Schwartz: Presidential tricks

Election years make for the best Halloweens. I discovered this in 1996, when I was overcome by the irresistible urge to borrow a jacket and tie from my father and go trick-or-treating wearing an enormous rubber Bill Clinton mask. At the time I barely understood political affiliation. But I knew the ludicrous sight of the president’s smiling face bobbing atop the body of a fourth grader would inspire generosity in even my most tight-fisted neighbors.

(I like to think that when I told the adults who opened their doors that “children would die” if they neglected to add their spare pennies to my UNICEF box, I was channeling Clinton’s spirit, if somewhat simplifying his approach to international aid. But I digress.)

As for my trick-or-treating companion, whom I had convinced to accompany me as Bob Dole: She wound up with a little more than half as much loot as I did, which wasn’t far off from that year’s electoral vote breakdown.

Halloween at Yale may be all about cleverness and debauchery, but I still think of it as the quintessentially American holiday. Teachers go blue in the face explaining the basics of our political system to their young students, but nothing puts theory into practice quite so well as systematically harassing one’s neighbors for candy. Does sitting around the dinner table with your family on Thanksgiving do anything to demonstrate the intersection of participatory democracy and capitalism? Has any child left a Fourth of July fireworks display well versed in the principles of competitive self-promotion and supply and demand?

I’m convinced that the three hours I put into making appearances as Clinton in 1996, and as Al Gore in 2000, were worth 100 hours of actual canvassing. If people are going to vote, they want a face to connect with, a hand to shake. There is something disappointing in the notion of overeager college students appearing on your doorstep to campaign for a candidate when you know that somewhere else, other citizens are getting to meet the guy himself.

Indeed, while there are still states to be contested and swing voters to coddle (or alienate), my New York City neighborhood will never see the likes of an actual candidate. The least I could do was give my neighbors a taste of the big time, however small and illusory. Plus, walking a metaphorical mile in Al Gore’s shoes gave me a sense of real empathy for the guy — which came in handy over the following few weeks.

It was not until I had reached relative maturity that I grasped the extent to which the role-playing went both ways. Campaigns are just one protracted Halloween, and this one is getting more creative than most. Assisted by $150,000 of fancy clothes and jewelry purchased by the McCain campaign, Sarah Palin gets to dress up like the kind of politician who could actually run the country responsibly.

Meanwhile, Barack Obama knows the all-too-common humiliation of sticking a foot in the front door only to have one’s costume misunderstood: What’s the point of all those years of elite education if you’re only going to be mistaken for a terrorist sympathizer?

McCain, for his part, seems comfortable with the nastier side of the holiday. If I had to name the political equivalent of toilet-papering all the houses on your block, it would be the McCain campaign’s recent spate of robo-calls. The initial rush of power that comes with playing dirty pranks on one’s opponent only makes the trickster forget that these things tend to come full circle.

As he veers from angry to bewildered and back again, McCain reminds me of a kid in my ninth grade class who came into school on Oct. 31 wearing a printed photograph of his own face. The makeshift mask’s expression straddled the murky line that separates religious ecstasy from abject horror, and while we all knew that there used to be a genuine person underneath, the force of his pixilated grimace obscured reality. One can’t help wishing, if only for the country’s general amusement, that McCain’s advisors had noted that Halloween observances change dramatically at a certain age. A child of six can get by with only a winning smile and a vague display of imagination. But if you’re still trick-or-treating after the age of 15 — or 70 — you’d better start showing some serious skin.

The candidates’ fervor this Halloween season is all the more remarkable considering the common knowledge that those are carrot sticks and toothpicks, not chocolate, waiting at the bottom of the bag. It may not be wise to bob for apples that might be concealing razor blades, but you have to envy their enthusiasm. Politicians, after all, will be kids.

Alexandra Schwartz is a senior in Saybrook College.

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