Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Gerry and Sarah, trailblazers

“In politics stupidity is not a handicap.”
-- Napoleon

By Bob Gaydos
The last time I saw Geraldine Ferraro, it was one of those hot, humid, mid-August afternoons when pressing the flesh and asking people to vote for you was not at the top of the list of favorite things to do for most politicians. It was at the Ulster County Fair and I had just reminisced my way through an hour of the current edition of the Drifters singing their collection of timeless hits and was in search of something cold to drink.
I turned a corner and there she was, standing virtually alone, the sun beating down on her, yet looking amazingly cool in her crisp, white, tailored blouse. Why wasn’t anyone talking to her, I wondered. Don’t they know who she is? She ran for vice president of the United States. She could have been -- should have been -- elected senator from New York six years ago.
It was 1998 and I was writing editorials for the Times Herald-Record and so I introduced myself to the Senate candidate. We shook hands, she smiled and politely said, oh yes, nice to see you again, Bob. I noticed she wasn’t quite the cool customer I had thought as she, too, had sweat beads on her forehead. We chatted briefly and I seem to recall an air of calm resignation about her, although how much of that is real and how much the product of history, I can’t be sure. At any rate, she answered my questions graciously and moved on as, eventually, some of the other fair-goers began to recognize her.
For all intents and purposes, Ferraro faded into political obscurity soon after that. She had started the campaign a heavy favorite to win, because of her name recognition, but was drubbed in the Democratic primary by then-Congressman Charles Schumer, a guy who knows how to work a county fair crowd and who had millions more than Ferraro to spend on his campaign. Schumer went on to become the ubiquitous Senator Chuck. Ferraro went on to a battle with cancer that lasted the rest of her life.
Ferraro died Saturday, at age 75, of a form of blood cancer. She was diagnosed with the disease in November 1998, shortly after the Senate campaign, but did not reveal her illness until more than two years later. She more than doubled the survival rate for her cancer, which may have had as much to do with her toughness as with the bone marrow transplant and drug therapies she received. During those years she became an energetic advocate for research and education on blood cancer as well as for opportunities for women in politics and in professional careers. In sum, the Italian-American daughter of Newburgh was well-deserving of the tributes paid to her as a pioneer for women’s equality.
Which brings me to that quote at the top of this column. No, it does not refer to Ferraro. She was feisty. (In 1984, when she was Walter Mondale’s running mate on the Democratic Party presidential ticket, she had this to say in answer to a question about her debate with George H.W. Bush: “I readily admit I was not an expert on foreign policy but I was knowledgeable and I didn't need a man who was the Vice President of the United States and my opponent turning around and putting me down.”) She was intelligent; she was well-informed and well-spoken; she was curious. She was, in sum, a serious political candidate.
But Napoleon, bless his egotistical little heart, was right. None of those attributes is necessary for success in politics.
Consider, as Rod Serling used to say, the curious case of Michelle Bachmann. She has been elected to Congress four times in Minnesota and is regularly mentioned as a possible Republican presidential candidate in 2012. You may have heard that, on a recent fund-raising visit to New Hampshire, Bachmann said, "You're the state where the shot was heard around the world in Lexington and Concord."
Uh huh. She is also famous for saying, “Death panels are the bureaucracies that President Obama is establishing where bureaucrats will make the decision on who gets health care and how much.'' The founder of the Tea Party caucus in the House of Representatives also believes: “Carbon dioxide is natural, it is not harmful, it is a part of Earth’s lifecycle. And yet we’re being told that we have to reduce this natural substance, reduce the American standard of living, to create an arbitrary reduction in something that is naturally occurring in Earth.”
And what the heck, one more from Bachmann: ”I find it interesting that it was back in the 1970s that the swine flu broke out under another, then under another Democrat president, Jimmy Carter. I’m not blaming this on President Obama, I just think it’s an interesting coincidence.”
The last Senate campaign also gave us Christine O’Donnell as a Tea Party Republican candidate in Delaware. O‘Donnell had perhaps the most intriguing campaign theme of all time: "I'm not a witch."
Meanwhile, in Arizona, Sharon Angle ran for the Senate as a Tea Party Republican offering this bit of political strategy: ''I hope that's not where we're going, but you know if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness what can we do to turn this country around? I'll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.'' Sweet.
But of course, the godmother of Tea Party Republicans is Sarah (Half-term) Palin. Palin is to the Republican Party as Ferraro was to the Democrats. Sort of. Palin was the first female to run for vice president on the Republican ticket. She also could be described (in fact, insists on being described) as feisty. There, the similarities end. Entire web sites now exist devoted to the utterings of Palin: A small sampling:
  • ''If God had not intended for us to eat animals, how come He made them out of meat?'' (In her book, ''Going Rogue'')
  • My concern has been the atrocities there in Darfur and the relevance to me with that issue as we spoke about Africa and some of the countries there that were kind of the people succumbing to the dictators and the corruption of some collapsed governments on the continent, the relevance was Alaska’s investment in Darfur with some of our permanent fund dollars. Never, ever did I talk about, well, gee, is it a country or a continent, I just don’t know about this issue.”
  • "Another big question that has to be answered, Greta, is are we at war? I haven't heard the president state that we're at war. That's why I too am not knowing -- do we use the term intervention? Do we use war? Do we use squirmish? What is it?" (On the U.S. and NATO bombing of Libya, March 29.)
  • In New Delhi, India, on March 19, she was asked why the Republicans did not win in 2008. “I was not the top of the ticket,” was her reply.
Having thus thrown John McCain -- the man who made her career possible -- under the bus, Palin showed herself to be as capable of cutthroat politics as any man and, like Ferraro, a trailblazer for women in her own right. I can sense some female readers getting a bit restless about now, so let me offer one more Palinism: "Who hijacked term: 'feminist'? A cackle of rads who want 2 crucify other women w/whom they disagree on a singular issue; it's ironic (& passé)" (In a Twitter message, Aug. 18, 2010).
You may argue that Palin is not in Ferraro’s league as a qualified, well-informed, competent and coherent politician, and you would be right, but you cannot deny that Palin was the first woman to be part of a GOP presidential ticket. You can also not deny that being smart, serious and substantive were not always regarded as necessary in males who ran for the same office (just go back as far as Dan Quayle and Spiro Agnew and I can’t help it if these are all Republicans).
No, Napoleon was on to something. You can be dumb and succeed in politics. Geraldine Ferraro may have blazed the trail, but thanks to Sarah, Michelle, et al, women in America have finally achieved political equality with men. I for one wish they had aimed a bit higher.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Charlie Sheen, unhinged

By Bob Gaydos
The manic meltdown of Charlie Sheen’s life, live on TV this week seemingly every time you turn it on, got me thinking about how we react to other people’s erratic behavior.
There is the “live and let live” theory, which says a person’s got the right to do whatever he wants to with his own life, his own body. It’s none of my business and no one, certainly no network, has the right to tell him otherwise, so long as no one else gets hurt. “Go get ’em, Charlie. Who do those CBS suits think they are, cancelling your show?” Admittedly, this view has been in the minority in the unfolding Sheen saga, but he has his fans.
Then there is the “I am my brother’s keeper” approach to life -- the one in which someone tries to rescue the drowning man, saving him from himself even if he has to be knocked out to do so. Charlie’s dad, Martin, has been smacked down trying to rescue his son too many times in the past to try again and no one else, including his ex-wives seems to really care anymore.
Which leaves us with the prevailing sentiment in America these days: “This is going to be one hell of a train wreck so let’s all jump on board for the ride of a lifetime.” Our celebrity-obsessed, reality-TV society thrives on this. But the ones most guilty of promoting this response to Sheen’s drug-fueled mental breakdown are so-called news shows on NBC, ABC, FOX and CNN. They fell all over themselves and Sheen to put the delusional actor on their networks and treat what he had to say as if they were the coherent thoughts of a person in his right mind.
Here’s an example of the wit and wisdom of Charlie Sheen, in an interview on ABC-TV: “I am on a drug. It's called Charlie Sheen. It's not available because if you try it, you will die. Your face will melt off, and your children will weep over your exploded body." The interviewer from TMZ, a celebrity website and TV show, absolutely fawned over the gaunt Sheen and the British guy on CNN who replaced Larry King was absolutely lost, as he is with most of his interviews.
ABC producers, trying to appear like serious journalists rather than sensationalist exploiters, took pains to tell viewers that Sheen had taken and passed a drug test, which showed he had no drugs in his body during the last 72 hours. But ABC did not say what drugs were tested for, nor account for the fact that alcohol, which Sheen consumes like air, is quick to metabolize. Maybe they believed his three-day home miracle cure from addiction.
(I should also note that CBS, which shut down Sheen’s show “Two-and-a-Half Men,” prompting his parade around the other airwaves to slander their executives with ethnic slurs, had given Sheen more than enough rope to hang himself with drunken, boorish, violent, illegal behavior over the years, but resisted stepping in since his show was a big hit. Their intervention, such as it was, came years too late to qualify in the “brother’s keeper” category.)
In truth, there is no excuse or justification for any of this prime TV coverage. If Sheen has not been drunk or drugged during the interviews, he has been suffering from some other mental disorder. Most likely it’s both, given the grandiose and delusional statements he’s made. For all anybody knows, he could have been in a blackout during any of the interviews.
None of this qualifies as anything but a sad -- and utterly predictable -- tale of addiction, denial, arrogance and, most likely, mental illness. And let’s not forget Sheen’s addiction to hookers and porn stars. The wreckage, which Sheen cannot see he has caused, is there in the pain inflicted on his family and in the future lives of his children, who will know of their father only shame when they can understand all this in the future. It is in the absurd, self-serving statements he makes every day as reporters write them down breathlessly and TV producers rush to get them on the air.
And that, oddly enough, is the silver lining in this tragedy: A nation long in denial about the effects of alcohol and drugs on people who appear to be functioning has been getting a first-hand lesson in addiction, live on TV in living color, well, actually, the grayish skin tones of the once handsome Sheen. This is what professionals who treat addicts deal with every day in the privacy of clinics and outpatient centers: the doggedly blind stubbornness of people who cannot admit that alcohol and drugs have taken over their lives and made them do things they might ordinarily not do. No, it’s not the cocaine and pot. I can handle the booze and pills. It’s all those people -- my wives and those guys in suits who can’t stand that I make all that money for them because I am wonderful and what do you mean I can’t see my kids because I’m an unfit father? Those porn stars are good kids.
The difference with Charlie Sheen is that he got away with it for so long because he was famous and powerful and made lots of money for people and so his bosses and even the courts looked the other way.
Meanwhile, other guys get fired for not showing up for work too many Mondays in a row. In America, some train wrecks are more entertaining than others.