I love Hank McNamara. It's true I don't actually know him, but I have seen him frequently. I try not to notice that he never looks anyone in the eye, and for some strange reason, while everyone else is in color, he's in black-and-white -- a kind of pasty, shifty gray. What's more, he's a used-car dealer -- undoubtedly selling clunkers to widows, orphans, and dotcom-ers down on their luck. Still, he's my guy.
As you might have guessed, what I know about McNamara comes almost entirely from television and radio commercials mounted by his opponent for Bergen County (New Jersey) executive, someone named Dennis McNerney. The radio ad features the voice of a woman who is irate at the car McNamara is trying to sell her. This is the level of discourse that is now the norm in American politics.
Frankly, (my dear), I don't care who will be the next Bergen County executive, since I don't live there. I cite the ad only because it encapsulates much of what American politics has become and why I, for one, am just fed up. This week, my vote was cast on the basis of negative advertising. I was determined to punish anyone who insults my intelligence. If I could, I would have voted for McNamara.
It's not true that politicians all lie or that they are all corrupt -- I'll stand them up against businessmen any day -- but it is true that they have come to accept a system that is often dishonest. The negative spot, the attack ad, has its place -- sometimes, the other guy is a stinker -- but it has come to dominate American politics. It is almost always a lie.
In South Dakota, Republican Senate candidate John Thune aired an ad that somehow linked Saddam Hussein, al Qaeda, and the "enemies of America" to his opponent's vote against a missile-defense system. In Georgia, Republican Senate candidate Saxby Chambliss broadcast a commercial that featured Osama bin Laden and the ever-popular Saddam and questioned his opponent's "courage to lead." The issue was President Bush's homeland-security proposal. The opponent was Sen. Max Cleland. He lost three limbs -- both legs and an arm -- in Vietnam.
Where is the outrage? Where are the national politicians who are willing to stand up and actually denounce these ads? Where are the Republican and Democratic chairmen who are willing to take a stand against the degradation of American politics?
The thinking in Washington and elsewhere is that these ads are disconnected from politics as practiced the rest of the year or from government in general. That, though, is not the case. The same people who get elected based on lies, exaggerations, half-truths, negative attacks, and the like are hardly likely to slip into a new ethical mode once they start to govern. If they have sold out during the campaign -- signed off on some scurrilous ad -- we can hardly be surprised if they sell out while in office. Virginity is not retroactive.
When John McCain ran for the Republican presidential nomination, I was one of the journalists accused of going just plain goopy over him. Maybe I did. But here was a man who actually talked to the voters as if they were not dopes. Here was a man who said what he thought -- who didn't begin every sentence with the cop-out phrase "I don't think the American people want ..."
McCain was such a breath of fresh air, so downright candid and accessible, that it almost didn't matter to me that I disagreed with him on almost every issue of substance. What mattered more, what mattered most, was that on the single most important issue -- restoring trust in the political system -- he was head and shoulders above everyone else.
So this week, if I could have, I'd have voted for everyone who was targeted by an intellectually dishonest attack ad. It's personal. After all, the insult to their character was nothing compared to the insult to our own intelligence.
Richard Cohen is a member of the Washington Post Writers Group. His work frequently appears in the Flyer.