I’m not sure if it’s just me, but Mitch McConnell always looks like he’s been crying. Beyond the puffy damp cheeks, he’s got that befuddled look in his eyes. It’s as if someone suddenly flicked the light-switch on, exposing him sniffling and teary-eyed and struggling to get his bearings. Whenever I see him, I feel like I should look away and give him a few moments to collect himself.
He reminds me that politics is hard. It requires a certain constitution, especially when it doesn’t go your way. Being good at it means, not just knowing how to win, or even how to lose, but how to constantly negotiate the in-between. In fact, that’s what politics is, negotiating the in between. So, when John Boehner, who also looks like he’s been crying–usually because he has been, said “this isn’t some damn game,” he just sounded like a sore loser. In fact, it was nothing but a game when he strategized to force the Administration out of the in-between and off the field completely.
If Boehner doesn’t seem to like the game very much these days, it’s just because he sucks at it. Legislatures are places where people fight to get the most of what they promised while doing the least amount of damage to the relationships and process on which they survive. At any other time in history it would have been too obvious to be worth saying, but politics requires nimbleness, fair play, discipline, institutional respect and delayed gratification.
The problem for the current Republican leadership is these are the very qualities on which the tea-party has declared war. If Boehner and McConnell had seen this less as less of a holy war and more like a game, they wouldn’t be in this position. Now, they can’t seen to put the fire they started.
When I was a kid, the comparison between political leaders and sports figures wasn’t that much of a stretch, even here in the home of John Havlicek, Carl Yastrzemski and the Boston Bruins. Kevin White was mayor and in my memory he’s in perpetual motion, zig-zaging across a Washington St. parade route. White shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbows and sinewy forearms in constant flex, he gripped hands, flashed grins, and moved with supreme confidence.
In New York, John Lindsay was mayor. Looking far more like a basketball star than a politician, Lindsay too embodied all “the right stuff.” Both of them new how to rally their troops when the odds looked impossible and how to pull them back when the game was over. They looked measured and capable. They looked like people you wanted to be like.
I don’t want to romanticize the past, though. Boston and New York were far more dangerous, troubled cities than they are now and neither White nor Lindsay were without fault. In the midst of failing schools, urban flight, racism, police bias and uprising for every sort, they each made their share of miscalculations.
Lindsay was badly wounded by a series of labor crises, including the strike that would shut down the NYC transit system. White faced a school desegregation plan that tore his city in two, pitting allies and neighbors against each other, leaving scars that would last for decades. And, whether or not he did anything wrong, the appearance of impropriety certainly hurt him with his essential liberal base.
They lost sometimes and, although they understood the difference between quitting and knowing when the game’s over, their constituents often did not. Both Kevin White and John Lindsay frequently found themselves under fire from their own side.
I’d record these kinds of events in a scrapbook my mother and kept when I was 10-years old. She had filled it with presidential biographies that ran as series in The Boston Globe. Later, we’d add quotations, trivia or news articles. People sometimes smirk at the thought of just how much of a geek you’d have to be to sit at the kitchen table with your mom carefully transcribing lines from Barry Goldwater into your “Political Stuff Scrapbook”. So, I get it. It’s hard for people of this generation to imagine that there were once politicians as dynamic as sports figures, and even at that, it was still a little geeky. But, public service could attract these kinds of all-stars. Many of them really were the guy you wanted to be like when you grew up.
I recently shared this idea with Michael Dukakis. A spry and optimistic eighty-year old, he shot back, “you gotta remember that there were a some real bastards back then too.” I don’t think I’m missing that point, or even the fact that the bastards won sometimes. But watching Republicans change make the up of D.C. Circuit Court simply because this President shouldn’t have the right to make appointments, making filibustering status quo because this president shouldn’t have the right to govern and shutting down the government because this president shouldn’t have been elected…I’m pretty sure that these bastards are different.