It’s a stock joke in our family. “Well,” the line goes, “if only the kids would write in cursive and we could drink out of the garden hose, we’d be fine.”
You know: back to the “good old days.”
That’s a lot of nonsense, of course. Who wants to go back to a time when children died of whooping cough, young men sweated out the draft and a female professional would be told that she belonged at home, rearing children and making cookies?
However, in light of the current political situation, there was a part of those good old days that made some sense and might solve a lot of problems. And it’s not going home when the streetlights come on.
Before political campaigns were driven by marketing concepts and before presidents were sold like a box of soap, there were people who were “influential” politically. They could deliver the votes, the money and the projects (more commonly referred to as “pork”).
No more. The same way clever little commercials urge you to “ask your doctor” about a new medicine that the drug companies are selling, political appeals are direct. They work, too, even if they are heavy-handed and apparently aimed a person with a Tarzan of the Apes mentality. When you, or Tarzan, see a black-and-white photograph of a candidate with his mouth hanging open, accompanied by a script about how this guy would be the ruination of the country, you get the message. “Him bad!”
When the music switches to a major key, the color comes back and the opposing candidate is shown talking reasonably to a bunch of folks in hard hats with babies in tow, the message is equally clear. “Him good!”
Who needs political bosses when you have commercials, Twitter and TikTok? Apparently, nobody. And that’s not as good a thing as you might think.
Granted, the whole concept was more than a little sketchy: If you went to ask a favor of Thomas Pendergast, the political boss who supported Harry Truman, he would write a note to the official who could grant the favor. Happy that he’d done that, you went away amazed that the great man would take care of you.
What you didn’t know was that the message depended on the color of the pencil Pendergast used to write the note. Red meant grant the favor. Blue meant keep the supplicant in mind. And the meaning of a plain lead pencil? Ignore him.
I have a distant relative who, years ago, wanted to be on a levee board in north Louisiana. It was a job with no real responsibility and the chance to take a few trips on the state’s nickel now and then. “Why, sure,” my kinsman was told. “If you can contribute $20,000 to Gov. Edwin Edwards’ campaign, then he’ll be pleased to make that appointment after the election.”
To his great disappointment, my would-be levee board member received a phone call after the election, in which he was told that political considerations had made it necessary to grant the levee board spot to someone else. The caller added, “But we’ll return your contribution.”
Not foolish enough to ask for it back, my relative replied, “Keep the money.” He had learned a great lesson in how government works.
In politics these days, there’s no one to crack the whip. Everything depends on what the latest poll says and how likely voters react to a particular name or a real or imagined controversy.
In the old days, the force with which people like Pendergast acted would have done a Mafia don proud. My fellow Louisiana native, Huey Long, said it well. He like to explain that a “screech owl” would fly down among the chickens, scattering them everywhere, whereas a “scrooch owl” would sidle up beside a big fat hen on a perch — and pretty soon, as Long put it, “No more hen.”
If one of the most successful practitioners of this dark art were to come back today, he would be very disappointed. President Lyndon Johnson was an extremely persuasive person. He also had the political power to make things stick.
The “Johnson treatment” described the Texan’s practice of invading your personal space, towering over you and convincing you that you and he needed to “reason together” — which meant that eventually you would end up doing what Johnson was pushing you to do.
In politics today — defined by “which side” you’re on — it sometimes would be nice to have someone who could “scrooch” up to an out-of-control politician, put an arm around him or her, and insist that they “reason together.”
And yes, the reasoning might sound more like a Mafia don’s threat than a plea for cooperation, but someone needs to ask the political parties in this country, “What the hell are you doing?”
Maybe then there would be less screeching and more scrooching — more political discipline and less naked self-interest. Or as Lyndon Johnson might say: “Less hat and more cattle.”
Frances Coleman is a former editorial page editor of the Mobile Press-Register. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and “like” her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/prfrances.