The elaborate foreplay of contemplating a run for high office gives pundits, cable-TV hosts, and even conceited bloggers (such as neoliberal, knee-jerk counter-intuitivist Mickey Kaus, eyeing Barbara Boxer’s Senate seat from California) the opportunity to preen their opinions even more and practice the false humility of pretending to answer a clamor that is mostly in their heads. Lou Dobbs, the former CNN heavyweight host who frittered away a rock-solid image with intemperate flare-ups and kooky talk about immigrant-borne diseases and Obama’s birth certificate, claimed he was being wooed by prominent nobodies to consider the presidency, then dialed down such speculation. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews toyed with our affections, hinting at a Senate run in Pennsylvania against Arlen Specter, though that fancy seems to have whiffed into smoke. The post–Eliot Spitzer, post–Hillary Clinton disarray in New York State encouraged a spate of alpha males to lace up their racing shoes for a possible sprint at the U.S. Senate seat held by Kirsten Gillibrand, whose freshman status and cream-puff cheeks give the impression of a soft target there for the taking. Up popped Harold Ford, a smooth operator whose knowledge of his adopted state seemed scanty but who knew the best places in town for power breakfasts and manicures. Although Ford served in Congress for his home state of Tennessee and lost a Senate bid after a racy, racist smear ad hinted he was a “playa” (“Call me,” winked a saucy blonde), he is probably more familiar to New Yorkers as a frequent guest on MSNBC’s Morning Joe and similar Socratic forums where his sensible, centrist moderation is catnip. Political pietists worship at the sacrificial altar of bipartisanship, prizing those who “reach across the aisle” even if no hand is reaching back. For many Democrats, however, “centrist” is a euphemism for sellout (see Joe Lieberman, consider his trespasses), and Ford’s slinky facility for slipping into and out of positions (opposition to gay marriage, for instance) made him too obvious a quick-change artist. He eventually heeded the roar of indifference from the public and scratched himself from contention, while insisting he could have beaten Gillibrand.
At least Ford had held elected office and withstood the Proust ian tedium of the legislative process, unlike the other swelled heads who have surfaced. It isn’t that representative democracy couldn’t do with outside transfusions from political virgins. When Gore Vidal competed for Congress in 1960 and William F. Buckley Jr. and Norman Mailer took turns running for mayor of New York (in 1965 and 1969, respectively), they were genuine provocateurs with brains to burn, temperamentally iconoclastic and anti-Establishment. Now it’s mostly establishmentarians—Beltway insiders, Wall Street groupies, media elitists, even former C.E.O.’s (such as HP’s Carly Fiorina and eBay’s Meg Whitman)—who are trying to dress themselves as outsiders, rebels, instruments of change. The low rumbles of the Tea Party movement have encouraged the dilettanti on the higher floors to try their hors-d’oeuvre-spearing hands at populism.
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