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The Year of the Political Jackass

The Year of the Political Jackass

By David Paul Kuhn - December 16, 2009

It was a year for the political jackass. Headlines were filled with politicians' private improprieties exposed. The infidelities, most oddly with Mark Sanford. The corruption, most infamously with Rod Blagojevich. But politicians' privately behaving badly, while news, is not new. It was politicians' public behavior in 2009 that is notable for reaching such new lows. Worse still is that, unlike in years past, hyper-partisan rancor is increasingly rewarded.

Republican Rep. Joe Wilson capped the indecorous year, yelling "you lie!" at President Obama during a September address to Congress. Republican leadership urged mea culpa. Wilson immediately called the White House and apologized. Yet Wilson also became an instant celebrity among hardcore conservatives. His campaign coffers bulge with new donations (as did his opponent's).

Wilson is not alone. Earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid compared opposition to Democratic health care legislation to opposition to freeing blacks from slavery and women's suffrage. And Reid is meant to represent his party in the more civil upper chamber. The Democratic leader refused to apologize.

This summer's heated health care debate featured talk of "death panels" (Facebook Palin, Sarah). Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley accused Democrats of pushing a health care plan that wanted to "decide when to pull the plug on grandma."

Rep. Michele Bachmann, a heroine of conservatives, has said, "I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax." She proceeded to reference Thomas Jefferson's thoughts on revolution. The Republican has also insinuated that the 2010 U.S. census could lead to the internment of American citizens.

Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said last month that Republicans were giving women the "back-of-the-hand treatment" on health care. She later said two conservative female lawmakers only serve to "repulse women."

Finally, there is Rep. Alan Grayson. Grayson has elevated jackass into a high art. The first term Florida Democrat tossed his signature volley on the House floor in late September, "The Republican health care plan is this: Die quickly." Grayson quickly became a liberal hero. He has since made a career as provocateur.

Grayson has said he has "trouble listening to what [Vice President Dick Cheney] says sometimes because of the blood that drips from his teeth while he's talking." Last week, in response to Cheney characterizing Obama as a "radical," Grayson said Cheney should "STFU." (Translation: Shut The F*** Up.)

Washington has witnessed more acrimonious periods. The debates over slavery led to congressmen carrying guns and brawls within Congress. But Steven Smith, an expert on Congress at Washington University, agreed that Congress has not seen so undignified a year for at least four decades. "It's gotten to the point where it's self destructive," Smith said.

The public has noticed. Three in four Americans believe the United States has become too politically divided, according to recent USA Network poll. A majority, 55 percent, believe those divisions have worsened this decade. And about two-thirds of Americans said Wilson and Grayson's provocations, combined with the angry outbursts at the town hall meetings in August, are not isolated incidents exaggerated by the media but indicative of a larger problem.

This is a celebrity age that confuses renown with infamy. And in politics, like reality television, that moral gray area is compounded by incentives.

South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint recently spoke of the millions of dollars Wilson's outburst raised. "Why didn't I say that?'" DeMint regretted at a tea party rally in Washington.

Pols like Grayson would have hardly been noticed by the old media world. His remarks have earned only one mention on NBC's "Nightly News" and another on "Meet the Press." But on MSNBC, Grayson is now a regular primetime guest. It's exposure politicians crave. And the old media ultimately cannot look away from the traffic accident. The New York Times eventually profiled Grayson as the "latest incarnation" of the political "wing nut."

Polarization has, of course, developed into the dominant business model on cable news—a trend personified by Glenn Beck's rapid rise on Fox News this year. But now Beck's brand of commentary increasingly defines our political leaders.

Politicians are becoming cable news pundits. And the most popular politicians on cable news are the ones most likely to make news. With so much airtime to fill, at least the wing nut can offer the cheap thrill that dependably makes news. It's like the actor who "accidently" loses a sex video in order to woo media coverage. Vulgarity is now news, in Hollywood and Washington. And in both towns, a degree of vulgarity usually pays off.

Crass also breeds crass. GOP Sen. Tom Coburn recently flipped Grayson's charge and said the Democratic health care bill would cause seniors to "die sooner." And Coburn is a doctor.

Last week, it was telling how Grayson told Cheney to "STFU." "On the Internet there's an acronym that's used to apply to situations like this," he said.

It feels like the online political universe. The virulence of the political blogosphere has seeped into our politician's discourse. It's the fragmentation and depersonalization of partisans. The causes are indeed manifold. As I've written, we now have a partisan industrial complex invested in our divisions.

It's the consequence that reached new extremes this year. And even the more clownish extremes evoke a trend of more serious breaches. The statesmen have largely left the stage.

"There has to be a certain decorum and civility," George H.W. Bush said in this week's Parade magazine. "And that was just smashed," Bush continued, as he recalled Wilson telling the president "you lie."

"I thought," Bush added, "'How low have we gotten here?'"

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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