Dover Bitch

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Cross-posted at Jesus' General

One of the most interesting things about a great poem is the fact that a reader's understanding of it depends largely on his or her own self-awareness, combined with an understanding of the world in general.

It is largely through experience, for example, that one begins to understand that Dylan Thomas' Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night is not a pep talk or fight song. It takes real loss in real life to read that poem and, rather than feeling inspired to rage, instead hear the defeat in Thomas' voice as he begs fruitlessly for his father to live another day.

A reader might be similarly inspired by Tennyson's Ulysses. After all, it is the screed of a triumphant hero, conjuring up the courage to continue shaping the world despite the fact that his time has nearly passed.

However a closer reading tells us something much different. We might just wonder to whom Ulysses is speaking? Himself? Some poor servant who brings him his soup and has to hear this rant every evening?

Ulysses hates his home, is no longer interested in his wife and holds the people he rules in disdain:

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

If he is not surrounded by people who love him, then he must be alone. Those are "both" scenarios in his mind:

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;

He recounts his adventures and makes sure to point out that he, himself, was the most important ingredient in every chapter:

For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour'd of them all;

In the second part of the poem, he talks about his son, yet another important person in his life for whom he feels astonishingly little:

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,--
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro' soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

Well-loved of me? Blameless? He works his work, I mine?

In short, here is a man with little connection to the present. He's something of an ego-maniac who feels trapped in an old body and wants nothing more than to relive his glory days fighting the last war. He has little interest in actually governing, which he essentially equates with a delicate act of taming animals. Ulysses knows his days are numbered, but he refuses to let go. He sees in the ships one last opportunity to go out with divine glory:

Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

He rallies the troops he no longer commands:

Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.

And he understands that there's a pretty good chance that, this time, he'll command a sinking ship, but he doesn't care.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Though he's completely self-absorbed and living in former glory, Ulysses does know how to lead. What fantastic language at the end! The kind of language speechwriters mimic and borrow all the time.

Which brings me to the point of this post. At the Wellstone's Donkey Democratic Club in Second Life tonight, the General will be playing Ted Kennedy's speech at the 1980 Democratic Convention. Anyone who was listening then will remember that speech. It was one of the greatest in political history.

Kennedy understood that his campaign was over, but even more, that his presidential ambitions were over. It was in this context that Kennedy chose to end his speech with Tennyson's words:

And may it be said of us, both in dark passages and in bright days, in the words of Tennyson that my brothers quoted and loved, and that have special meaning for me now:

"I am a part of all that I have met
To [Tho] much is taken, much abides
That which we are, we are --
One equal temper of heroic hearts
Strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end.

For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.

Kennedy was to continue fighting, though the time for his greatest personal ambitions to be realized had passed. His campaign was finished, but there was time, yet, for "the cause," for "hope," for "the dream" to live on.

In recent days, we have heard Tennyson borrowed once more: John McCain's first general election ad.

Keep that faith. Keep your courage. Stick together. Stay strong. Do not yield. Stand up. We're Americans. And we'll never surrender.

This is how McCain begins his first commercial. Think about that for a moment. Kennedy recognized in these words the value in persisting even at the end of a campaign. McCain is launching his general election campaign with the furious call to action of a man whose time has passed.

This is a candidate who is as quick to drop names ("foot soldier in Reagan's army") as Ulysses ("see the great Achilles, whom we knew"), despite the fact that neither should need to reaffirm to anyone their worth through past relationships.

This is a candidate who sees a "transcendental battle of our time" in the same inflated way Ulysses seeks to strive with Gods.

This is an man would be the oldest president, still fighting the battles of the last generation and refusing to "surrender."

This is a candidate relatively uninterested ("The issue of economics is not something I've understood as well as I should") in "the sphere of common duties" and focused primarily on the terrific and glorious battles across the sea.

This is a man who left his first wife upon returning from battle and is now "matched with an aged wife" who learned, the hard way, not to mention his thinning hair ("At least I don't plaster on the makeup like a trollop, you c**t.")

This is a presidential hopeful who doesn't care if the "gulfs will wash us down." He's ready to double-down on the war in the Gulf, despite the last six years' carnage.

McCain truly is Ulysses.

This election (I assume Obama will be the nominee) will be a stark contrast between the past and the future. No speech in recent memory invokes the theme of change and progress more than JFK's inaugural.

Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans -- born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Just last week (as Hillary Clinton was associating herself with a dark episode in the Kennedy family history), Obama was speaking to Cuban-Americans and reminded us that it is time, once again, for a new chapter in America:

[I]t is time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions. There must be careful preparation.

You can learn a great deal about a candidate by looking at the language he or she uses or borrows. You can learn quite a bit about who they think they are and who they want to be by surmising what they think the words they use really mean. I think it's clear why Ted Kennedy wants Obama to be the next president.

I also think it's clear why McCain would be a disaster.

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Poor marketing

You may have noticed that this blog has been pretty dead lately. DB has had a lot going on in life, which has made it easy to ignore my own blog. But really, this primary has been just too damned ugly.

The number of blogs I read has diminished considerably over the past several months. I just haven't had the energy to duke it out over stupid things. It's really been painful to witness.

My candidate was Chris Dodd. After he dropped out, I considered John Edwards. But he dropped out before I even made up my mind about that commitment. That left me with Obama or Clinton. I would have been happy to see either in the White House, quite frankly, but over time I realized that Hillary Clinton -- a remarkable woman -- was a terrible candidate with a horrible campaign.

Again, she's a remarkable woman. But let's look at her campaign objectively.

I don't think anything encapsulates the problem of her candidacy more that the recent flap with her RFK assassination comments. It was awful and for so many reasons.

1) Any time you are in the final rounds of a tough campaign contest and your biggest supporters all go on TV to explain that you really don't want to see your opponent murdered, that's a colossal screw-up you made. When the talking heads have to "give you the benefit of the doubt" on something so macabre, you've screwed up. Will the media blow it out of proportion? Yes, that's what they do. Will your opponent make hay out of it? Yes, that's how it works. (Remember "bitter" and "would not have been my pastor?")

2) The fact that Nixon won in 1968 would seem to undermine the entire argument that she was making. The 1992 argument appears to be specious, at best.

3) Not understanding that it is irresponsible to bring up assassinations, particularly during this election, is something of a disqualifier in the judgment category.

4) The insensitivity to the Kennedys during a particularly difficult week for the family appears (to the public at least) quite tactless and uncaring.

5) The "apology" compounded the problem by failing to address the implications that were so obvious. Worse, the tired "I regret if anyone was offended" is exactly what the Obama campaign would have hoped Clinton would say. It reinforced the Obama message that the Clintons represent the same typical Washington thinking that needs to be put to rest.

But beyond those particular reasons this was a terrible gaffe, the real problem with her candidacy was exemplified by what this episode says about her message in general. Let's look at this from a marketing standpoint, since she's really been selling herself to the public.

In the locker room, before the big game, maybe the coach will say "They don't think you can win it" to psych up his team. Maybe on the podium, holding the trophy, the winners will say "They didn't think we could do it!"

But nobody sells something by reiterating that the product is undesirable. Why in the world would a campaign get on television over and over for weeks and argue that there is a growing chorus of people who don't want them around anymore? How is that an effective message for the public? Even if it were true (and as Chris Matthews -- the stopped clock who's right twice a month -- said to Terry McAuliffe, "You're arguing with nobody!"), why would you try to sell yourself with that message?

Hillary, herself, brought up the idea that people want her gone before refuting it with those bad examples. Why? What can you gain by emphasizing that there are people who don't like you?

Her message has been that Obama (presumably not assassinated) will be unable to get the support he needs to win. You will never see an ad like this: "PEPSI -- Because the Coke machine might break!" That's not a winning message.

While Obama has been associating himself with the message of change and progress that the Kennedys have embodied, Clinton associated herself with RFK's death. Great branding!

Her message increasingly is about the stolen elections in 2000. When you think of the anguish of 2000, think Hillary! Brilliant!

The glass ceiling is difficult to shatter, yes. Absolutely. But you celebrate breaking it after you win. Why make the fact that your victory is unlikely a prominent component of your rhetoric? Yes, it's true. Yes, we are overdue for a women to be president. I agree.

There are also the organizational problems and the Mark-Penn-doesn't-know-it's-not-winner-take-all problem.

The Hillary campaign has argued when they lost states that they were outspent and the defeat should have been worse. Memo to campaign managers: That just tells people that you were either given less money and had less backing or that victory was in reach and you failed to capture it.

I understand that Hillary's supporters are upset and feel robbed. But, seriously, if you could write a manual for selling something, this campaign would have to be included in the What-Not-To-Do chapter.

Once again, I think Hillary is a remarkable woman. But her campaign has been remarkably poor.