Votes still matter despite all the political drama
“We have met the enemy and he is us.”
That is an appropriate statement to sum up our wild Republican presidential race to date, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s extremely bizarre rhetoric in endorsing Donald Trump on Jan. 19.
The ironic statement is from the durable comic strip “Pogo” by cartoonist Walt Kelly, widely syndicated in newspapers from the late 1940s into the 1970s. He paraphrased the famous declaration by Adm. William Hazard Perry — “We have met the enemy and they are ours” — after the U.S. Navy won a great strategic victory over the British in the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813.
Sharp political and social commentary characterized “Pogo,” in a manner emulated in “Doonesbury” by Garry Trudeau. Kelly first used a version of the “enemy” statement to refer to the anti-communist fears and hysteria of the 1950s, and later to highlight growing public awareness and concern about environmental pollution.
Pogo the opossum was the egalitarian, reflective and wise leader of a highly diverse group of colorful, generally good-hearted, frequently nutty Okefenokee Swamp animals. Individually and collectively, they often represented major controversies of the day.
Vicious demagogue Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, Republican of Wisconsin, was portrayed as “Simple J. Malarkey,” an armed wildcat who disrupted the generally peaceful animals. This was in 1953, when considerable courage was needed publicly to criticize the controversial — but at the time popular and powerful — politician.
When The Providence Bulletin threatened to cancel the strip if Malarkey was not removed, Kelly portrayed the character with a bag over his head and underscored obvious analogy to the Ku Klux Klan.
McCarthy generally did not engage publicly in the gross, highly personal insults of people that have become Trump’s stock in trade. That contrast reflects how coarse collectively we have become.
Up until a few decades ago, the vulgarity and simple-mindedness of what is today called “reality” television prevented such programming on major media. Now, reality TV has become mainstream, and reality TV personalities Palin and Trump are prominent in our presidential politics — at least so far.
Keep in mind that for all the media melodrama, Americans have not yet actually started to vote. The first election is not the activist-driven Iowa caucuses, but the New Hampshire presidential primary, to be held this year on Feb. 9.
New Hampshire is where Gov. John Kasich is surging, and could possibly win. Now in his second term as Ohio chief executive, he served nine terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, including tenure on the powerful Armed Services Committee. Kasich is serious, focused and gaining ground.
National defense is the most central and crucial responsibility of the U.S. president. Palin’s 2008 patron and running mate was Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a long-time prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. McCain, denigrated by Trump for being captured, was not mentioned during Palin’s endorsement statements.
When McCarthy attacked the U.S. Army, President Dwight D. Eisenhower saw his opportunity to strike. He guided selection of Army defense counsel Joseph Welch, a brilliant and shrewd advocate, a lethal Boston lawyer clothed as old-fashioned gentleman. The televised Army hearings began McCarthy’s political destruction.
Television unavoidably helps define our lives, but in elections ultimately what counts are the votes. In 2016, FDR’s advice from a far more difficult and dangerous time continues to resonate:
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.”