Small world: Act 2, American theater

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Our text for today is from the book of Scott Fitzgerald: “There are no second acts in American lives.” Seems to me there is a typo; the negative should be omitted. Thanks to our PR industry and to our lack of exploratory curiosity, “second acts” abound in America.

You could start with the moviemakers, who churn out films with II or 2 or 3 or 4 as the final phrase in the title. Or you could go to authors who reel out sequel after sequel. (Full disclosure: I grew up on a steady diet of the Hardy Boys books.)

But let’s get to the point: we are talking about national politics. How is it that we are facing a race in 2016 featuring a third Bush (Jeb) and a second Clinton (Hillary) — (A third in the wings)? And, look, even Monica is making her curtsies after a second act appearance.

We can imagine the two B and C dynasties will easily move forward after the customary duels featuring such born again and again and again personalities as Newt Gingrich and his tribe of followers – Santorum, Huckabee, etc. Americans, it seems, don’t bore easily with the same old faces.

Why is this? In part, it’s because our media sleuths can’t dig up respectable (and exciting, newsworthy) competitive fresh candidates. A country of 300-plus million can cough up only one or two candidates? And when someone does find an Elizabeth Warren, a combative female liberal, every other scribe goes baying after her until someone discovers she has no foreign affairs experience — to say nothing of “name recognition” outside New England or the East Coast.

I have a friend who unfailingly quotes Pogo when we come to a point like this:  “we have met the enemy and they are us.” “Name recognition” becomes a problem because we don’t take the trouble to look up from the TV ads or the big headlines. In a country crammed with Nobel Prize winners, college presidents and professors, successful business people, honest members of Congress and governors, why can’t some of those new faces get space on the national stage and a fair hearing?

We proclaim the virtues of democracy and do our best to limit the vote in state after Republican-controlled state. Even where the poll booth doors easily swing open, voter participation usually ranks much below that of much less developed countries, e.g. India or Afghanistan. Take the District of Columbia with a majority of African-Americans — people who not too long ago were denied the right to vote. They had a primary; very few voters showed up. The consequence was that an inexperienced young woman won over an allegedly shady mayor. Surely, in a properly functioning democracy, there might have been competent, appealing and worthy rival candidates who might have gained more support. Surely!

Why doesn’t it happen? Money is a big, big part of the problem. A candidate has to raise a heap of funds, which means creating favors that can later distort good policy. Another part is the ill treatment inflicted on candidates in campaigns — irrelevant, misleading or even dirty slanders that must be suffered in silence. So, decent and superbly qualified people leave the vacant offices to be filled by less sensitive, often less meritorious, others.

Which brings us again to the second act stars — it would seem — of 2016, Jeb and Hillary. You might ask why would a candidate so close to earlier ones of the same name, who brought such disastrous consequences to us — Iraq war, financial collapse, personal scandal — why would they be found appealing to the American electorate? Could it be because we’re too lazy to walk out after the disastrous first act and try another theater?

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.


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