Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Do-Over Theory

Published: September 6, 2007

It has probably come to your attention that Senator Larry Craig is not sure he wants to resign after all.

“It’s not such a foregone conclusion anymore,” said his spokesman.

Craig has assembled a crisis-management team, including public relations people and the Michael-Vick-dogfighting lawyer. They will attempt to undo the guilty plea he made after the incident in the Minneapolis airport men’s room and the resignation he announced last week. Meanwhile, Craig’s adopted kids are making the rounds, telling TV interviewers that they are sure he is not gay.

“He’s a fighter,” said a former staffer admiringly.

This is not about entrapment or (heaven forbid) gay rights, or second chances. Craig is looking for a total do-over, one of those magic moments frequently seen on a cable television series, in which some unfortunate incident is erased from the memory of the entire world, and everything goes on exactly as it was before. The United States Senate as a “Charmed” rerun.

Except for the lieutenant governor of Idaho, who’s waiting to grab hold of that Senate seat, it doesn’t really matter whether Larry Craig manages to convince the crowd he hangs out with that he is a not-gay victim of overzealous police work and failure to consult an attorney at the critical moment. What’s more troubling is the way the definition of a “fighter” can change from somebody who battles for the truth to somebody who fights for his right to impose his vision of the way things ought to be in place of reality.

Like George W. Bush, who, according to Robert Draper’s new book “Dead Certain,” was still privately insisting that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction in 2006. (That was the last time anyone checked. For all we know, the president is still in his oil-patch mode, waiting for some lost caravan of weapons inspectors to strike a gusher.)

Bush seems to believe that it’s his duty as president to imagine that things are going well even if they aren’t. “I fully understand that the enemy watches me; the Iraqis are watching me; the troops are watching me ...” he began, explaining that all these folks will know if he is faking it. “You have to believe it. And I believe it. I believe we’ll succeed,” he said.

And, of course, everybody else is responsible for helping the president keep his mind in the proper position for serious believing. This has caused some of the people around Bush to pummel their own brains into order so firmly that, according to Draper, at a White House gathering in early 2006, one presidential aide expressed mystification at how the public could be so cranky when everything was going so well. “Do you think the polls are just wrong?” he asked.

Our absolute first priority for the next election has to be making sure that both parties nominate presidential candidates who are in touch with reality. Does this seem too much to ask, people? I didn’t think so. But you look out there and sometimes you worry.

Consider Mitt Romney. Back in the mid-’90s, when Romney ran against Ted Kennedy for the U.S. Senate, he was the most avid defender of abortion rights you ever saw. In fact, he had a “dear, close family relative that was very close to me who passed away from an illegal abortion.” Nobody in his family would ever get over that tragedy, he said, and even though he personally did not believe in abortion, he would never, ever try to impose that on anybody else. When Kennedy joked in a TV debate that Romney was not pro-choice but “multiple choice,” Romney looked straight into the camera and promised the voters of Massachusetts: “You will not see me wavering on that or be a multiple choice.”

Nothing changed until he was safely in the governor’s office in 2003, and began to veto every single expansion of abortion rights that hit his desk. Then he announced that he had experienced a change of heart while studying the issue of embryonic cloning, and no longer believed that abortion was a matter best left to the individual’s conscience. “I changed my mind. I took the same course that Ronald Reagan took, and I said I was wrong and changed my mind and said I’m pro-life,” he explained in one of the Republican presidential debates.

The best we can hope for is that in the quiet of his motel room after a night of campaigning, Mitt Romney brushes his teeth, says his prayers and sadly tells himself that you have to be one whopping hypocrite to get to be governor of Massachusetts and a Republican presidential nominee in the same lifetime. If not, if he thinks he has achieved a complete mid-career all-expenses-paid moral do-over, then we are in really big trouble.

Watch out for candidates who believe you can change the unchangeable if you just:

a) Think positive

b) Hire a better lawyer

c) Check into rehab

d) Quote Ronald Reagan

e) Click your heels three times and repeat after me: “General Petraeus, General Petraeus ...”


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