My squishy optimism sagged, having just finished Richard Condon's scathing, witty, mesmerizing masterpiece, "The Manchurian Candidate." If you liked the acclaimed '62 movie, and delight in devilish wit, grab the novel: the satire and drama are darker, amusingly bereft of character redemption and/or confidence in human advancement.
Replace waterboarding for 1950's brainwashing as the underlying metaphor -- then cast Palin, Perry, or Bachmann as the Joe-McCarthy-style demagogue, and the book is current. However well-made, no establishment "60's film dare replicate the brash, authorial boldness, as Louis Menand captures it: Condon was a "a cynic of an upbeat type, not unlike Tom Wolfe: his belief that everything is basically sh*t did not get in the way of his pleasure in making fun of it."
And then last week, another blow to assumptions ours is a semi-rational universe -- the jaw-dropping ascension of Newt Gingrich, that doyen of dishonor, as Joan Walsh quipped, "his baggage has baggage." Fringe voters must truly loathe the plastic, shape-shifting Mittster to raise this clown prince, Pompous Newt, as party messiah. What are they thinking? Oh, not thinking -- tantrum-tossing zealots grasping for straws. Did the revoltingly righteous forget Newt already fell off a cliff this very campaign season, pummeled by staff mutinies? Or misinterpret Paul Krugman's bulls-eye jibe: Gingrich is "a stupid man's idea of what a smart person sounds like"?
Six Deadly Sins on Display
What mixed results: naming Gingrich springboards a vulnerable incumbent, jeopardizes the likely GOP takeover of the Senate, and confirms the GOP talent abyss. His years of contradictions, inanities, and flip-flops aside, Newt is a virtual parade of the Seven Deadly Sins: his vainglory spawning gluttony, wrath, envy, sloth, and lust. Only celebrated megalomania blunts despair. Bad historian, wife-abuser, third-rate novelist, wealthy, hypocritical lobbyist, and twice-censured, overweening House Speaker-Beltway insider, Gingrich makes Romney seem bright-eyed and bushy tailed.
Reeling, I then stumble on two mild-mannered political scientists whose new book shreds any residual feel-good liberalthink, revealingly titled: "The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics." Say it ain't so, but NYU authors Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith urge, as neutral bystanders, that Obama's re-election demands acting "a bit more like the tyrants he's so proud of toppling."
What, even more?
The logic of politics -- in both democracies and dictatorships -- is not nearly as complex as many think. Forget the intricacies of individual states, grand strategy, and the national interest. And for now, let's forget about right and wrong. Indeed, the real, universal lessons of political life can be gleaned from how leaders survive and thrive when in power.