Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and
Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama . His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.
On December 23, 1796, right after George Washington published his Farewell Address to the nation, the caustic editor Benjamin Franklin Bache, Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, published his farewell to America’s first president. “If ever a nation was debauched by a man, the American nation has been debauched by Washington,” Bache wrote. “If ever a nation has suffered from the improper influence of a man, the American nation has suffered from the influence of Washington. If ever a nation was deceived by a man, the American nation has been deceived by Washington. Let his conduct then be an example to future ages. Let it serve to be a warning that no man may be an idol... let the history of the Federal government instruct mankind, that the masque of patriotism may be worn to conceal the foulest designs against the liberties of the people.” Nearly 215 years later, on June 30, 2011, one of America’s leading political pundits, Mark Halpern, on live television, assessed President Barack Obama’s press conference performance by saying “I thought he was kind of a d**k” – using the four letter nickname for Richard, which also serves as a slang term for male genitalia.
Let us start with the good news. Then as now, the United States passed what the former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky calls the “public square test.” Having survived the Soviet gulag, Sharansky does not take for granted the freedom citizens in a true democracy like ours have to denounce their rulers publicly without being harmed. MSNBC suspended Halpern “indefinitely,” from one of his TV talking head gigs. And Halpern faces a wave of public indignation and ridicule but not, thank goodness, the firing squad.
And now, we offer the bad news. Benjamin Franklin Bache was a mean-spirited hatchet man. He loved making trouble and he badly abused the first President of the United States. But his diatribe is poetic, panoramic, and powerfully political. The rhythm is Biblical in its denunciation, and the sweeping condemnation of Washington – with an eye on “future ages” -- gets the reader thinking about leadership, patriotism, liberty, celebrity, and posterity. By contrast, Halpern gets us thinking in soundbites and vulgarities. Rather than elevating politics from the street to the salon as Bache did – in all his ugliness – Halpern – like so many others today – reduces us with his potty mouth from the Bully Pulpit to the public toilet.
To me, this issue is less about civility and more about substance. Halpern delivered his comment with a morning anchor’s smile; one imagines Benjamin Franklin Bache writing his passage with spleen and a sneer. Halpern’s “gaffe,” the verbal equivalent of a burp, is the inevitable result of punditry by punchline in an age of infotainment, when commentators feel pressured to entertain rather than enlighten, when it is better to be breezy than boring, when political talk is more about handicapping political horse races than crusading for political ideas.
The word “campaign” originated in the seventeenth century from the French word for open field, campagne. With contemporary soldiers fighting sustained efforts, often on the wide country terrain, the term quickly acquired its military association. The political connotation emerged in seventeenth-century England to describe a lengthy legislative session. In nineteenth-century America, campaign was part of the barrage of military terms describing electioneering -- as the party standard bearer, a war horse tapping into his war chest and hoping not to be a flash-in-the-pan -- a cannon that misfires -- mobilized the rank-and-file with a rallying cry in battleground states to vanquish their enemies. American politicians needed to conquer the people’s hearts because popular sovereignty has been modern Anglo-American government’s distinguishing anchor since colonial days. As with war, politics can ennoble or demean, but it is often epoch-making, historic. How pathetic it is, that with the entertainment imperative ruling us these days, we frequently experience politics simply as one more distraction, which is what the Halpern putdown was and the ensuing controversy about it in our media echo chamber inevitably will be.