“Some of the evil of my tale may have been inherent in our circumstances.” So wrote T.E. Lawrence at the beginning of his history, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The line stands (with apologies to Ishmael) as one of the best opening sentences in all of English literature. It could also suffice as the mantra of the modern-day Democratic Party.
The Democrats have spent nearly a generation now wondering how they could have done so much good in the world, only to be treated so badly. How could the party that authored the New Deal and the Great Society, that championed civil rights for women and minorities and rescued the environment, that created, to so large a degree, the America that Americans are proud of, be so exiled from power?
Circumstance, that’s how.
Bad timing, bad luck, bad karma, a whole host of disconsolate “what ifs” and “if onlys.” If only the South hadn’t kissed the Dems goodbye when LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act. If only Oswald had missed. If only James Earl Ray and Sirhan Sirhan had missed. If only JFK had lived to get us out of Vietnam. If only the Soviet Union had collapsed when a Democrat could take the credit, and the Twin Towers be targeted when a Democrat could defend them. If only Paul Wellstone hadn’t flown into nasty weather. Little wonder the party feels snakebit.
And now, we can add to the list of “if onlys”: Ohio. Ever since it put George W. Bush over the top in 2004, Ohio has ranked high on many Democrats’ grievance list. Too many strange and ugly things happened during the voting there to be explained away as mere coincidence, they argue, but the state has come to represent something more than voting irregularities, and more than mere scandal, if scandal there was. It represents the latest outbreak of dark forces that always seem to conspire against Democratic fortune.
Late this summer, Ohio came to represent something else. A little fledgling of hope was hatched out of the flames. Its name was Hackett: Paul Hackett. Importantly: Major Paul Hackett, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Cincinnati lawyer and family man, who came home from seven months in Iraq to run, without much evident forethought or preparation, in a special election for Congress, and who, by God, almost made it, even though his opponent was a dyed-in-crimson conservative in one of the most conservative districts in the nation. Democrats are understandably thrilled; the heartening news comes just in time. This month, as the political calendar teeters at the halfway point between ’04 and the midterm elections of ’06, Paul Hackett has transformed Ohio, the home of the hex, into a garden of national deliverance.
In all of this, the Democrats sense a shift in the jet stream, fueled perhaps by disillusionment with the war in Iraq. Could circumstance be coming around to their side? They would like to clone their candidate to meet the changed climate. They should be careful what they wish for. Hackett’s success—like Hackett himself—can be interpreted in different ways. The mainstream media and the party solons seem enthralled at the macho of the man: A Marine! Who fought! Who takes guff from no one and calls Bush and Cheney for the chicken hawks they are! Hackett’s character answers a big “if only”—if only the party had a backbone. Or, to be more accurate, a modicum of political testosterone.
For that’s really what it’s about. Among the pernicious circumstances that have had the Democrats stymied is the way the Republicans managed to capture for their exclusive use the mantle of masculinity. The Dems, at one time the party of roughhouse labor but more recently the party whose every hunk goes windsurfing, would like their manhood back, and they’ve been sponsoring NASCAR and blasting away with shotguns and “reporting for duty” and voting for war resolutions at a breakneck pace, trying to get it. Comes a candidate who can sling the F word and Martha’s Vineyard swoons. Quel common man! It’s hard to say which has fallen further—the requirements of masculinity or the state of political eloquence.
But is that really what we want? Isn’t misbegotten, compensatory, cock-o’-the-walk masculinity what got us into a lot of our mess in the first place? Anyway, Democrats shouldn’t attempt replicating the Republican manliness formula until they figure out what weird prestidigitation the trick involves. Democrats miss the point when they promote their standard-bearer as a real war hero and athlete. One of the qualities that makes Bush so comforting may be his very haplessness, the fact that he’s as much a screwup as the average bloke, in this insecure age, imagines himself to be. It’s populism for the post-Popular Mechanics era: the purposeful elevation of the bumbler as a reproach to “elite” competence.
Fortunately, for Hackett and for us, he seems to be more than his national fans
suspect. David Goodman, who wrote this month’s cover story, and Jonathan Stein, the Mother Jones researcher who fact-checked Goodman’s piece, were both stunned at their encounters with Hackett, and impressed with the testimony of other Ohioans. The man they expected to be a nail-spitting hard-ass turned out to be a contemplative, questioning, open-minded searcher eager to discuss complexities, and able to do so articulately. It turns out that, while the national Democrats saw a deliverer from wimpiness, and would like to clone a hundred more, Ohioans saw in Hackett a quality that by definition can’t be cloned. His cussing and combativeness, like his unorthodox collection of campaign positions, were signs, to them, of unscriptedness and authenticity. It wasn’t just his manhood they responded to; it was his evident humanity, unconstrained by the shrink-wrap of political packaging.
As Paul Hackett takes the next step and announces a run for U.S. Senate, Democrats should exult in his success. They should also be careful not to misread it, lest circumstance conspire against them, yet again.