Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Deciding the Next Decider by Calvin Trillin

Since next week is the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States, I thought it seemed like a fitting time to take a look back at the election that brought us to this point.

Calvin Trillin has written religion columns for Time (which he tried to get out of by inserting the word "alleged" before things like the word "crucifixion" and "parting of the Red Sea"), food columns for The New Yorker magazine, and humorous political columns in rhyme for The Nation. He is on record as saying his interest in writing about food has nothing to do with an interest in restaurants, per se. " I’m not interested in finding the best chili restaurant in Cincinnati," he said. "I'm interested in Cincinnatians fighting about who has the best chili." (From an article in the NY Times in October of 2008.)

In June of 2004, he released a humorous book of politically-oriented rhyme entitled Obliviously On He Sails: The Bush Administration in Rhyme. The title of the book comes from this rhymed couplet: "Obliviously on he sails/With marks not quite as good as Quayle's." (For those who miss the reference, Dan Quayle was the Vice President of the U.S. under George Herbert Walker Bush from 1989-1993; Quayle had a reputation as a poor student and was ridiculed for misspeaking in public). In 2006, in time for the mid-term elections, Trillin released a second book about the Bush Administration: A Heckuva Job: More of the Bush Administration in Rhyme.

In November of 2008, Random House released Trillin's follow-up title, Deciding the Next Decider: The 2008 Presidential Race in Rhyme. In this volume, Trillin examines the 2008 U.S. Presidential race starting as far back as the mid-term elections in 2006, when names started to be bandied about of various candidates in 2008, including a number who shot themselves in the foot (metaphorically) by dint of involvement in various political scandals.

The first candidate to announce a bid for the presidency was Barack Obama, who threw his hat into the ring in February of 2007. In a poem called "Obama, Rising", Trillin talked about how Obama had electrified the Democrats in his speech at the 2004 Presidential convention, and how conventional wisdom at the time was that he might someday be a good presidential candidate, but needed more time before running. The poem concludes as follows:

He went to Springfield, where he could invoke
The spirit of Abe Lincoln as he spoke
To thousands, cheering in the bitter cold.
He may have been by many fans extolled,
But pros said it was still a long-shot bet
To think the nomination's what he'd get.
When faced with Clinton's powerful machine,
They said, he might collapse, like Howard Dean.
Experience was what he seemed to lack.
And to be frank, they pointed out, he's black.


A few chapters assess the various candidates that entered the ring. About McCain, Trillin noted (in the midst of a poem entitled "Pacifying Preachers"):

So John McCain now seemed to be at bat.
The Christian Right was less than pleased by that.
He's pro-life, but they tended to believe
He failed to wear his Jesus on his sleeve.
Before, when his cup ranneth to the brim,
They'd slaughtered both his family and him.
McCain, who'd finished number two to Two,
Believed his turn was now long overdue.
As he assumed the role of Bush Two's heir,
A somewhat different John McCain was there.
No longer did he seem the same man who
Had charmed the voters (and reporters, too)
With candor as he'd cheerfully express
His willingness to call BS BS.


As the primaries went along, Trillin documented them in rhymes and song parodies. After the primary reached South Carolina, John Edwards dropped out, leaving Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as the last viable candidates standing for the Democratic nomination. In the midst of a chapter entitled "Just the Two of Us", Trillin said this:

Obama's rhetoric, she said, was lofty
But unsubstantial air, like Mister Softee,
Unanchored to the details it omits –
Precisely what was said of Hart by Fritz.*

Experience, Obama said, was nice,
But seasoning alone does not suffice,
And, given some decisions Clinton made,
It's clear that wisdom's not just time in grade.


*Gary Hart campaigned against Fritz Mondale for the Democratic nomination in 1984. Mondale defeated Hart after he used a popular ad slogan from Wendy's ("Where's the Beef?") during a televised debate. Mondale, in turn, lost to the current incumbent, President Ronald Reagan. Hillary Clinton's claims about Obama were similar to those Mondale made against Hart. Come June, 2008, however, it became clear that Clinton would not be able to secure her party's nomination, and she stepped out of the race to back Obama.

Trillin levels criticism at unsavory campaign tactics, at television pundits (dubbed "Sabbath gasbags" at least twice), and at various smear campaigns that spread virally.

For a primer on campaign strategy, it's hard to beat the chapter entitled "Defining". Here are a few excerpts from the primary text in that chapter:

The strategy is old: You must define
Your rival first, as somehow not benign.
Barack? The GOP implied that he
Was something other – not like you and me.
The right-wing blogs invented facts about him
Designed to cause Americans to doubt him:
A terrorist who's playing us for fools?
At least a guy who went to Muslim schools?
. . .
The Democrats' one over-arching aim?
Maintain McCain and Bush are just the same.
To vote McCain, they said, was to confirm
George W. for yet another term.
For all his maverick talk, they said that he
Was, in his heart, the same as Forty-Three.


As the parties went to their conventions, and McCain came out with Sarah Palin as his running mate, Trillin turned his focus to the influence of Karl Rove's style of campaign management. In the past, McCain had decried Rove's tactics, but during the summer of 2008, he employed a number of the same consultants that Rove had hired to propel George W. Bush to victory in 2002 and 2004. The chapter entitled "Fundamentals" begins as follows:

As Rove-o-Clones in deepest mud were slithering,
The criticism in the press was withering.
McCains ads, many said, were a disgrace.
The View called him a liar to his face.
At one point, slime-campaigning's reigning star –
Yes, Rove, the master – said they'd gone too far.


And then, the economy went south. Noted Republicans started backing Obama, McCain failed to score an "October surprise", and come election time, Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States.

Trillin closes the book after Obama's victory speech in Chicago, Illinois, with a short poem about race relations.

"Race in America, November 5, 2008"
by Calvin Trillin

The curse is not broken, as some would deduce.
The curse is so strong we may never break loose.
But now, at this moment, we cling to the theme
Set forth by the man who said, "I have a dream."


If you're looking to purchase any of the three political titles referenced in this post, check the HUMOR section of the bookstore first. Although Trillin is discussing politics using poetry, humor seems to be the #1 takeaway when reading these books.


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