erik lundegaard

My First Blog Post

Eight years ago, either the night before or a few nights before the 2000 election, I read Hendrik Hertzberg’s “Talk of the Town” column in The New Yorker before going to bed and panicked. I couldn’t sleep.

I hadn’t gotten involved in the campaign much — I was a freelance writer, struggling to keep my head above water during a time of great prosperity and opportunity — but I was definitely for Gore, and not simply because I was a Democrat, but for all the reasons Hertzberg laid out in his column.  What I didn’t know, what Hertzberg began to let me in on, was how bad it had gotten, and how culpable the media was in making it bad, which is to say close. Too close to call. We had to wait until the U.S. Supreme Court decided for us, by a 5-4 vote, on December 12, 2000: a date which will live in infamy. (For more on this, please read Boies v. Bush v. Gore, about Gore’s lawyer David Boies, which I edited for
New York Super Lawyers magazine this fall.)

That evening, instead of sleeping, I got up, turned my computer back on, searched online for the Hertzberg article (futilely, for this was 2000), and then proceeded to type the whole damn thing up and send it to everyone I knew. I suppose it was my first blog post. READ this, I told everyone. SEND IT to everyone you know.

We've come a long way baby since then, and mostly, like the old Springsteen song says, down down down down. It's amazing to consider the country Bush inherited and the country he leaves behind. Only the most blinkered among us would consider the last eight years anything other than an unmitigated disaster.

We can't re-do that choice but we can do this one right. My god, what would it be like to have a smart man, a really smart man, in the White House?

Here's the Hertzberg column I sent out eight years ago. Read it and weep. Read it and hope:

After the polls close next week, we will learn what Presidential politics in the year 2000 has been “about.” Specifically, we will learn whether it has been about “issues” or “personality.”

If the campaign turns out to have been about “issues,” then the Democratic nominee, Al Gore, will be elected, because he is the superior candidate in point of both command and positions...

Vice President Gore has shown himself to be, in comparison with the Republican candidate, George W. Bush, more fiscally responsible (because he proposes to spend somewhat less of the chimerical surplus than does Governor Bush), more socially responsible (because he proposes to spend more of that surplus on social needs such as education and health care and divert less of it to individual consumption), and more egalitarian (because his plans for changing the tax code, combined with his spending plans, would ameliorate inequalities of wealth and income while Bush’s would exacerbate them).

Gore’s foreign policy would be more energetic in its promotion of democratic values than Bush’s, and probably more so than President Clinton’s. Bush has offered few clues to what his foreign policy might be, except to say that he would build a missile-defense system whether or not it was technically workable or strategically advantageous, and that he opposes the American military presence in Haiti (where, at last count, we had 29 soldiers) and in the Balkans, where a unilateral withdrawal would have the effect of weakening the Western alliance and America’s role within it.

As for the superiority of Gore’s command of the issues, this is not a matter of opinion — or, if it is, everyone’s opinion is the same, even (to judge from his defensive jokes) Bush’s: Gore knows more, understands more, and has thought more, and more coherently, about virtually every aspect of public policy, domestic and foreign, than Bush has...

Bush’s point of superiority, then, is in the matter of “personality,” and it is striking how narrowly that word seems to have been defined for electoral purposes. Personality apparently excludes, if not intelligence itself, then such manifestations of it as intellectual curiosity, analytic ability, and a capacity for original thought, all of which Gore has in abundance and Bush not only lacks but scorns. Personality apparently excludes courage: Gore put himself in harm’s way during the Vietnam War; Bush did not.

Gore’s tendency to embellish anecdotes, especially about himself, is real and undeniable. Even so, some of his alleged lies have turned out to be strongly rooted in factuality. He did not “create” the Internet, obviously, but he was one of a tiny handful of politicians who grasped its significance when it was in its infancy, and he did take the lead in writing legislation to spur its development.

In the debates, Bush uttered inaccuracies that, unlike Gore’s, falsify the underlying essence of his point — as, for example, when he said that Gore was outspending him in the campaign (when the reverse is true, to the tune of $50 million), and that he fought to get a patient’s bill of rights passed in Texas (when he actually vetoed one such bill and allowed another to become law without his signature), and that his health-care proposal would “have prescription drugs as an integral part of Medicare” (when this is precisely what Gore’s plan would do, while Bush’s would dismantle Medicare as we know it in favor of a system of subsidized private insurance).

Still, there’s no denying that a large number of people find Gore irritating; to prove it, there are polls, to say nothing of the panels of “undecided voters” — that is, clueless, ill-informed citizens who even at this late date cannot summon the mental energy to make up their minds — assembled by the television networks into on-camera focus groups. Gore can be awkward and tone-deaf, and he sometimes has trouble modulating his presentation of himself, and he plainly lacks the instinctive political exuberance of a Bill Clinton or even the slightly twitchy easygoingness of a George W. Bush.

Gore is aggressive, assertive, and intensely energetic, qualities once counted as desirable in a potential President but now evidently seen by many as disturbing. At a time of domestic prosperity and tranquility, much of the public seems to have developed a thirst for passivity, a thirst that Bush is eager to slake.

This may explain the paradox that while Gore was widely judged the substantive winner of all three of the televised debates, he lost the battle in the post-debate media echo chambers, and perhaps partly as a result, in the opinion polls. In the final debate, Gore stretched the rules, while Bush complained and turned beseechingly to the moderator for help. To caricature them both, Gore was a smart bully, Bush a hapless tattletale. Neither attribute is attractive, but it may turn out that fear of the first will outweigh contempt for the second. In that case, “personality” will definitely have triumphed over “issues,” and the transformation of the Presidency of the United States into the presidency of the student council will be complete.

 — Hendrik Hertzberg

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Posted at 08:36 AM on Sun. Nov 02, 2008 in category Politics  

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