Pointing a polite finger at the problem

By Chuck Sigars | Feb 09, 2012

I had an idea once.  Don’t laugh.  It was important to me.

There was a brief period in my life when I imagined a career as a playwright, hard enough under any circumstances but more so, in my case, since I couldn’t actually think of any stories to dramatize. 

The plays I wrote tended to feature people who were a lot like me, around my age and who said things that I said, in the way I normally said them.  Sometimes I’d add a creative touch, like a mysterious cloaked figure who represented Death or maybe Confusion, but they were mostly about me.  Everyone said so.

There was one time, though, when I had this idea. The entire play would take place on a train in 1946.  Two freshmen congressmen, just back from the war, Richard Nixon and John Kennedy, would be heading to some event and have to share a berth.  They would eventually be joined by Orson Welles. 

There would be a mysterious train conductor, possibly representing Fate.  All three men would play a poker game with increasingly high stakes.

I was nowhere to be found in this play.  I considered it a breakthrough.

I never figured out the meaning of the poker game, though, and I never even tried to write it.  It remains an idea that never had enough weight to stand up and walk on its own.  I’ve had a couple of these in my life; maybe you have, too.  I’m pretty sure when I was in college I dreamed up the taquito, for example.

Nixon and Kennedy actually took a train trip together in 1946, by the way.  Just one of the historical anecdotes that stuck in my mind, two future presidents hanging out together when history was yet to be written.

Here’s another one.  In 1960, before one of the famous Kennedy-Nixon debates, the two candidates met backstage and talked for a few minutes. 

Kennedy later told his aides that, even though they were just making small talk about families and schedules, whenever a photographer aimed his camera at the two men, Nixon would scowl and start jabbing his finger in Kennedy’s chest, all the while keeping the conversation casual. 

Kennedy thought Nixon was being a jerk.  I think Nixon was being Nixon.

But I was reminded of this when I saw the pictures a couple of weeks ago from the Arizona airport.  Gov. Jan Brewer and President Obama met on the tarmac and apparently had an animated discussion. 

Gov. Brewer had written a book, and in it she described a meeting with the president in which she described his attitude as  “condescending.”  The president disagreed with this characterization, I guess.  It was a short conversation, at any rate.

And the picture zoomed around the world, the governor of Arizona jabbing her finger at the President of the United States.  There was outrage and glee, depending on one’s politics, although the governor claimed she just tends to talk with her hands and it was an innocent gesture.  For all I know it was.

I do note that the governor’s book, which had been languishing in the cellar rankings on Amazon.com (next to mine), shot up to No. 1 for a while.  It’s dropped a bit but still doing well. 

It’s not that I’m all that interested in the current governor of Arizona and her gestures.  I also doubt that the president gave it much thought later.  And I don’t think it’s a symbol of a current climate of nastiness and disrespect, etc.  There’s been plenty of that for a long time.

It just struck me that in a complex world with serious issues, and with most of us having easy access to facts and data with which to form reality-based opinions about our country and our future, we still seem to be drawn to the flame of political theater, and particularly to meaningless moments.

Rick Perry said “oops” because he momentarily forgot something and lost his chance to be the Republican nominee.  Mitt Romney misspeaks, Joe Biden gets a little earthy, Sarah Palin does whatever Sarah Palin does…aren’t there roads to be fixed somewhere?

Barack Obama, speaking on the campaign trail in 2008, meant to point out that he had campaigned so far in 47 of the continental 48 states and instead said, “57,” spawning a bizarre theory that still exists, that a man who made it through Harvard Law School (not to mention the third grade) doesn’t know how many states there are. 

There are still people who swear by this.  Maybe you.  Sigh. 

Look: I’m a fan of politics, as messy as it is.  Democracy is a hard thing to do, the problems seem daunting, everybody starts to look like a crook – it’s still fun to watch.

But if I’m going to be manipulated by images, stereotypes and sinister-sounding motives, I’d prefer to be in a theater seat with a program in my lap and the exit clearly marked.  That way I know it’ll be over in a couple of hours, and not next November.  And no jabbing.

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