Elective Politics’ Darkest Hour

Checker's speechThis piece was originally published in Carl Cannon’s Morning Report.

I have been aware of presidential elections since 1948, when my mother, driving my sister, brother, and me home from St. Leo’s School, heard on the radio that Dewey had conceded to President Harry Truman.

“That can’t be!” she exclaimed, reflecting the common conclusion that New York Gov. Thomas Dewey was a lock to prevail. But yes, it was, and the drama of that election kindled a deep love in me for elective politics.

Two years later, I had my first encounter with a live politician. As fate would have it, it was U.S. Senate candidate Richard Nixon. I was visiting my grandfather at his combination Texaco gas station and hardware store in Lafayette, Calif., about 10 miles east of my home in Oakland. We heard a voice on a loudspeaker beckoning the folks to hear from Rep. Nixon. This was the famous Senate election of 1950 where Nixon defeated Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, the first Democratic woman to win a House seat, with a classic red-baiting campaign that was ultimately successful. Nixon had won his House seat in 1946, beating Democratic Rep. Jerry Voorhis in his first harsh and bitter campaign. It would not be his last.

I persuaded my grandfather to allow me to cross the street and see what was happening. After a long wait, another car bearing loudspeaker horns and plastered with Nixon signs pulled up at the little park in downtown Lafayette. Out stepped Richard M. Nixon in coat and tie. He took a microphone and, for the life of me, I cannot remember a word he said, though I was star-struck in the presence of an actual famous person.

Returning home later that day I described the occasion to my not-impressed mother. “I don’t trust Nixon,” she said, “his eyes are too close together.” She said the same thing in 1952 when our family watched as vice presidential nominee Nixon gave the “Checkers speech” that helped Nixon avoid getting dumped from the GOP ticket headed by Dwight Eisenhower.
Mother, of course, was prescient.

She and my Republican father voted for Adlai Stevenson. And my cousin Keith and I worked our neighborhoods handing out Stevenson bumper stickers and hung around the Oakland Democratic headquarters watching the phone bank frenzy with eyes widened.
I was hooked for life. Or thought I was.

The election of 2016 is without question the darkest, dirtiest, most despicable, and depraved one of my lifetime. I have run out of “d” words, though maybe destructive and delusional should be added. The elective system we have known for time immemorial is down, broken, and maybe lost.

Can a better one be salvaged? The answer in an unequivocal “maybe.”

Here’s what we face: a campaign funding disaster brought on by the Supreme Court of the United States of America. Jane Mayer’s new book Dark Money describes in rich detail how the Koch family is trying, with alarming success, to undermine and subvert the separate powers of government, not just in Washington, D.C., but in state capitals as well.

Next, we have the sorry state of congressional redistricting. I heartily agree with the movement led by former New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Hedrick Smith, “Reclaim the American Dream.” He persuasively makes the case for elimination of the political dinosaur known as gerrymandering. It is one of the main roots of evil in politics. As practiced by Republicans and Democrats alike, it is unfair and undemocratic. There are hopeful signs in many states that the power of redistricting can be taken from the manipulators and put in the hands of responsible, nonpartisan citizens—not the pols.

My friend and former colleague Mike McCurry has a major quibble with this premise — namely, that it may be too late to fix politics by addressing rigged congressional (and state legislative) maps. His point is that Americans are now congregating in communities where they feel neighbors share their “values” and often their politics. “So even drawing the lines more fairly might not produce much change,” Mike told me. “That’s been the experience in Arizona, for sure, where an independent commission that drew lines did not make much of a difference.”
Proof that Americans are becoming more polarized is the proliferation of voters who go into the voting booths and just pull the levers for straight party-line tickets.

So what’s the answer? Here, Mike and I agree. We need leaders who will step up and do what’s right. And that’s what brings me make to the dismal state of U.S. politics, circa 2016.

One of the clearest signs of political dysfunction is reflected by attitude and diffidence of young Americans to participate in the soiled system we have today. Tepid election turnout in the United States is embarrassing next to that of other democracies. Our voting procedures are archaic. Why on a Tuesday? Why not keep polls open on Saturdays and Sundays? Why rely on machines that often break down and election officials who are deeply partisan? (See Florida in 2000)

The speculation that former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is considering a billion-dollar, personally funded, independent run reflects a perception that the current aspirants for the presidency are fatally flawed. He is not alone. I predict a record low turnout no matter who wins the nominations.

If Donald Trump actually prevails, I can hear my 94-year-old mother shouting — for the second time — “That can’t be true!”

Bob Neuman served as a speech writer and administrative assistant to Rep. Morris Udall. He is a former DNC communications director.

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