Christopher Hitchens

Washington Notebook

Call me blasé if you will, but of all the clapped-out forms of instant publishing, I had concluded that the ‘campaign book’ was the most dire.

Washington Notebook
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Call me blasé if you will, but of all the clapped-out forms of instant publishing, I had concluded that the ‘campaign book’ was the most dire.

Call me blasé if you will, but of all the clapped-out forms of instant publishing, I had concluded that the ‘campaign book’ was the most dire. I also generally think that any use of sporting metaphors to describe politics is an infallible sign of an exhausted hack. But Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin is so invigoratingly revealing — in the best and nastiest sense of that word — that it gripped me and held me tight.

Senator John McCain shouts the f-word nine times into his wife’s face in front of the staff, while raising both middle fingers. Senator John Edwards bribes another man to say that he is the father of the Senator’s ‘love child’, while Mrs Edwards shriekingly bares her breast cancer scars in an airport parking lot, crying, ‘Look at me!’ Sarah Palin’s staffers conclude that she is a hopeless nut-job who is at war with the father of her daughter’s out-of-wedlock child. The Clintons, barely on speaking terms, peddle cheap racist smears and yell at the help. Amid all this collapsing scenery of operatic dysfunction, the only family that sets any kind of standard is the one headed by a dignified father with Kenyan ancestry.

The question of where babies come from also remains surprisingly unsettled. The paternity of the off-the-record Edwards bundle — its existence in utero still a secret while the real father was bargaining with Obama for the job of Attorney General — was only fully admitted last month. An astonishing number of well-informed people tell me that Sarah Palin is not in fact the mother of baby Trig, but that she is ‘covering up’ for another family member whose child he really is. Ms Palin meanwhile incautiously lends her odd cred to the fringe-right demand that the President produce documents showing that his birth on American soil was not faked. Meanwhile — credit to Andrew Sullivan for bulldogging away on this — she will not release any of her own obstetrical records. In this trailer-park swirl, it isn’t surprising that the supermarket tabloid National Enquirer has once again established itself as the journal of record, making the respectable press look stupid.

I decided about 20 years ago, when the question last came up in a big way, that Americans for the most part do not want national healthcare. They say they do when asked by pollsters, but they don’t. Even if they want it for themselves, they don’t want it for others. Two factors may be involved here. The first is that Americans like to think it’s risky to be them. You can see this in the way that New Yorkers, Chicagoans and others talk lovingly of how ‘tough’ their ‘town’ supposedly is; the implication being that it takes guts to be a citizen. This probably bears some relation to the way that no national gun-control law ever actually passes. The second factor is akin to the hypocrisy of ‘temperance’ voters, who make their own county ‘dry’ and avoid the local pools of puke and after-hours fighting, while driving a few miles to get paralytic in the next town. The so-called rebel voters of Massachusetts already have healthcare, thanks to a Republican governor (of Mormon family values) named Mitt Romney, so they were safe in voting it down as a national proposition. Certainly the best insurgent placard of the year was the one that demanded that the government keep its big hands off Medicare. Thus the baffled look on the faces of so many liberals, who wonder yet again why people don’t understand that they are only trying to help.

President Obama occasionally wore that exact look when he went, without a tele-prompter, to face the Republican party’s annual retreat in Baltimore. He always goes on for a paragraph too long, and he doesn’t have the gift of saying anything memorable, but he does talk in sentences and in humorous, well-modulated tones. Of few if any of his questioners could the same be said. A presidential ‘question time’ with the opposition was actually in Senator McCain’s election platform (yet see the spousal expletives above) and has been hovering over Washington discourse ever since Lincoln flatly refused the idea during the Civil War. Cable TV coverage of the British and Canadian parliaments created such a write-in for a question time that a bill in its favour was actually tabled by a Democrat from Connecticut a few years back. It will never happen, because the presidential handlers won’t permit it, but it will always be yearned for. Anyway, to his model family you can add the fact that the black guy speaks much better English than his rivals and opponents.

My friend Roger Lathbury, a literary publisher working across the river in Virginia, wrote to J.D. Salinger in 1988 asking if he could reprint his last published story, ‘Hapworth 16, 1924’, in book form. Eight years later Salinger wrote back to agree. He even proposed coming down to Washington, where the two had a meager snack at the National Gallery of Art. Over lunch he asked Roger if he, too, was fond of the Christian Science classics of Mary Baker Eddy. Two things arise from this trashy recommendation. It undermines the frequent comparison of Salinger to Twain, who wrote a hilarious demolition of Mrs Eddy. And it rather suggests that we won’t find much of value in any undiscovered manuscript.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair.