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Saltpeter Politics




Saltpeter Politics

Impotence Reigns in New Hampshire

by Matt Taibbi

“And so the reader may judge for himself what the major’s position was when he saw, instead of a nice-looking, well-proportioned nose, an extremely absurd flat space.”

Nikolai Gogol, The Nose

Nikolai Gogol’s great nightmare stories would never sell in today’s America. To appreciate a story like The Nose—about a petty philistine-bureaucrat who wakes up one morning to find his nose missing, forcing him to go chasing it around St. Petersburg—the audience probably has to have at least a theoretical fear of castration.

We don’t have that here in America. Having no penis is part of what being an American is all about. The population readily accepts this as a fact of its own experience, and in fact even expects it of its leaders. Just look at New Hampshire.

There is probably no more reliable predictor of electoral success in this country than the absence in the press of “prodding edge” imagery surrounding the candidate. Show me any candidate who is routinely described in the New York Times as being “pointed,” “bristly,” “thistly,” “blunt,” “blistering” or “sharp,” and I’ll show you a loser. “Testy” (derived from an old French word meaning “head”) and “upstart” are also evolutionary relatives of these terms.

Then there’s “prickly.” “Prickly” is the kiss of death for any major politician in this country. Jerry Brown, in his presidential run, was prickly. Viagara spokesman Bob Dole, ironically enough, was prickly. Then, of course, there’s the great Kaiser Prickhelm, Howard Dean, who in recent weeks was blasted into space dust because of his unapologetic prickliness.

“Prickly” is fatal. I have yet to find a politician who survived it. John McCain, probably the highest-ranking “prickly” person in the American political establishment, is still a senator, but his prospects for the White House grow smaller all the time.

Dean’s battle with “prickly” was so drawn-out and painful that it ultimately took on the character of a Stalinist show trial, in which he was dragged out before the national jury and forced to publicly confess his prickliness. This sordid drama reached its climax in a Jan. 3 New York Times piece by Rick Lyman entitled, “As the Race Turns Hot, What About Dean’s Collar?”

Lyman’s piece was bursting with dangerous-penis imagery. Such words as “bulging” and “jabbing” appeared alongside thinly veiled double-entendres as, “The salient aspects of the Dean temper mentioned by those who have witnessed it are that it flashes quickly and then disappears” and “It always blew over pretty fast.”

The piece built to a dramatic flourish:

“At one point, Dr. Dean used ‘prickly’ to describe his temperament for a reporter, then seemed to regret the choice when the word was repeated to him.

‘I can be prickly with the press corps,’ he said. ‘I’m not usually prickly with other people at all.’”

What is amazing about this passage is that Lyman here is implying that “prickly” is a word Dean chose all by himself. What Lyman failed to mention is that Lyman himself had described Dean as “prickly” in no less a place than a front page headline of the Sunday New York Times less than two weeks before, in the Dec. 28 article, “From Patrician Roots, Dean Set Path of Prickly Independence.”

In any case, Lyman got his confession, which allowed him to slip in yet another hilarious double-entendre, one incidentally used quite frequently on these campaigns. He quoted a Gephardt press release as saying that Dean’s gaffes had “underscored the fact that he is not equipped to challenge George Bush.”

Newspaper readers should be aware that mainstream political journalists tend to write using matched pairs of adjectives. For every “fiery” politician, one will be “calm”; for every “shrill,” there is a “self-assured”; for every “glib” a “folksy”; and so on. “Prickly” and “pointed” are wedded to two very specific antonyms, and it is these two that are surging to success in the Democratic race: smooth and nuanced. In any important race, the candidate with the pointy edges will be juxtaposed against the more desirable offering, whose personality is described as having pleasing flatness; instead of thorns, he has mere depressions in an otherwise glassy exterior. Nuances.

John Kerry and John Edwards have been battling for the “nuance” tag throughout this campaign, and it appears Kerry has the high ground now. (Kerry had a hell of a time getting there, though; for months last fall, he suffered through articles that asked questions like “Nuanced—or Squishy?”). Take this passage from the AP’s Calvin Woodward, about the Iowa results:

“But in the first votes that matter in the 2004 presidential election, Iowans opted for the experience, steady demeanor and nuanced positions of Kerry, 60, and staggered Dean’s upstart campaign.”

Two days before the New Hampshire primary, the Times also chimed in: “Mr. Kerry has often struck more nuanced, politically cautious positions.”

Dean’s failure to understand the strength of “nuance” has cost him this campaign. Early on in the race, in fact, while sitting atop a nearly 20-point lead in New Hampshire, he had the nerve to dismiss Kerry as being “too nuanced.” That was back when he probably still thought that the candidates and their supporters actually decided their own fate in America. He failed to understand the aerodynamics of politics in our current media climate. The candidate must have nothing on his person that creates drag, or he will not fly.

The candidate, in short, has to be prickless. This has nothing to do with whether or not he has an actual, functioning biological penis. Nothing about Howard Dean suggests that he’s packing a whale under there. It’s more about a compact the candidate must enter into with the political and media establishments. He must show that he can keep it in his pants. He must show that he understands that in the public sphere, there is only one big, swinging dick out there—the media itself. If he refuses to accept this, he inevitably suffers the same fate Howard Dean did: They will cut his balls off, stuff them in his mouth and send him staggering down Main Street for the amusement of the public.

Roundedness is an important concept to understand when one tries to address the nature of censorship in this country. Only in very rare cases is something actually prevented from appearing on tv or in the newspapers. The more important censorship is indirect and centered almost entirely around subtle differences in tone. You can get all kinds of things on television, but on balance, pretty much all content has to be rounded enough at the edges, unthreatening enough to the corporations ruling the airwaves, to serve competently in its only important role: a medium to sell advertising. Since the only real action that takes place on television is the sales pitch, it stands to reason that no other action of competing realness will ever be allowed on air.

That’s what this election is all about. The political establishment does not want any sexual competitors out there. The major party candidates exist as vehicles for furthering the status quo—just as programming exists to sell ads. I’m not sure what Dean’s crime was, since politically he was not all that different from the other candidates. It might have been that he opposed the war. It might have been that he subverted the party structure through his treasonous attempts to raise a war chest by appealing directly to the electorate. Whatever the specific offense was, the general offense was clear: He unzipped his little Vermont fly and wouldn’t zip it back up again.

Now he’s toast and we will have Senator Flat Space as a candidate. Stands for nothing, says nothing, does what he’s told. In other words, he’s “equipped” to challenge George Bush.

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