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The Guilfoile-Warner Papers

Running and Screaming

Give us a nominee or give us death. The Pennsylvania primary is here, and with it may come the end of our nightmarish nomination process. Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner on what’s truly making Americans bitter: politics.

John,

I grew up in a small Northeastern town, a village so tiny and rural that I was widely regarded as a country rube and a hick when I arrived at college. In Indiana.

So I think I can say with some authority that people who live in small rural towns are, in fact, bitter. They are bitter for a lot of reasons, but mostly because the anchors of their local economies—family farms and factories—have disappeared at the whims of unaccountable corporations and because their voices have been ignored by politicians since the populist days of the ‘30s.

I think most of them would consider it a sign of progress if a politician at least acknowledged their bitterness, as Barack Obama was trying to do last week. His opponents have accused him of being out of touch, but it seems to me that an African-American community organizer, who didn’t even pay off his student loans until after his improbable election to the U.S. Senate, must be less out of touch than a former first lady and the son of a Navy admiral who both think small town folk are giddy, Jeffersonian ideologues without any complaints at all.

That doesn’t get Obama entirely off the hook. Bitterness is not why people in rural areas “cling to their guns.” Bitterness is why people in rural areas, just like everywhere else, cling to beer. In fact if you want to prove to someone living in a small town that you don’t understand them, start telling them that there’s a psychological connection between them and their rifles.

Millions of people in this country, even if 911 emergency services are available to them, live a half hour or more from a police station. A gun in the house, or at least the threat of one, is the only thing keeping thieves and rapists and angry Hatfields or whatever off the front porch. I couldn’t tell you that every house in my town had a gun inside, but I also couldn’t tell you which ones didn’t. No one in my family hunted, but we had a deer rifle and I learned to shoot beer cans in the woods when I was in second grade. In eighth-grade wood shop, I learned to operate a jigsaw while building the rifle a handsome wall rack.

Here’s the thing, though: In the 15 years my family lived in the town where almost everybody owned a gun, nobody ever shot anybody. Not even once. People in the country don’t just have guns, they learn to live with guns. They learn to handle guns safely. They learn that every gun is a loaded gun. They learn to respect guns. We have a gun problem in this country, a serious gun problem, but that problem is not in rural Pennsylvania. Their guns are doing just fine.

The issue with Obama’s talk at a California fundraiser was not that he was condescending to working-class rural Pennsylvanians, but rather that he was pandering to wealthy urban San Franciscans. His speech about guns and religion was playing to stereotypes that rich city folk have about poor country ones. And he’s apologized. I have great hopes for a country that can elect a man like Barack Obama, but I don’t expect politicians to stop pandering to voters. That’s just too much to ask for all at once.

 

* * *


Kevin,

I grew up in the wilds of the north suburbs of Chicago, so as a youth, I didn’t know from guns. My only experience with firearms is via Grand Theft Auto, where I’m equally good with the shotgun and the rocket launcher. I’m also not bad with a chainsaw and a flamethrower. Considering how many helicopters I’ve downed and cops I’ve melted I’m surprised I’m not body-cavity searched whenever I fly.

If you’re like me, you’re constantly on the lookout for signs of the end of days, and lately, I’m seeing them everywhere: Heidi and Spencer from The Hills becoming the next Brangelina (do we call them Hencer? Speidi?), the Chicago Cubs being favored to win their division, and most recently, that debate co-moderated by George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson. Its badness is almost impossible to quantify. The badness is like ?: It just goes on and on and on. It was so bad that David Brooks thought it was good.

My first favorite takeaway is that Charles Gibson thinks people who make $200,000 a year are middle class despite only 3.4 percent of households actually achieving that level of income. To a guy who makes $7 million a year to read the news, I’m sure that’s “take a penny, leave a penny” money, but to the vast majority of Americans, that amount as a one-time lump sum, (let alone a yearly income) would be life-changing. (Except, apparently, to the contestants on Deal or No Deal, who routinely turn down that sort of dough for a one-in-10 chance at the full $1 million, only to wind up with $750 and a handshake from Howie Mandel for their trouble.)

My second favorite takeaway (and by “favorite,” I mean the moment that made me swallow back my own vomit) was George S.’s question to Obama: “Do you think Rev. Wright loves America as much as you do?” I can’t blame Obama for acting weary and annoyed by this stuff, given that the question is harder to understand than Ryan Seacrest’s success. Is he asking if Obama loves America? Is he asking if Wright loves America? Is it a logic puzzle to test Obama’s lawyering chops? The question demands some sort of Venn Diagram, or maybe algebra.

If Wright loves America X amount and Obama loves America Y amount and if George Stephanopoulos says Y is greater than X by an unknown amount (Z), solve for Z without your head exploding.

If Obama survived “Wrightgate,” and “Bittergate,” I think he’ll come out of “GibsonandStephanopoulosAreAssclownsgate” OK. My David Brooksian hunch pulled out of the same body part all of his opinions come from (rhymes with “butthole”) says that a lot of voters feel as weary as I do over the primary process and are ready to see it end.

This phase of the Clinton campaign is like being forced to navigate a Toys’R’Us with a small child in tow. The child (Hillary’s candidacy) has been told over and over again that we’re just here to shop for a present for someone else’s birthday party, and no, she will not be getting a toy for herself, but every 2.3 seconds she asks, “Can we buy this?” At first, the parent simply brushes off the pleas with a simple “no,” or by ignoring them entirely. But then, from its seat in the cart the child begins grabbing random objects off the shelves, forcing the parent to extricate the items from the child’s clutches and return them to their proper places. As the situation escalates, the child will begin randomly swiping at items, trying to knock them to the ground, perhaps in an effort to damage something to the point it must be purchased. To prevent a scene, plenty of parents will simply give in, and who can blame them? I’m almost ready to support Hillary just to make the madness stop, which seems to be her actual strategy. If we’re not going to let her have the nomination, she’ll chip a chunk off of it so either we’ll have to buy it for her or at least no one else will want it.

The open question is whether or not we’re going to give in or just say no. Is Pennsylvania going to answer that question, or are we in for another trip around the store?

 

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John,

I’ve always liked George Stephanopoulos. He’s smart and he’s cute and he’s small. He’s like the pundit version of American Idol’s David Archuleta. Also, he’s married to the author of The Official Preppy Handbook. That’s actually not true, but do you remember The Official Preppy Handbook? Oh, man, that book really took those preppies down a peg!

Presidential debates used to be the only opportunity for candidates to address substantive issues. None of us watched those debates, but we were comforted by the fact that candidates were occasionally forced to think about substantive issues, even if we paid no attention to what they said. We relied on our belief that the candidate who best contemplated substantive issues would also make the best television commercials.

Whatever your political persuasion, you must agree this strategy has yielded mixed results.

The old way has to be preferable to the new way, however. The new way expects us to actually watch the debates. That means making them entertaining, and making them entertaining means making them dumb.

In Saturday’s New York Times, Bob Herbert published an op-ed that was not so much a column of personal opinion as it was a summary of conventional wisdom, which says that the prolonged primaries are killing the Democratic Party and that Republicans are giddy over the quarreling between Obama and Clinton. It also says that Obama has “given a series of wonderful speeches, but he has to add more meat to those rhetorical bones.”

Except that Obama has added meat. He adds meat like a fry cook at a Mongolian barbecue. But when Barack Obama gives a substantive speech, no one—not you or me or Bob Herbert—pays any attention.

On March 27, 2008, Obama gave perhaps the most important economic speech by any candidate in the entire campaign. It was an outstanding policy address at Cooper Union in New York City, in which he outlined in detail a Keynesian vision for this country’s economic future, including six principles that “should guide the legal reforms needed to establish a 21st-century regulatory system.”

First, if you can borrow from the government, you should be subject to government oversight and supervision.

(APPLAUSE)

Secretary Paulson admitted this in his remarks yesterday. The Federal Reserve should have basic supervisory authority over any institution to which it may make credit available as a lender of last resort. When the Fed steps in, it is providing lenders an insurance policy underwritten by the American taxpayer. In return, taxpayers have every right to expect that these institutions are not taking excessive risks. Now, the nature of regulation should depend on the degree and extent of the Fed’s exposure. But, at the very least, these new regulations should include liquidity and capital requirements.

Second, there needs to be general reform of the requirements to which all regulated financial institutions are subjected. Capital requirements should be strengthened, particularly for complex financial instruments like some of the mortgage securities that led to our current crisis. We must develop and rigorously manage liquidity risks. We must investigate ratings agencies and potential conflicts of interest with the people that they are rating. And transparency requirements must demand full disclosure by financial institutions to shareholders and counter parties. As we reform our regulatory system at home, we should work with international arrangements, like the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, the International Accounting Standards Board, and the Financial Stability Forum, to address the same problems abroad.

The goal should be to ensure that financial institutions around the world are subject to similar rules of the road, both to make the system more stable and to keep our financial institutions competitive.

Third, we need to streamline a framework of overlapping and competing regulatory agencies. Reshuffling bureaucracies should not be an end in itself. But the large, complex institutions that dominate the financial landscape don’t fit into categories created decades ago. Different institutions compete in multiple markets. Our regulatory system should not pretend otherwise. A streamlined system will provide better oversight and be less costly for regulated institutions.

Fourth, we need to regulate institutions for what they do, not what they are. Over the last few years, commercial banks and thrift institutions were subject to guidelines on subprime mortgages that did not apply to mortgage brokers and companies. Now, it makes no sense for the Fed to tighten mortgage guidelines for banks when two-thirds of subprime mortgages don’t originate from banks. This regulatory framework…

(APPLAUSE)

This regulatory framework has failed to protect homeowners and it is now clear that it made no sense for our financial system. When it comes to protecting the American people, it should make no difference what kind of institution they are dealing with.

Fifth, we must remain vigilant and crack down on trading activity that crosses the line to market manipulation. On recent days, reports have circulated that some traders may have intentionally spread rumors that Bear Stearns (NYSE:BSC) was in financial distress while making market bets against the company. The SEC should investigate and punish this kind of market manipulation and report its conclusions to Congress.

Sixth, we need a process that identifies systemic risks to the financial system. Too often we deal with threats to the financial system that weren’t anticipated by regulators. That’s why we should create a financial market oversight commission, which would meet regularly and provide advice to the president, Congress, and regulators on the state of our financial markets and the risks that face them. These experts’ views could help anticipate risks before they erupt into a crisis.

Omigosh I almost fell asleep copying and pasting that. “Yes we can!” fits much better on an 11x17-inch piece of cardboard. But when politicians, especially ones with the rhetorical skills of Barack Obama, start talking wonk like that, we tune them out. Then we tell pollsters that we wish he would say finally something substantive. Our inattention is what allows Hillary Clinton to prolong this thing with distraction after distraction.

John, I apologize to you for the two-thirds of readers who have stopped reading and are now over on YouTube watching my cousin Steven Guilfoile who, in his senior season of track, figured out that if you scream your head off as you run the 200 meters, the other, faster runners will turn around to see what’s wrong, allowing you to pass them.
 


Hillary still might have a chance after all.

 

* * *


Kevin,

Do I remember The Official Preppy Handbook? That’s like asking the Pope if he remembers the Bible. The north suburbs of Chicago were the epicenter of preppy wannabees and we read the book un-ironically. We used to layer so many Polo shirts that we looked like we were wearing very fashionable cervical collars.

I used to like Stephanopoulos myself, but apparently television political talk-show hosting involves a full shame-ectomy. This was George in the 1992 campaign documentary The War Room:

What [Bill Clinton’s] going to do in this campaign is focus on what’s important to the American people, on the jobs and the education. That’s what the American people care about. They want to move into the future. They don’t want to be diverted by side issues, and they’re not going to let the Republican attack machine divert them.

(Can you hear me screaming like a madman running the 200-meter dash all the way in Chicago?)

I’d like to say that cousin Steven’s scream strategy is the perfect illustration for a diseased political culture that is so easily distracted by non-events like who wears a flag pin or which candidate tells the truth, but when someone is yelling like a banshee right behind you, it’s hard to not turn and look. After awhile the freak show becomes the show. And once the original freak show isn’t satisfying, we have to up the stakes.

Ultimately, young Steven’s scream will lose its effectiveness. He may have to start sprinting while firing a couple of Uzis in the air and cursing in Portuguese. As you point out, when Obama delivered thick slabs of substance on seven-grain proposal bread with a side order of prescriptive-solutions slaw, he was largely ignored. I’d like to place the blame on our processed-obsessed media, but I read that speech and was so impressed by it that I started to sketch out an idea for an essay on the rhetorical styles of Obama vs. Clinton when delivering policy speeches, (Obama = thoughtful, grounded in history and his philosophy of government; Clinton = verbal PowerPoint), but then someone sent me a YouTube link of an elephant painting a self-portrait and I got all distracted.

I have met the enemy, and he is us. Help us, Obama Wan Kenobi: You’re our only hope.
 

TMN Contributing Writer John Warner is the author of the preeminent guide to winning the race for the Oval Office, So You Want to Be President?, and is Chief Creative Czar of TOW Books. He teaches at the College of Charleston.

TMN Contributing Writer Kevin Guilfoile’s debut thriller, Cast of Shadows, was named one of the Best Books of 2005 by the Chicago Tribune and the Kansas City Star. His humor has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Maxim, and The New Republic. More by Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner