There is an Art to Good Politics

Originally posted October 21, 2006 — Crossposted here

There’s an art to good politics

Peggy Noonan wrote a column in this week’s WSJ that touched on the artlessness of our current crop of politicos, none of whom seem to possess the deft and graceful footwork of presidents and legislators of the past. She wrote:

The dance is where you see the joy of the joust. It’s a gifted pro making his moves. It’s a moment of humor, wit or merriness on the trail; it’s the clever jab or the unexpected line that flips an argument. It’s a thing in itself and is so much itself, so distinctive, that whether you are left, right or center, red team or blue, you can look at the moves of a guy on the other side and say with honest admiration: “Man, that was good.”

FDR, of course, could dance. He gets caught breaking a vow he’d made in Philadelphia when first running for president. What to do? He and his aides agree. “First thing, deny we were in Philadelphia!”

She is correct, of course. The most successful politicians (or at least the most faithfully beloved) had among their gifts the ability to laugh at themselves (as W manages to do from time – to – time, and Bill Clinton did very well) and to even mock their opponents with well-placed, humorous parry that draws a little blood but leaves both standing, even as the rest of us smile and mutter, like Osric, “a hit, a very palpable hit.”

A terrific example of Noonan’s point has just played out on the political stage this week, involving Elizabeth Edwards, wife of former Senator John Edwards, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the wife of our former president.

In a nutshell, Mrs Edwards – speaking off the cuff - managed to put her foot into it by declaring that while she and Mrs. Clinton are both women of a generation, she, Mrs. Edwards, thought she might be a bit more joyful than Hillary. Which, while perhaps not the greatest thing one can say about another, is not exactly awful, either. Then came, of course, within a 24-hour newscycle, Mrs. Edwards’ humble apology to Mrs. Clinton, along with the standard, responsibility-deflecting excuse:

“Unfortunately, large portions of the material released by (Ladies’ Home Journal) as quoted statements by me were erroneous and nearly all the statements, either because of significant omissions, or editing, or error, give a misimpression about what I said,” Edwards said. “This is particularly true with respect to my comments about Sen. Clinton, who holds a serious and demanding public office while I am largely home, joyfully I must admit, with two lovely children.”

Edwards also said she has “great respect” for the senator.

This reminds me of two amusing scenes: One is First Lady Hillary Clinton’s excuse for kissing Suha Arafat after listening to Mrs. Arafat proclaim in a speech that Israel was targeting women and children and poisoning the Palestinian water supply. Called on the kiss, Mrs. Clinton’s excuse was that she didn’t realize what Arafat had said. She had a “bad translation” of the speech. Everyone else got the accurate translation, but the First Lady and Wife of the American President got…you know…the bad copy of the translation. She couldn’t be held responsible!

This Edwards/Clinton brouhaha also brings to mind the Trial of Clevinger in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. In Mrs. Edwards tortured attempt to insure her apology is sufficiently broad and groveling she sounds like Clevinger, finally understanding what a prosecutor wants from him and – drawing a deep breath – delivering the line: I always never said you couldn’t defeat him, sir.

I always never said you weren’t joyful, Hillary!

The whole episode has been artless and humorless and it has squashed anything like thoughtful commentary from either side. Mrs. Edwards it seems, was being not malicious but merely thoughtful when she made her comparison – her comment was clearly a stream of consciousness moment, an unfinished thought. Mrs. Clinton made no public comment but perhaps she should have. If Mrs. Clinton had the political acumen of those who’ve gone before her – or of her husband – she might have thought back to moment during last year’s State of the Union address during which President Bush made a gentle joke about Bill Clinton’s growing relationship with the Bush parents and the cameras showed Hillary glaring while everyone else in the chamber managed a chuckle. Having remembered that, she might have made a thoughtful and, if not self-deprecating, at least gracious statement, herself. Something along these lines:

“Mrs. Edwards has survived treatment for breast cancer, and it is not surprising that, coming out the other side of such an ordeal, she has managed to find real joyfulness in her life. That’s a blessing. I’m both happy for Elizabeth and grateful that she has reminded me – reminded all of us – that every life has its share of gifts and burdens, and that if we must endure the burdens, we ought to try to remember to find the joy in the gifts. Indeed, joyfulness is something I need to work on, myself. And, hey, I can feel some joy coming on…for all of us…on November 8th!”

It’s not really that difficult. It takes a willingness to drop the imperiousness, think a thing through and be a little warm. Instead, Hillary did the silence, then the apology-acceptance, but she left us all with the same sense we’ve always had of her: Joyless, humorless, entitled, Godfather-esque. Kiss the ring and back out. Very good. You can go back to your little life, now, Mrs. Edwards, and when I need you, you’ll be there for me.

A shame. Hillary had a chance to be “human Hillary” and she blew it. And to my way of thinking Elizabeth Edwards blew it, too. She could have done so much better than, “the magazine quoted me badly, I adore Hillary, of course I didn’t mean that!”

She could have said:

“Yes, that’s exactly what I said, but I meant nothing negative. I think Mrs. Clinton is smart enough, herself, to know what I’m talking about, and that she’d be the first to say she is often working too hard, and not smelling enough roses.”

That would have been refreshing. And artful, too. Just my opinion, but I think America would have been keenly interested and grateful to see either woman allow this small episode to play out differently – less predictably and defensively – than it did.

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