Friends in Canada and Europe have taken an unhealthy interest in our unending presidential campaign. The less unhealthy ones liken our quadrennial Grand Guignol to a snuff film – a spectacle so horrible you can’t resist staring, at least briefly. Others are simply confused and disgusted, while reveling in their confusion and disgust, and see it as America’s death rattle. They don’t understand that we’ve been throwing the same noxious clambake every four years for more than two centuries, and this year’s entry is just a little more entertaining and hopeless than its predecessors.
I’ve always thought of the U.S.A. as a marvelous anomaly, an unlikely experiment that bucked human nature for a little while. Call me Hobbesian, but people aren’t designed to get along or respect each other. Our default mode is discord. We enjoy chaos the way a pyromaniac enjoys watching firemen battle a blaze he set himself. My guide to the 2016 presidential election, the book that served as my handbook when I covered government as a newspaper reporter, is A.J. Liebling’s The Earl of Louisiana (1961), his book-length profile of Gov. Earl Long, brother to the better-known former governor Huey “Kingfish” Long. During an impromptu press conference with Earl, Liebling makes his move:
“I put all my admiration in my glance and edged my chair up to the end of the Governor’s sofa. When I try, I can exude sincerity as far as a lama can spit, and the Governor’s gaze, swinging about the room, stopped when it lit on me. My eyes clamped it in an iron grip of approval.
“I inched forwarder, trying not to startle him into putting a cop on me, and said, `Governor, I am not a newspaperman. I am with you all the way about publishers [Long has just said of Henry Luce: “Mr. Luce is like a man that owns a shoestore and buys all the shoes to fit himself. Then he expects other people to buy them.”] Nor am I primarily interested in politics. I came all the way down here to find out your system for beating the horses.’
“An expression of modest disclaimer dropped like a curtain in front of the cocky old face.
“`I got no particular system,’ he said. `I think I’m doing good to break even. I think horse-betting should be dissected—into them that can afford it and them that can’t. I think if you can afford it it’s a good thing to take your mind off your troubles and keep you out in the air.’”