Wealthy Frenchman

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Our Happy Warriors



IN Minnesota, a state known for its lively political scene, some sort of anesthesia has been temporarily applied to the body politic. The uncharacteristic absence of dinner-party arguments, hand-painted lawn signs, bumper stickers and letters to the editor about the coming Senate race has unnerved many friends and neighbors. Over our drought-stricken state, plagued in the north with forest fires, an odd stillness prevails, except about the weather.

One theory making the rounds is that our political torpor is the equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder, induced by five years of the Bush administration. The material and human costs of the Iraq war have caused a kind of sticker shock among the Minnesota electorate. One friend simply noted: “I can’t talk about it anymore. I’m in a self-imposed news blackout.”

The Senate race was precipitated by the retirement after one term of Mark Dayton, a Democrat who was finally elected in 2000, 18 years after his first attempt. Mr. Dayton, an unusually decent politician (disclosure: I have known the senator since we were 13-year-old classmates), typically looked drawn and haggard during interviews. His syntax suffered atomization, and he sometimes seemed to be grasping for ideas. Then he dealt his career a near-fatal blow when he closed his Washington office for a month in October 2004, after an unspecified terrorist threat. Time Magazine dubbed him “The Blunderer.”

Minnesotans generally prefer their national political representatives to be in the Happy Warrior mode perfected by Hubert Humphrey and Paul Wellstone. Cameras and microphones produce in such candidates an endlessly renewable form of intoxication. Even former Gov. Jesse Ventura, resplendent in Hawaiian shirts, seemed to be a variant on the Humphrey model, hugely enjoying himself as he claimed that he was being victimized by the local newspapers. Never in my memory has a politician expressed bitterness so joyfully.

By contrast, Senator Dayton appeared to be physically suffering from the shocks produced almost daily by his former Yale fraternity brother, George W. Bush. His face became, as the months passed, a mask of stress and suffering, and though it reflected accurately the feelings of many Democratic Farmer-Labor voters in this state, politicians who look like that are seldom re-elected. Few were surprised when he bowed out.

The two candidates for Mr. Dayton’s job, Amy Klobuchar, the Democratic prosecutor of the county I live in, and Mark Kennedy, a Republican congressman, both have 100-watt smiles. They appear to have mastered the upbeat style. Mr. Kennedy’s face in particular often seems pulled back into a permanent rictus, like the old-time movie villain Mr. Sardonicus. Ms. Klobuchar’s smile may diminish if she is hit with too many Karl Rovian slimeballs (Mr. Kennedy has a reputation as a ferocious street fighter), but in the early going it has given her a commanding lead in the polls.

It seems a shame that one is compelled initially to discuss the faces rather than the positions of our political candidates, but, after all, we are in a media-saturated landscape. In the lull before the storm, by their faces we will know them.


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