A shimmering flurry of sequins, leopard print, and cha-cha-chas launches itself onto the illuminated stage. The crowd gasps, horrified and enthralled. Out of this pandemonium, a grinning, graying man emerges, hips gyrating, air-guitar shredding, lips syncing. Suddenly arrives the realization, shocking, cathartic, hysterical: the dancing man is Tom DeLay, former House Majority leader, onetime accused fraudster, all-time bombast, competing on the reality-TV competition show “Dancing with the Stars.”
Meanwhile, as the former politician shimmied and strutted, back in his old D.C. haunts President Obama threw a diss at another poorly mannered celebrity, Kanye West: “He’s a jackass.” Perhaps Obama’s barb was really an alternate outlet for his annoyance at another, equally bizarre, moment. Days earlier — during what history will remember as interruption’s best week ever — Addison “Joe” Wilson (R-S.C.), had brazenly yelled an insult at the president during a joint session of Congress.
The next day, Maureen Dowd (D-NYT) hysterically accused him, along with everyone else opposed to Obama’s health-care plan, of racism. Former president Jimmy Carter casually agreed. The Obama administration emphatically denounced the suggestion. Then Muammar Gaddafi, autocratic Libyan leader of 40 years, declared to the UN his hope that the “son of Africa” stay in power “forever.” More Gaddafi musings — Did the CIA kill JFK? Is the security council like Al-Qaeda? Was swine flu created in a US military laboratory? — followed.
The Libyan rabble-rouser left the UN — escorted by a posse of virgin female bodyguards — and headed to a park in the ritzy suburb of Bedford, N.Y., hoping to pitch his perfumed Bedouin tent and spend the night on Donald Trump’s lawn — before he was ordered to leave. Meanwhile, Joe Wilson raised $1.6 million in the aftermath of his outburst, as reports surfaced that one health-care protester had masticated the finger of another. As Tom DeLay delegated his partner one final hip bump, the dying strains of The Troggs’ “Wild Thing” faded away. We are now left with the words of Dancing with the Stars judge Carrie Ann Inaba echoing in our ears: “That was surreal.”
But such unadulterated insanity is nothing new. The public sphere has been a circus since we invented it. Ours in the United States is practically the Greatest Show on Earth. Politicians are elevated to prominence by virtue of their supposed common touch, an ability to mirror their constituents. Maybe our politicians are a wild bunch because, well, we are. We relish the raucous comedy of our political system. Its absurdities provide a daily farce, with recognizable characters and increasingly bizarre plotlines. For comedians and satirists, from Stewart and Colbert to The Onion, political shenanigans are the gift that keeps on giving.
The sheer unpredictability of politics is its only constant. Indeed, its comic missteps often become symbols of more fundamental and significant truths. In 1979, images of President Carter flailing in terror at an aggressive rabbit became emblematic of the hapless “malaise” administration. President Bush’s ill-fitting flight suit, worn beneath an equally ill-fitting “Mission Accomplished” banner, perfectly captured the leader’s sense of misguided bravado. In just two words, Rep. Wilson’s “You Lie!” encapsulated the marked deficit in civility and surplus of hysteria that has characterized the health-care debates.
Even beyond the hilarious, the most unexpected events often make the greatest impact. A thousand policy briefs could never undo Nixon’s sweating and five-o’clock shadow during his televised debate with the dapper JFK. The combined efforts of thousands of volunteers, the intense strategizing of genius policy wonks and millions of dollars in political donations all found themselves squandered in an instant by Gov. Howard’s “Dean Scream.”
Abstract theory and academic analysis only capture a slice of the bizarre complexity of our political landscape. Like economics, politics has become a resoundingly dismal science. Statistics trump individuals, and abstractions overrule events. Creativity and flexibility — political skills as important as oratory and policy — fall by the wayside. In our modern era, marked by equal parts cynicism and wit, the triumphant politician will not necessarily have the most policy expertise. Rather, the individuals who will most effectively attain and wield power will be those most willing to improvise, to prepare themselves for — and indeed, relish — the unexpected. Politics has always been more subtle art than concrete science.
We rarely grant power in conformance with textbooks, nor in line with the most grandstanding of resolution-affirming speeches. Now is the time for the power seekers to work on a more enduring (and endearing) talent: a sense of humor. I’m looking at you, YPUsters. Taking one’s ideologies, allegiances and oneself too seriously is a surefire bridge to nowhere. Politics takes place messily, haphazardly, unpredictably and, above all, hysterically. If you want to make the legislative sausage, be ready to get your hands dirty. Hell, be ready for a pie in the face; you’re about to enter a circus of epic proportions.
Alex Klein is a sophomore in Davenport College.