The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

The Prisoner on Flight 1884

Posted on | September 13, 2011 | 52 Comments

The National Affairs Desk, 4 p.m., Sept. 13, 2011

“Shortly after the election-night returns [in the 1972 Florida Democratic primary] showed Muskie hopelessly mired in fourth place behind Wallace, Humphrey, and Jackson, the Man from Maine called an emergency staff meeting and announced he was quitting the race. This stirred up a certain amount of panic and general anger among the staff people, who eventually persuaded Big Ed to at least get himself under control before talking to any reporters. He agreed to go out and play golf the next day, while the top-level staffers got together and tried to find some alternative.
“This was the reality behind the story, widely published the next day, that Muskie had decided to ‘change his whole style’ and start talking like the Fighting Liberal he really was at heart. He would move on to Illinois and Wisconsin with new zeal . . . and his staff people were so happy with this decision to finally ‘take off the gloves’ that they had agreed to work without pay until the day after the big Victory Party in Wisconsin.
“It took about a week for the story of Muskie’s attempt to quit the race to leak out to the press, but it was not an easy thing to confirm. One of the most frustrating realities of this goddamn twisted business is the situation where somebody says, ‘I’ll only answer your question if you promise not to print it.’
“Everybody I talked to about the Muskie story seemed to know all the details – but there was no point trying to check it out, they said, because it came from ‘somebody who was at the meeting’ and he ‘obviously can’t talk about it.’
“Of course not. Only a lunatic would risk getting fired from his un-salaried job on the Muskie campaign several days before the crucial Wisconsin primary.”

Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72

PHILADELPHIA                              
We took off from Tampa International Airport at noon sharp, some 90-odd passengers aboard a U.S.  Airways 737, including the prisoner who sat handcuffed in 25F, the right-side window seat in the rearmost row.  A plainclothes law enforcement officer — federal marshal? sheriff’s deputy? homicide detective? — sat in 25D, the aisle seat.

Nobody sat in 25E, for obvious reasons.

What crime had the prisoner committed?  I didn’t dare ask. But whatever it was, somebody wanted this guy transported to  Philadelphia ASAP, which was why he shared my pleasant flight on U.S. Airways, three rows behind me in the tail end of the big Boeing jet.

Our flight was only about three-quarters full, so even though my ticket was for seat 6E — a center seat on the right side, just a couple rows behind first class — I was able to opt for 22C, an aisle seat on the left, way in the back. I always prefer an aisle seat, and this flight was sufficiently underbooked that I got extra room because seat 22B was empty.  All in all, then, it was a nearly ideal flight experience in terms of 21st-century commercial air travel.

Did the prisoner in seat 25F fully appreciate this? Probably not.

Interstate fugitives don’t usually collect many frequent flyer miles, and so the guy in handcuffs probably had no frame of reference — overbooked planes, delayed departures, missed connections, long layovers — with which to compare his involuntary trip to Philly.

Meanwhile, the guy in 22A (the window seat next to me) was reading A Clockwork Orange while I was reading Hunter S. Thompson’s account of the 1972 campaign. Both are tales of twisted madness, but only one of those stories is fiction. And covering the current presidential campaign confirms every insight Thompson had about “this goddamn twisted business” of political journalism. The hassles and annoyances, the sources who don’t return phone calls, the stories that everybody knows about but nobody can report — it’s a familiar ordeal, even if writing this stuff on a blog isn’t quite the same as publishing it in Rolling Stone.

Consider, for example, Tim Pawlenty’s endorsement of Mitt Romney. When the news hit yesterday morning while I was in Tampa, I asked: “What was Pawlenty’s price?” The obvious answer, of course, was an agreement that Romney would cover Pawlenty’s campaign debts:

“If Tim Pawlenty wants our help, that’s something we’d help him with, just as we help all our friends.”
Andrew Saul, Romney campaign spokeswoman

See? Everybody knows what this is about. We can further stipulate as something else “everybody knows” that Pawlenty would have sold his endorsement to any Republican candidate who had agreed to pick up his tab. What we have learned is that Tim Pawlenty is a rather shameless whore, and if I had an intern, I’d assign them to do Lexis-Nexis searches for articles from six or eight months ago in which reputable commentators discussed Pawlenty as a viable conservative alternative to Romney.

So much for that, I suppose. Like the unpaid staffers working for Muskie in ’72, Pawlenty’s top staff reportedly agreed to work without pay when his campaign ran low on cash in the weeks leading up to last month’s Ames straw poll. But professional Republican campaign operatives are not altruistic volunteers. To “work without pay” is actually to defer payment, so that your agreed-upon salary, a matter of contractual obligation, is billed to the campaign as a debt. Ditto the contractors, vendors and consultants.

Pawlenty’s rumored “six-figure” campaign debt, then, is owed in large measure to his former top campaign operatives as back pay. And by agreeing to pick up Pawlenty’s tab — c’mon, everybody knows that’s the deal here — Romney is thereby agreeing to pay the salaries of guys who, until a month ago, were contractually obligated to do all in their power to defeat Romney.

This is the kind of stuff that makes people cynical about politics, but if you’re not cynical about politics, it’s only because you don’t actually know anything about politics. Professional campaign operatives are all hired guns. I’m sure they have their ideals — don’t we all? — but idealism doesn’t pay the rent and, when push comes to shove, they work for whoever agrees to hire them. If some of Pawlenty’s former staffers eventually turn up on the staff of Mitt Romney, this is no more a judgment on the character of the ex-Pawlenty people than whatever damned fool notion made them think Tim Pawlenty ever had a ghost’s chance of winning the GOP nomination.

 Thank God I was never such a fool. When the Man From Minnesota announced his candidacy in April, I offered this campaign slogan suggestion:

PAWLENTY 2012: Because Politics Isn’t Boring Enough

It took exactly four months for my judgment to be proven accurate, during which time every Respectable Conservative Pundit was obligated to treat Pawlenty as a serious contender for 2012, even though he was transparently weak and inadequate. And this is why, you see, I’m not a Respectable Conservative Pundit: I’ve got this bad habit of writing the brutal truth.

There are truths, however, I can’t yet tell and not merely because no one will go on the record to confirm the ugly facts, so I’ll limit myself to reflecting on what kind of nonsense influenced the bandwagon-jumpers who spent the first seven months and 13 days of 2011 proclaiming that Tim Pawlenty was The Real Deal.

Conventional Wisdom is that the best candidates for president are successful, popular, two-term governors. Conventional Wisdom also dictates that it’s bad business for Republicans to nominate a Southerner. It’s not just that Bush-era “brand damage” has jinxed any GOP candidate with a drawl, but the perfectly logical understanding that any Republican candidate will carry the Southern states with little effort.

What the GOP therefore needs — the Conventional Wisdom dictates — is a successful, popular, two-term governor from one of the 37 states that isn’t represented by a star on the Confederate battle flag. It’s not merely the reflexive Republican fear of being called “racist” that accounts for this, but rather the need to expand the party’s geographical reach by picking up Electoral College votes in the Northeast and Midwest.

Tim Pawlenty perfectly fit the Conventional Wisdom prescription, which also explains why so many pundit types expended countless words arguing for the 2012 candidacies of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniel and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Neither Daniel nor Christie wished to risk their political futures running against an incumbent president and wisely so. For them, 2016 is just as good as 2012, and why take a chance of losing to an incumbent president, as history suggests the Republican nominee will eventually do, no matter who that nominee is?

At any rate, by a sort of historical default, Texas Gov. Rick Perry has now been boosted to front-runner status and the need to defend the presumptive GOP nominee explains why Rush Limbaugh is bashing Michele Bachmann. Let’s acknowledge that Bachmann is, and always has been, a long shot for the nomination. For the long shot to bash the front-runner is considered bad for Republicans. Perry is now viewed as viable whereas Bachmann is not. So never mind the inarguable Merck/Gardasil/Perry nexus, let’s throw Bachmann under the bus.

Why are Perry’s defenders so doggone defensive? You can see how Melissa Clouthier strains herself in endeavoring to defend Perry on the Gardasil front and say, “Well, OK, Melissa’s from Texas, so she’s kind of a special pleader in this context.” But I’m remembering some things I was told off-the-record and wondering whether Perry’s supposed “inevitablility” will prove as evanescent as the erstwhile inevitability of Tim Pawlenty.

“The campaign had to counterspin against attacks on their candidate, over and over. Perry did a good job defending himself on some of these and a not-so-good job on others, but overall it wasn’t a great night for him. . . . This wasn’t a make-or-break night for Perry or anyone else; there are a lot of debates scheduled in the coming months, and Perry has plenty of time to improve. But he will need to improve.”
John Tabin, The American Spectator

Ever since Iowa, my gut-hunch fear is that the Perry bandwagon will somehow result in the nomination of Romney, the very alternative that Perry’s supporters desire most to avoid.

There is no reward for issuing such oddball warnings, of course. If I’m wrong — if Perry goes on to a glorious triumph — then everyone will scoff at my folly. And if I’m right, then there will be no praise for my political insight, any more so than I am today praised for having spotted Pawlenty as a loser months before his campaign ultimately collapsed.

But I’ve got a ticket on another plane departing soon for Baltimore, so there’s no time now to brood over such things. My cocktail waitress at the airport lounge just predicted Romney-Rubio, and that’s probably a smart bet at this point. Hit the freaking tip jar.

UPDATE: Welcome, Instapundit readers!

UPDATE I: Palin Derangement Syndrome? Hmmm.

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