Saturday, November 18, 2006

American Freak Shows: Cruise and McCain

When I was a kid we still had side-show attractions at the circus. In those politically incorrect days one was taken to see all kinds of physically deformed people - known as freaks - as a source of amusement; people who were put on display to be laughed at, to shock, frighten, and to entertain us. My squeamish folks would rush my older sister and I past these unsettling sights and get us to the main tent to watch the trapeze artists, the pretty girls riding on elephants, and the fearless, barrel-chested lion tamers. But we sneaked curious glances at the freaks nevertheless, and in one case I cried until my parent's purchased a huge brass ring from the nine foot giant who sold them to patrons for a quarter. All this came to mind as the television news filled up with the Cruise-Holmes wedding in Italy.

Who am I to question true love, but in this case, the true love seems to be more about publicity than marriage. How we Americans love a freak show. Here is Cruise, America's wild eyed couch trampoline champion, "With Katie and me and baby makes three" taking us to his blue heaven in Italy. And we go along for the ride, so desperate are we for some diversion from the cycle of bad news in Iraq. In this case the real freaks seem to be the newscasters; the very folks who are about to give us O.J. Simpson's mutli-million dollar, consequence free, televised "If I did kill them though I didn't kill them I would have killed them this way" confession on Fox, the freak show network. These are the very news people, together with their more respectable brethren, CBS, NBC, and ABC who have not shown us the real carnage of our wounded and dead troops in Iraq, or the deaths of the Iraqi population. Instead they have so confused hard news with "Entertainment Tonight" that they have seriously degraded their franchise to inform the public. Funny what makes some folks squeamish?

Forgive my digression. I meant to write about John McCain, whose anointment as the Republican Presidential candidate and possible future President seems inevitable, unless he lists so far to the right in the primary that he sinks his own boat in the election. As a New Yorker who lived through the Rudy mayoralty, I don't see Rudy winning that prize. As "America's Mayor" after 9/11 Rudy was proclaimed an American hero because unlike Bush he didn't duck for cover, but anyone examining his past and the claims made for him will find that Rudy lives in a house of cards. He did little to nothing to protect the city from terrorism prior to 9/11, and failed to provide our police and firefighters with proper equipment, despite the fact that the World Trade Center had been attacked in the past. About his other claim to fame, as superhero crime-fighter, crime was going down in the city long before Rudy appeared to shout "Shazam!" to fight the evil-doers. Worst of all, despite his pro-gay, pro-choice rhetoric, he was ready to crush our civil liberties, railing against offensive art shows and immorality while carrying on extra-marital affairs of his own; and announcing his intention to divorce his wife on television before telling her personally. Now that leaves us with John McCain, a genuine American war hero, but not without a very vulnerable past, as questionable in its own way as Rudy's, and I dare say, a bit of a freak himself.

What many have forgotten in our rush to the next news cycle, and the next freak show, is John McCain's role as one of the Keating Five; a group of Senators (alas four of the five were Democrats) who attempted to pressure an investigator into easing off on the Lincoln S&L investigation. As beneficiaries of a collective $1.3 million dollars in campaign contributions from Charles Keating Jr. the banker under investigation who ran the savings and loan, they tried to help their benefactor out of a tight situation that would eventually lead to his imprisonment. It was as crooked as any back-room deal in American politics, and McCain, the only one still with us in the Senate, was harshly criticized at that time for questionable conduct by the ethics committe investigating the matter. It is true that the senators were following the alleged status quo of campaign funding practises, but it was a highly questionable judgment on McCain's part, and one that should disqualify him from higher office if viewed in context with his entire career. So much has been made of John Murtha's ethical lapses in the past it is remarkable that McCain's dubious acts seem to be innoculated from close inspection by the newsmakers. Like Rudy, McCain is viewed as a moderate, but both these alleged Republican moderates have a deep grained streak of cruelty. McCain demonstrated his when he appeared at a Republican fundraiser in 1998, where he told this Rush Limbaugh style joke: "Question: Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? Answer: Because her father is Janet Reno!" How the assembled Republicans roared as he humiliated an innocent child, cast sexual aspersions on the Attorney General and probably Hillary, all in the name of good old family-values politics. Of course he apologized later. They always do after the damage is done. Now in my world anyone who insults an awkward child is a freak. The lack of judgment and civility shown by that joke alone should disqualify him from seeking higher office. Chelsea Clinton has grown into a lovely young woman, but John McCain remains a flawed figure who still brings his failed judgment to this country, evidenced by his call for more troops for Iraq - a judgment that shows him as a future danger should he become our next President. And I guess when the judgment is as deformed as the judgment he has shown in the past, he is part of the great American freak show.