Monday, February 11, 2008

Tuesday’s election returns continue to reverberate: Mitt is now moot, Mike Huckabee is running stronger than ever (for vice-president), and John McCain, now the GOP’s presidential nominee-in-waiting, is in trouble. But only with capital-C, talk show Conservatives.

Just go down the list: Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, even El Rushbo himself… all sound dismayed, irritated and generally hacked off at Mr. McCain’s commanding performance on Super Tuesday, which must have seemed like Black Tuesday to the dittoheads of the world.

That’s the trouble with John McCain: He has always been his own man. He just will not go along with the party line, anyone’s party line. He has always given his interrogators a hard time, refusing to break no matter what blandishments, punishments or calumnies are applied.

Sure, the man may get things done — like finding a way to get conservative judges confirmed by the U.S. Senate. He may even prefer fixing a system that’s broken — like our immigration “system” — rather than just griping about it. And if he’s proving right about the war in Iraq or on terror in general, well, that scarcely makes up for his unmitigated independence.

Consider the case of Ann Coulter, certified banshee of the American right. (The uncharitable might say certifiable on the basis of her more operatic performances.) The woman doesn’t invite conversation so much as diagnosis. With her unfailing instinct for the outrageous, Miss Coulter is always topping herself, and maybe has to, to keep our attention. And she certainly does that. You just have to watch — the way you find yourself slowing down to stare at a car wreck despite your best instincts.

Watching the Coulter Show, I keep thinking of one of those oh-so-mod Shakespearean dramas staged in contemporary costume and placed in the most jarring of settings — say, the executive suite of a modern Romneyesque corporation — in which Lady Macbeth appears as a bottle blonde in correct business attire text-messaging her latest order to Macbeth Inc. When the curtain comes up, the sight may be a little jarring, but you keep watching — just to see what wretched excess comes next.

Miss Coulter doesn’t even have to raise her voice to be as grating as Chris Matthews, the only political commentator whose spiel rivals those HEAD-ON commercials for sheer volume. (Though his spiel may lack their intellectual content).

Except in Lady Coulter’s case, you may not automatically punch the mute button at the sound of her exasperating voice. You’ve just got to hear what she’ll say next. The other day, she conferred her endorsement on Hillary — yes Hillary — in preference to that maverick, that heretic, That Man.

Such has been John McCain’s exile to outer darkness by those who hold in their hands, or at least have on their telescreens, the standard list of his deviations from the accepted canons of Rightthink and are checking it twice, thrice and on every rerun.

There’s no getting around it: John McCain is just not popular with Conservative Spokesmen. It’s not only conservatives he appeals to, to judge by the election returns last Tuesday. Also independents. Even discerning Democrats. And just plain voters in general. The kind who look to character first, and may even stop looking right there.

All these inescapable voices from stage right bring to mind the kind of true believer who would rather lose with some ideologically correct robot — assembled according to their exact specifications — than win with a living, breathing, uncontrollable human being. Someone like John McCain, with a mind of his own, and, much more worrisome, a will of his own.

But can John McCain unify the GOP in November? Maybe yes, maybe no. But if Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic presidential nomination this year, she’ll unite the GOP for him. No wonder so many Republicans are rooting for her in the primaries; she may be their party’s best hope — and Barack Obama the GOP’s greatest fear.

Here’s the big problem — well, one of many big problems — with Conservative Spokesmen as opposed to mere conservatives: The anointed see the American voter as some kind of schematic drawing in a poli-sci textbook, a pie chart of instincts, preferences and predetermined choices — rather than that most unpredictable of species, human beings.

But as anybody who’s had Biology 101, let alone Comparative Anatomy, might have observed: The actual, living specimen on the table never — never — is an exact replica of the oh-so-neat drawing in the book. It is so much more complicated, detailed, whole — alive.

There’s something grotesque about the kind of analysts who think they can reduce real live human beings to just the sum of our parts. They miss the whole. Flannery O’Connor, whose very name brings a smile to memory, was once asked, as a representative Southern Author, another arbitrary category she despised, why Southern writers seem so fascinated by freaks. Because, she said, we in the South can still recognize a freak when we see one. And in order to do that, you have to have some idea of the whole man. And that’s just what these oh-so-scientific pollsters, much like the Conservatives-by-the-numbers on the airwaves, seem to lack: an appreciation of the whole, independent, unpredictable, free American.

My louder and more rigid friends in the Great Mediarama out there are victims of the most basic of misperceptions about the nature of conservatism: They’ve confused right-winger with conservative, and Americans with some kind of herd they can round up, pen up, and speak for. They can no more do so than tell John McCain what to do. No wonder so many of us rather admire the man.

But these professional Conservatives are so provoked with John McCain for disagreeing with them on some issues — I’m not wild about some of his stands, either — that they would be willing, in effect, to help elect a president from the other party with whom they disagree on almost everything.

Goodness. I like to think of myself as a conservative, too, but I try not to be a damnfool.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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