job skills of their occupation. Jesse Helms, one of the most vile members of congress in my lifetime, was famously charming in person. However, charm and decency are not the same thing.

Today's New York Times, has an article on Bush's last bastion of support in Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming.

[A] student at Brigham Young, Danielle Pulsipher, a junior, offered blanket approval of the president. Asked to name which of his actions as president she liked most, she was hard-pressed to answer.

"I'm not sure of anything he's done, but I like that he's religious — that's really important," Ms. Pulsipher said.

Tomas de Torquemada was religious. Judge Hathorne at the Salem witch trial was religious. I'm sure all nineteen of the 9/11 hijackers were not merely religious, but deeply and sincerely religious. The historian Eugene Weber wrote in his Varieties of Fascism, "Sincerity has no intrinsic value. A sincere fool is still a fool, a sincere Inquisitor still a torturer."

A recent common wisdom holds that Americans choose their leaders based on the same criteria that they use to choose their drinking and dining companions. Charm, niceness, sincerity and sometimes religion are characteristics that most Americans value in their friends and neighbors, but they should be irrelevant qualities in picking our leaders. Frankly, most of us never are going to have a drink or go to dinner with our elected leaders, so we might as well find better criteria for choosing them, like competence, good ideas, or a basic grasp of professional ethics.

Are these two traits--the desire to find something nice to say about all but the most depraved and the tendency to choose our leaders based on their perceived personality rather than their skill or appropriateness for the job--related? In my gut, I suspect that they are. If these are characteristically American traits, is that a good thing, a bad thing, or a charming trifle? I want to say the latter, but I might just be groping for something nice to say.

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