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Notes from the conventions: Cops, ‘Country First’ ... and a candidate in a league of her own

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Just because I haven’t been a reporter since 1972, and just because I haven’t owned a notebook for almost as long, doesn’t mean I’m somehow precluded from writing about the Republican and Democratic national conventions via a “reporter’s notebook.” It’s a fine, old format which, when you think about it (which I just did for the first time), anticipated current-day blogs. 

Brief as that portion of my career was, I did my reporting for the Sun-Bulletin in Binghamton, N.Y., where for much of the time, I covered the police beat.  One of the very first things I learned - or more accurately, better realized - is that cops routinely deal with people at their absolute irresponsible and often vicious worst.  Think about that for a moment - how it just might jaundice a person’s view of human nature and the world. 

In addition to times when I saw cops perform terrifically, there was one occasion in particular when I thought they might have unfairly arrested a young black man for a crime I was reasonably certain never happened.  So I raised my concern with a senior officer, who assured me that he and his colleagues treated “white boys and [the plural 'N' word] all the same.”  “Thank you, sir,” I said to myself.  “You’ve given me a great, if perverse, anecdote for life.” 

What’s the connection with this week’s big deal in St. Paul?  Is every cop providing security there free of every possible sour or ugly predisposition?  Of course not, as I know few souls so inherently and perpetually sweet.  But how would you like to be cursed at and spat at - and I’m talking about the more pacific anarchists who have graced our hometown this week?  Think you could keep your own composure without a blip? 

As I write, and from what I’ve been able to gather, law-enforcement officers near the convention site have performed magnificently under nasty circumstances.  I’m sorry some bystanders got arrested who shouldn’t have; if it were me or members of my family, I wouldn’t be happy.  But parts of downtown St. Paul over the last week have more closely resembled the fog of battle than a lawyerly seminar.  It would have been on the other side of miraculous if every arrest were exquisitely clean and justified.

Police have my congratulations and thanks, and that will remain the case even if a couple of them, in a moment of exasperation in the closing hours, lose their professional cool and wind up tapping a foul-mouthed belligerent a little too energetically across his noggin.   

For some reason very little attention has been paid to Barack Obama’s pledge in his acceptance speech in Denver last week to “safely harness nuclear power.”  If one presumes that nuclear power plants currently up and running in the United States are safe already (they are), this would suggest that he’s interested in building more.  Or am I missing something?  If I’m right, this is great news for a slew of economic, environmental, and national-security reasons, though I suspect many of his strongest supporters wouldn’t agree.   

In a sentence right before the nuclear line, he made it clear that “drilling [for oil] is a stop-gap measure, not a long-term solution, not even close.”  I don’t agree in full, but OK.  I’m just grateful he sees temporary drilling as a better route than no new drilling whatsoever when it comes to solving our energy problems.  Yet if Obama is, in fact, interested in building new nuclear plants, it’s safe to say they’re far too big and expensive to be viewed as anything but integral to long-term solutions, as they don’t exactly lend themselves to being shut down as soon as we figure out how to turn alternative sources of energy mainstream. 

The Republicans on Tuesday celebrated “Country First,” an apt and compelling theme.  Who could or would ever argue with such a sentiment?  At the risk of conservative sacrilege, perhaps demurring a tad might have been economist and free market icon Milton Friedman if he were still alive. 

In one of his general audience classics, “Capitalism and Freedom,” published in 1962, he took issue with one of John F. Kennedy’s signature lines from his 1961 inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country.”  Neither half of that construction, Friedman wrote, “expresses a relation between the citizen and his government that is worthy of the ideals of free men in a free society.” 

“What your country can do for you,” he wrote (according to his New York Times obituary approaching two years ago), implies that government is the patron, the citizen the ward.  And what “you can do for your country” assumes that government is the master, the citizen the servant. 

Those are some tough strictures, seemingly a million miles from Tuesday’s spirit of national service.  So how is it, again, that Milton Friedman is the conservative movement’s all-time favorite American economist?  Evidently political movements, just like life itself, aren’t especially linear or without nuance.    

For a pass to be complete in the NFL, a receiver needs to have both feet in bounds, though it was TV color commentator John Madden whom I first heard cite the alternative of “one knee equaling two feet.”  Meaning if just one of a receiver’s two knees lands in bounds, both of his feet don’t.  In what I would like to think is a never-before-heard sports metaphor, I began recalling what Madden had to say shortly after spinmeisters on both sides of the aisle went into triple overtime contesting the relative strengths of Sarah Palin and Barack Obama’s commander-in-chief-type experience.  Maybe, I figured, when it comes to executive credentials, two years of being a governor equal four years of being a senator.  Makes sense to me, I concluded, thinking I had hit a homerun before I realized I was culpable of unsportsmanlike spinning myself - not to mention guilty of a flagrant, two-sport mixed metaphor, too. 

At any rate, it became clear in the very first inning or two of her acceptance speech Wednesday night that the governor of Alaska is a bigger natural at the podium than Robert Redford ever was at the bat.  A part of me is still disappointed that Tim Pawlenty didn’t get the nod, but it’s obvious that Palin is in a category of her own and not in need of any extra bucking-up or relief pitching by new teammates and fans, as it looks like she can go nine easy.  And then another four quarters also.  

It wasn’t until Rudy Giuliani started to speak Wednesday night that I recalled he might have been my favorite candidate two years ago.  Or was it three?  I forget.  Maybe we ought to find a way of shortening these campaigns. 

On taking on your own: At the risk of a shameless plug, I’ve just written a book about Al Quie (“Riding into the Sunrise”) in which the former congressman and governor talks about the importance of challenging one’s own team.  It takes little or no courage, both the governor and I argue, to beat the stuffing out of members of another party or persuasion.  Jeepers (no, I didn’t learn that word from him), loads of folks find it great fun.  What takes fortitude, rather, is critiquing and otherwise taking on colleagues, friends, and supporters on your own side of a political, ideological, or other divide. 

Now, it’s understood, if a person finds himself routinely at odds with his own mates, maybe that’s a sign he’s really on the wrong squad deep down, and that for everyone’s sake, he should think about hanging out with a new crowd.  But if he does, at root, fit best where he is, it takes an unusually confident and strong-willed person to more than rarely announce in a caucus or other setting that his closest associates are mistaken and need to change course, whatever the issue or course in question may be. 

A good western name for such a guy is a “maverick.”  As in, “John McCain is a maverick,” as he specifically took pride in acknowledging in his acceptance speech last night.  Much has been written and spoken, of course, little of it nice, about how he’s the Republican nominee for president only because, over the last few years, he tamped down his various criticisms of the supposedly dogmatic and benighted base of his party.  Much less has been written and spoken this week, however, about how that same allegedly rigid base gave serious and loyal thought to swooning off its hinges every time someone in the Xcel Energy Center advertised how the Arizonan (as well as the Alaskan, for that matter) is well-practiced in getting in the face not only of Democrats, but also his very own beloved Republicans. 

“Hit us again,” they roared in jubilation (albeit sometimes more enthusiastically than others), “hit us again.” 

Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of the Center of the American Experiment www.americanexperiment.org in Minneapolis.  

This commentary originally appeared on MinnPost.com on September 5, 2008.
Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted.

 

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