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On The Attack

Geraldine Ferraro was unrepentant this week as she stepped down from her post on Hillary Clinton's campaign finance committee after having inserted her foot into her own mouth well past the knee. "If Obama was a white man," she said, "he would not be in this position." Trying to make it better, she dissed herself: “In 1984 if my name had been Gerald Ferraro, not Geraldine, I would never have gotten nominated,” she said. “Was I qualified? Absolutely.”

Ferraro is so belligerently silly about this that half of me wants to pretend I never heard her. There are some noble fellows among the ranks of previous VPs (and among the other losing candidates for that office), and just as many prominent ciphers. So is Ferraro saying that Spiro Agnew, Gerald Ford and Dan Quayle made it purely on merit, but she could only rise to that semi-illustrious post through special treatment?

Part of the vitriol Ferraro spilled on her way out of the Clinton campaign was to suggest that criticism she'd received for her absurd and dishonorable statement had been orchestrated by the Obama campaign. In almost the same breath, of course, she denied that her own remarks had any connection to the Clinton campaign, had in any way been part of an orchestrated effort to smear Obama with racial slurs.

I have no idea what is true. The things we hear about political campaigns suggest that anything that can be imagined has at least half a chance of being believable. And it's nothing new. Dirty tricks and disinformation have been part of the campaign toolbox since time immemorial. The most memorable such story I've read comes from the late Hunter S. Thompson's 2004 Rolling Stone essay on that year's campaign (note to the faint of heart: skip the next three paragraphs):

Back in 1948, during his first race for the U.S. Senate, Lyndon Johnson was running about ten points behind, with only nine days to go. He was sunk in despair. He was desperate. And it was just before noon on a Monday, they say, when he called his equally depressed campaign manager and instructed him to call a press conference for just before lunch on a slow news day and accuse his high-riding opponent, a pig farmer, of having routine carnal knowledge of his barnyard sows, despite the pleas of his wife and children.

His campaign manager was shocked. "We can't say that, Lyndon," he supposedly said. "You know it's not true."

"Of course it's not true!" Johnson barked at him. "But let's make the bastard deny it!"

But let's stipulate for the sake of argument that no one is orchestrating anything here. Let's say that the racial and religious slurs, both subtle and unsubtle, are not originating anywhere in the Clinton campaign; the outraged responses are not originating anywhere in the Obama campaign. Let's say that Geraldine Ferraro's contention that she resigned her post with Clinton's campaign "in order to get this thing out of the media" is true, despite the fact that she went on every talk show in the nation to discuss her resignation. Let's say it's all a self-organizing, emergent phenomenon, the questionable intelligence of crowds.

What's that about?

Obama has declared his intention of running a clean campaign, and so far, he's doing pretty well. He's had solid grounds to charge many of his attackers with racial and religious bigotry, and he's been careful to dial down his responses, mostly coming off as measured, reasonable and very, very tired of dodging incoming mud. With each new (and remember, I'm stipulating completely spontaneous) attack, this is the question I hear asked most: Will Obama be able to hold to the high road, or will he have to "go negative," flinging as much mud as he receives, thereby losing his distinction and becoming like every other politician?

Mostly, this is asked with a wistful air of resignation and a sad little smile. Soon, the askers imply, Obama will have no choice but to take the gloves off, displaying hands as dirty as his opponent's.

You know what? I perceive that it is also asked with anticipation of the Schadenfreude I wrote about in my previous blog: an imperfectly suppressed wish to see Obama fall.

It all reminds me of something I experienced a long, long time ago. As a young artist-organizer in the sixties, I was on fire. I had a precocious gift for public speaking and organizing and an urgent desire to persuade others to the causes I found most worthy and important. I took on positions of increasing responsibility—chair of this campaign, lead organizer of that group—using my own knack for organizing things to help bring some order and focus to these groups.

The effort to take me down a peg started slowly: after I'd been selected to speak at this conference or elected to the chair of that committee, an erstwhile friend asked why it had been me, not her. She refused to accept what was surely a big part of the real explanation, that I'd volunteered for countless tasks, working long hours in service to the cause, substantiating the old political adage that showing up is the most important way to have influence. Before long, three or four people who felt I'd been getting too much attention adopted similar undermining tactics, stalling meetings with endless procedural interventions aimed at preventing whatever I had proposed from being enacted, whispering behind my back and eventually, publicly ridiculing me in juvenile fashion—nasty jokes, that sort of thing.

Finally I felt so nonplussed and hurt, I couldn't go on. I broke down in the midst of a meeting, leaving the room to console myself. One of my attackers followed me out. As I sat weeping, she stared with the intent curiosity of a zoo visitor contemplating some strange species. "What do you want?" I asked. Here's what she said: "I just wanted to see you cry."

As you can imagine, this was an immensely instructive life-lesson in the unfortunate human tendency to want to avenge one's own wounding by wounding others. The positive learning I took away from it was a determination to occupy the public stage with my vulnerability intact if I was going to occupy it at all. I'd been young and passionate and brave and also scared out of my mind. I'd thought suppressing any evidence of anxiety or weakness was a requirement of the roles I'd taken on. But I learned from these experiences that cultivating the strong and seamless persona I'd adopted would only attract people who wanted to see me cry. I decided I might as well cry if I felt like it, and so far, I haven't regretted my decision to favor being real over being invincible.

Presidential campaigns don't take place in the real world, of course. Even the best ones incorporate a tacit agreement among most participants—candidates and voters alike—to wear the mask. A successful candidate for U.S. President can't be divorced or gay, can't have seen a therapist, can't reject religion or be a Jew, Buddhist or Muslim. The prohibitions just keep coming; until very recently, they included being a woman or fitting any racial category other than white. So Obama can't cry. What his attackers hope is that he will feel so much like crying that he descends to their level, channeling his pain and anger in a more politically acceptable way, by "going negative" and thus disappointing his supporters.

Obama seems to be a person of exceptional self-command who, from all I have seen and heard, retains a remarkable degree of realness under circumstances that usually kick authenticity all the way to to the curb. For example, consider his statement this week in response to people who tried to condemn him by association with the more extreme statements of the pastor of his church. I hope and pray he is able to go on holding.

But if he can't—if he shows himself to be vulnerable, if he succumbs to the pressure to repay mud with mud—I hope there won't be a great unself-aware sigh of relief from the people who just wanted to see him cry, to see a person who made them feel one down crack under the strain of their attacks. If he succumbs, I hope the rest of us will be there to keep the pundits from writing him off. If he succumbs, I hope we can keep our attention focused on the way his candidacy has activated citizenship, the effect it has had on others, and not slide into thinking this is all about an individual.

Here's what I hope the most: that we don't let the smallness writ large that is political campaigning colonize our minds. Obama is not so much an inventor, a proposer of bold new approaches. His core character—and what makes him feel so different, so welcome as a candidate—is to forge a decent and livable compromise between parties we may have written off as irreconcilable. I'd like to see him talk more about that, using Clinton's mudslinging as an illustration of the old way, extrapolating from it not to merely the end of the campaign, but to the presidency. I'd like him to take us on a guided tour of what it would be like to live in a country in which the chief executive wants a modus vivendi more than the defeat of the other party. Wouldn't that be novel?