Watching coverage of the Iowa caucuses, and the speeches each candidate is obliged to give the cameras, I am reminded of an old-timey American tradition. No, it has nothing to do with great leaders of the past; their stately images seem long gone. The process reminds me much more of the Golden Age of Cartoons, from the 1930s.
In these cartoons, the hero strutted across a landscape where nearly anything was possible. They remained in motion partly because the alignment from one frame to the next was tricky; wiggly hands and tapping feet made the registration problems look like a happy dance. The cast behind them was usually large and friendly, a chorus of happy chickens or wild animals that had their own smiling view of the world. All is good.
This thought came to me while watching both John Edwards and Hillary Clinton give their talks after everyone in Iowa was done visiting with their neighbors and walking to the subcaucus of their choice. There was Hillary, necessarily oblivious to the pounding she had just received, trying to send a happy little message out to the next stop on the tour; New Hampshire was just a few bouncing walk cycles away. Next to her was a smiling Madeline Albright and on the other side the original barnyard rooster, Bill. What a cheery lot! What a happy little message they had!
What everyone seems to forget is that after the 1930s cartoon comes the Newsreel depicting the latest news on the Depression.
The candidates have raised about half a billion dollars for this election so far, and we’ve hardly started. It seems utterly amazing that you can buy something so irrelevant for that much money and still call it “politics”. An old Ub Iwerks cartoon would have sufficed, and in the Depression he worked for far less than what this is costing.
For the money we are pouring into this process, we could do many things. I believe that a challenge grant to craft alternative energy systems could be set up with a number of initial proposals receiving, say, a million dollars in seed money towards a prize of 100 million to the first one that meets some very tight standards. We could arrange this kind of thing 3-4 times over with challenges to build a 100 MPG car (not allowing cheating by recharging batteries, ‘natch) or create energy from plant matter or even natural gas from household waste. This amount of money would make huge inroads towards developing the technology needed to reduce our dependence on oil from places like Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela. Instead, we buy a retread cartoon.
You may think it’s not fair to say that a Presidential election is a waste that can be diverted to such things, but a challenge is what this nation needs to wake it from its Saturday morning slumber of happy talk. If the presidential candidates are unwilling to challenge us with the money, perhaps someone else can. A challenge picked up and met was what the USofA used to be all about, even if we did require cartoons to keep our spirits up during the Depression. Our government used to be where things like this happened, and the happy cartoons stayed in the theatres.
I realize that we have the potential to make history with the first African American or woman president, and that these are seen as challenging enough to most voters. I don’t care. Barack Obama reminds me of a large number of smart and capable people I grew up with, some of them black. Whatever. Wouldn’t it be great if the first African American president told us that he wasn’t the real challenge, but that he was going to call something much greater up from deep inside all of us, the people and industries and institutions that make the USofA great? Ah, that would mean getting past the old black and white nonsense that has paralyzed this nation for so long. Those old cartoons are black and white, and we are stuck in one of them. It’s hard to make a cartoon where your palette is smart and not smart, or better yet challenged and not challenged.
Well, all of this is being saved for the main feature. We’re on the cartoon right now. I’ve seen it, and it’s not so happy when you know what happens – not much.