Monday, April 18, 2011

The Candidate Candidate

Recently I have been musing upon the notion that there is a new (in my lifetime, at least) breed of presidential candidate—for want of a better word—stalking the land. We have had in the past the Comic Candidate (e.g., Pat Paulsen), the Goofball Candidate (e.g., Lyndon LaRouche), the Once Relevant Candidate (e.g., Harold Stassen), the Irrelevant Candidate (e.g., Ralph Nader)...but to my knowledge we have not had until recently what I’ve come to think of as the Candidate Candidate.

Harvey Dunn, The Harvest Orator, South Dakota Art Museum.        
Like someone who is “famous for being famous,” the Candidate Candidate is a candidate for no other reason than to be a candidate. He or she may or may not be serious about wanting to be president, but they seem to have little desire to do the actual work necessary to become president.

I suspect that Fred Dalton Thompson may have been the first Candidate Candidate. He seemed to want to be president, all right, but for no reason other than to be president. He stood for nothing, nothing that I could discern, at least. Early on there were some vague Reaganesque pronouncements and comparisons, but they never went anywhere—largely, I imagine, because Thompson had no depth. Perhaps the expectation was that the ghost of Reagan would cast some sort of aura around him that would propel him into the Oval Office. Guess not.

The consummate Candidate Candidate has got to be Sarah Palin, of course. Some might say she belongs in the Once Relevant Candidate category, but I dispute that she ever was relevant. No doubt those who, inexplicably, shoved her onto McCain’s ticket must have felt she had relevancy, but I believe they were sadly mistaken. And I believe history has shown me to be correct in my belief. Harold Stassen, who was, alas, something of a joke when I was a kid—this old guy from Minnesota who sought the Republican nomination every four years even though he had no chance at all of coming anywhere near the ticket—but he had a distinguished and important career in public service, not the least as a district attorney and three-time governor of Minnesota. (Yeah, he resigned midway through his third term, in 1943...but he did so in order to go on active duty with the Naval Reserve, not to have a half-baked TV series and go collect speaking fees.) Stassen was once relevant, and big time; Palin not so much.

But now a new contender emerges: Donald Trump. Why is he running? What does he hope to gain? Is it a publicity stunt? A circus act? Is he serious—and, if so, about what?

The man puts me in mind of a Fred Dalton Thompson with deep pockets. He may well want to be President...but beyond that, well, what is he? He seems only to be a Candidate Candidate—on the hustings for the sake of being on the hustings, apparently with no other agenda in mind. Eventually there will be a book deal, of course. Maybe another television show. But beyond Gertrude Stein once said of her childhood hometown, “There is no there there.” So it is with Trump, to date. There is no him there.

It’s easy, and fun, to look upon Candidate Candidates as harmless buffoons, as a sideshow, to use the term most frequently applied to Trump. But there’s the real danger that one of them could catch fire, could in in fact end up in a position where he or she could do some real and lasting damage. “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people,” said H.L. Mencken, and he was and is right. You get enough people to believe that so-and-so is “one of us” or “tells it like it is” or whatever the sound bite of the day may be, and trouble will follow. In fact, you don’t actually need people so much, thanks to the likes of Fox Noise and the Koch Brothers.

Where’s Harold Stassen now that we need him. Hell, where’s Pat Paulsen?

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