RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Masters of Distraction

My dearly beloved says McCain should have cut to the chase and picked Tina Fey as a running mate. It’s the Republican strategy, after all, to appoint good-looking but raucously unqualified people to significant jobs. It certainly seems as if they’d like to ruin the government, all right. All the crises—from the mortgage meltdown to the lack of progress in the energy sector to the fact that Blackwater is fighting on our behalf in Iraq with mercenaries that make ten times the pay of the average grunt—can be traced to intentional incompetency. Delusional, even. Helluva job, Brownie.

But Fey’s a comedian. McCain wanted a “maverick.”

Being a word collector, I had to look it up: Maverick.

So I got out the O.E.D., found the magnifying glass to read the tiny print, and, somewhere between maux (a prostitute) and mavite (evil intent), it said: “From Samuel Maverick, a Texan rancher about 1840 who habitually neglected to brand his cattle.”

Now we remember the story. All the cattle ran together on unfenced lands, in common herds, and this guy, Maverick, claimed his own, or yours, or the neighbor’s, anyone’s unbranded stray calves. Pretty soon he had a humongous herd, and since everyone else was following the law and branding theirs, it was clear that his dishonesty paid off.

Eventually, the word took on other meanings. “A masterless person,” or “anything obtained dishonestly,” or “taking possession without any legal claim.”

So, Maverick McCain takes the hawks while Palin ropes in the women. Genius.

And heartbreaking. Over the summer, Hillary brought together a core of female leaders who thought they were working for more rights for women. Equal pay for equal work, affordable health care, family leave, cracks in the glass ceiling, the choice to end an unwanted pregnancy—those were some of the issues, but Hillary didn’t make the issues clear. Some of her followers only saw the pant suit.

And now, the same women see lipstick.

And, in contrast to the doughy and predictable Bill Clinton, Palin sports “the dude,” a blue-collar athlete with a passion for snowmobiles, the Nascar of the North. “The Dude” is handsome and somewhat mysterious, and they say he works at least two jobs, just like us. And in his spare time, he’s helpful. He sits in on her meetings in the Alaska statehouse. And on the campaign trail, while she waves and bows, he holds the baby. He’s the perfect guy at a time when image is everything.

For the radical right, she is rabid about right-to-life, even choosing to birth a Down Syndrome child. I hope that works out for the Palins, but for poor families, it’s a mean choice. Unless there’s lots of money available for care, siblings are neglected. Marriages fall apart under the strain.

Obama was running a flawless campaign against an aging white geezer with hawkish tendencies, and if all voters were smart people with good hearing and long attention spans, Obama would have it locked up. He has organized college campuses and poor neighborhoods, but those folks are hard to get to the polls. The last two elections, I devoted many hours to hunting down newly registered voters to drive them to vote. Some had moved, some were afraid, some were exhausted after hard days at work, some just didn’t want to go out.

I couldn’t blame them. Missouri polling places are in churches, courthouses, schools. Places built purposely large to intimidate and make the average human look small. Put voting booths in quick shops and you’ll have better turnout. If you’re going to work in this election, put your energy into getting proven voters to the polls or bringing absentee ballots to your reliable neighbors.

The Palin choice moved attention away from geezer McCain to the Veep. This deflection has worked for Rs before. Democrat candidate Michael Dukakis spent a lot of time making fun of Republican Veep candidate Dan Quayle, but the Bush/Quayle ticket won in 40 states. Democrat candidate Adlai Stevenson bashed Ike’s running mate, Richard Nixon, and Eisenhower/Nixon won in 39 of 48 states.

So Obama can’t be distracted into arguments with Palin, nor can he move to the center. His base is populist and progressive and we’re tired of helping guys get the nomination, then moving away from us.

Obama needs to stick to his core messages: The Bush presidency is a failure. The economy’s a mess. Poor and middle-class families are hurting. Staying in Iraq is intolerable. Hungry kids must be fed and educated. College is too expensive. Finding new sources of renewable energy like wind and solar can create jobs and rebuild our economy.

The 2008 presidential will be a landmark election, and the lessons of strategy will be forgotten as soon as it’s over. The comedy and the cartoons will go to the archives, but we’ll be left with … what?

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2008

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