Thursday, November 24, 2005

Lights, Camera, Action!

There's no business like show business? Oh yes, there is. It's called politics.

Posted By on Thu, Nov 24, 2005 at 4:00 AM

One of the established political clichés compares sausage-making with government and usually concludes with some suggestion that people don't want to look too close at either process -- the idea seemingly being that there's too much blood-and-guts to deal with.

This is roughly 180 degrees from the truth. Making laws and making hot dogs are messy procedures, yes, but tedious ones. All you have to do is attend a few hearings or inspect a few assembly lines to get the idea. Something that starts out living and breathing is transformed through various mechanical actions into matter that is limp, lifeless, and, quite often, indigestible. There's a reason why they refer to the "grind" of legislative business.

But luckily there is such a thing as political theater to reawaken our interest in public business and to focus our attention on the issues. Take a recent cause celebre featuring Memphis congressman Harold Ford Jr. (who, perhaps not coincidentally, is gearing up a campaign for the U.S. Senate).

As anybody who watches a cable news network knows, Ford was conspicuously involved in a fracas last week on the House floor. It came after a freshly elected member of the House, Republican Jean Schmidt of Ohio, delivered a "message" from an unidentified Marine of her acquaintance to Pennsylvania representative John Murtha, a venerable Democrat and himself a former decorated member of the Corps. The message? "Cowards cut and run, Marines never do."

That's what Murtha, the ranking member of the House Defense subcommittee, got for suggesting the time had come to consider a staged withdrawal of American forces from Iraq. A commotion ensued, in the course of which several Democrats shouted out demands for an apology, and Ford, often accused by his adversaries on the left of "crossing over" to the other side of the political aisle, did so quite literally and dramatically.

All reports had Ford shouting and storming over to the Republican side, and The Washington Post would quote Ford as "screaming, 'Say Murtha'sname!'" Various accounts went on to indicate that Ford was led back to his side of the aisle ("gently taken by the arm," as one report had it) by Representative David Obey of Wisconsin.

Only the readers of The Christian Science Monitor got the follow-up account, which detailed how Ford, after leaving the floor, was approached in the House lobby moments later by Republican congressman Patrick McHenry of North Carolina. One might suppose that fisticuffs were imminent. But no -- "both men broke into big smiles and high-fived each other."

As the Monitor goes on to explain, the two congressmen, though in opposing parties and presumably differing on both Iraq and the Murtha matter, had been teammates in a football game two nights before, one matching House members against Capitol police. (The game was a fund-raising affair to benefit the families of two officers who were slain inside the Capitol in 1998 by a gun-wielding invader.)

Debating the withdrawal issue with another Republican colleague, Arizona's J.D. Hayworth, on MSNBC's Hardball this week, Ford, who prides himself on his good relations with GOP members, was once again conciliatory.

"I was amongst a group, the first group of Democrats to pledge my support for the resolution authorizing the use of force," the Memphis congressman pointed out, going on to say, "I'm as committed as you are, J.D., to winning. I voted for this effort in Iraq; I voted for the money; I've been to Iraq several times like you, and you and I are friends."

Even more chivalrous was the praise conferred by Ford on Hayworth for his sponsorship of a resolution (defeated 403-3) calling for "immediate" withdrawal of U.S. forces for Iraq. Though many of his Democratic colleagues accused Hayworth of having distorted Murtha's position in an effort -- successful, as it turned out -- to force the issue, Ford credited him for bringing about "the first time in more than three years that we've had an open, honest and essential debate about Iraq."

Which was the real Harold Ford -- the belligerent combatant of the House floor or the ingratiating colleague on MSNBC? Answer: Both or neither (the choice depending largely on the politics of the beholder). All successful politicians know when to hold up and when to fold up, and, for better and for worse, a sense of theater would seem to be a useful civic attribute, both for the public actor himself and for his audience.

Corrections: Mark White, not Mark "Wright," is the former legislative candidate who will seek the Republican nomination for Ford's 9th District congressional seat. Though former U.S. attorney Veronica Coleman proudly owns up to a Democratic background, she notes correctly that the office of Juvenile Court Judge, which she seeks, is formally nonpartisan, involving no party primaries. GOP activist Bill Wood has expressed interest in the seat now held by Memphis school board member Michael Hooks Jr., not the county commission seat occupied by Michael Hooks Sr.

We all know the familiar dictum attributed to the late Tip O'Neill, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives: "All politics is local."

I've often parroted this line myself, but not until I read Zioncheck for President: A True Story of Idealism and Madness in American Politics (Nation Books), a new work by my old Flyer colleague Phil Campbell, did I realize exactly, and in how many unexpected ways, that statement is true.

Zioncheck, which plays off the apocryphal-seeming but utterly real history of a half-mad onetime Seattle congressman who pushed all the envelopes before killing himself in 1936, is the account of a 2001 city-council campaign managed by Campbell after he got fired from his job at The Stranger, a Seattle alternative weekly where he worked after (voluntarily) leaving the Flyer in the late '90s.

That may not sound like material for a minor masterpiece, and I surely didn't expect one when, after some unconscionable procrastinating, I finally opened it up for a read. But the book -- funny, sad, serious, and illuminating -- works uncannily well on several levels, including one or two that I didn't know existed. All I can say is that now I understand that wicked but (it would seem) vulnerable gleam that played in Campbell's eyes during the few years that he occupied a cubicle next to mine at the Flyer. He sees things.

Add that to some world-class doggedness and -- in every sense of the adjective -- offbeat creativity. For example, having discovered some years ago that there was a town in Alabama called Phil Campbell, the Ohio-born writer rounded up a score of similarly named people throughout the United States and declared an annual "Phil Campbell Festival" there. For all I know, it still goes on.

Campbell understands that life is a kaleidoscope, that all the trivia of our private lives somehow connects, metaphorically and actually, to the macro-universe, and that, in a profoundly democratic sense, every part of it is equal to every other part. As our interest is being whetted concerning the issues of that faraway city-council election -- which focused on the candidates' different ideas for an urban transit system -- we are also seduced into caring about Campbell's simultaneous power struggles in the group house he lives in. Even when 9/11 occurs in mid-campaign, we see that catastrophic event -- and the principals' long-distance reaction to it -- as a part of the general cacophony. The symphony, rather.

"Grant, the Twin Towers are gone," Campbell tells his candidate, who responds: "We'll go watch the news in a minute. But right now we need to pick up some materials from a few volunteers."

In other words, everything is life-or-death all the time -- for Campbell, for his candidate, for the apparently disturbed housemate who tinkers ominously with a Glock pistol, and for the prominent Seattle personages, living and dead, whose destinies keep cropping up. Most notable of all is the case of the late crazed congressman Marion Zioncheck himself, whose compelling personal history is interspersed throughout the narrative in the manner of those historical anecdotes Hemingway used as chapter-dividers in his short-story volumes.

The book will give you goose bumps. It's a page-turner. And, oh, for those who knew Campbell and those who didn't, there are some intriguing Memphis memories here.

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