Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Changing Definition of a Whirligig

I thought about subscribing to both The Nation and The Weekly Standard this year, to get a stereophonic take on American politics in an election year. The Weekly Standard defends W. at nearly every turn, and bravely argues that what we need in the Middle East is the willingness to lose a lot more lives if necessary, like Lincoln had in the Civil War. The Nation subscribers would sleep with a gun under the pillow in case the Religious Right breaks into the house overnight, except they don't believe in owning firearms. The fact is, I think two weeks of reading both of them would damage internal organs, so I've ditched the idea.

Still, they have saving graces. For instance, The Weekly Standard has Andrew Ferguson, whose work I've enjoyed. This week, he has an entertaining, enlightening piece about Fred Thompson's departure from the GOP race:
(Thompson's views) might have earned another candidate a reputation for "straight talk"--maybe even the title of "maverick." But Thompson was more subversive than that; he was an existential maverick, and his campaign was an implicit rebuke to the system in its entirety. He was a man out of his time. With its reduced metabolism and procedural modesty, his campaign still might have served as an illustration of what politics once was like and--if we have the audacity to hope--might be again. After all, by the standards of a century ago, Thompson was a whirligig.

Political campaigns have always been boisterous affairs, but candidates themselves rarely took center stage till well into the 20th century. The first presidential candidate even to make an appearance on his own behalf was William Henry Harrison in 1840. When he showed up in Columbus, Ohio, to give a speech extolling his (exceedingly thin) record, the political world was scandalized. An opposition paper, the Democratic Globe, counted his uses of the pronoun "I"--there were 81 of them in his text--and pronounced the speech "a prodigy of garrulous egotism." The Cleveland Adviser, a nonpartisan paper, asked: "When was there ever before such a spectacle as a candidate for the Presidency, traversing the country advocating his own claims for that high and responsible station? Never!"

"The precedent thus set by Harrison," concluded the Adviser's editorialist, "appears to us a bad one."
I recommend the whole thing.


Anonymous Saxo philologus said...

It's delightful to read about William Henry Harrison in this blog. In general we need more Whiggery in this country.

2:23 PM  

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