Dateline: Maui – Once again, we are down to dark rum and ice. It is nearly morning, the rain is slamming into the sliding glass doors of my ocean front suite and the wind is bending the palms near to snapping as whitecaps scatter across the bay. The only things in the water are sea turtles and tiger sharks, so a swim is out for now.
Which is just as well as I have been ruminating on the news that Mark Penn was shoved out from his post last week as chief mucky muck for the foundering Clinton campaign. Rumor has it that Penn, with his hair died black and wearing a fake mustache slipped out of Washington on a chartered Lear jet in search of a hideout on some small island off the coast of Columbia. Well, he can run, but he won’t be able to hide from Bill Clinton’s enforcers who will likely cut off his fingertips with pruning shears before they feed him to the sharks.
He probably has it coming. Penn has gotten fat and rich by selling politics for lucre as head of Burson-Marsteller for cigarette companies, oil barons and foreign dictators. But the Clinton’s could have lived with that if he could have shown them how to win. Penn’s real sin is that, rather than position Hillary Clinton as a ground breaking, history making candidate, his advice was to make her look like, in the words of the late Hunter S. Thompson, that “gutless ward heeler” Hubert Humphrey in 1972. They will break his heels with small baseball bats for that.
Why Penn would choose that ponderous path is a very interesting question. One school of thought is that he is a tone deaf sap that couldn’t have gotten Hillary elected to a state water board. Whatever the reason, by setting up Hillary Clinton as the entitled establishment frontrunner, Penn robbed her campaign of the energy and excitement that she could have generated by personalizing her quest to become the first woman in history to become president. The result was to make her look like just another hack, reinforcing perceptions of her as another dull, overly ambitious politician willing to say or do anything to get elected. Why not just put her in a dumpy blue suit with a made for TV tie and make her look like another boring fat white guy?
Frankly, I have been a little ambivalent about the Clinton-Obama battle. I have kind of enjoyed the show. But now I am starting to worry because the 2008 presidential campaign is beginning to bear an uncanny resemblance to the 1972 presidential debacle. I have been re-reading Thompson’s brilliant “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 72” and I am not sure if we should consider Thompson as a historian or visionary. It’s almost as if you could cross out Humphrey’s name for Clinton’s and McGovern for Obama and republish the book as a narrative on the current campaign. Bush of course is Nixon, although since he cannot run John McCain is also a good fit for that role. The similarities are more frightening than a mescaline flashback.
For those of you to young to know or to old to remember, during the 1972 Democratic primary, Senator George McGovern came out of nowhere to toss the establishment candidates Edmund Muskie and Hubert Humphrey, who were “sorry” for their votes to support the war in Vietnam, under the train. Running on an anti-war platform and promoting a “new politics” that excited new and younger voters, McGovern out organized and out hustled the hacks to win the nomination to at the Democratic National convention in Miami. But it was a bitter fight, with Humphrey and Muskie doing their best to turn working class blue-collar voters against McGovern. Even after McGovern won the nomination, they refused to close ranks behind him and thousands of Democrats voted for Nixon in a landslide victory for the soon to be impeached President.
If that sounds familiar it should. Holding Clinton and other Democratic candidates to account for their support for the war in Iraq, Obama has blended a field operation right out of McGovern’s campaign with cutting edge communication technologies to bring thousands of new voters to the polls and raise millions of dollars in financial support. The Obama camp has out-smarted and out-worked the Clinton campaign to build an insurmountable delegate lead. In a bitter and desperate attempt to overturn Obama’s edge among voters by grabbing the support of super delegates, Clinton is employing a scorched earth effort to turn blue-collar voters in today’s primary in Pennsylvania against Obama in a last minute bid for victory.
Mark Penn may have mismanaged the campaign, but Clinton cannot blame her metamorphous into the Happy Warrior entirely on him. Some would argue that in the heat of the campaign, she is only showing her true colors. But let’s hope Hillary Clinton remembers how this story turns out, she did after all work for George McGovern. The Humphrey strategy did not work in 1972 and it will not work for Clinton in 2008. It may be too late for her campaign, but it’s not too late for her to remember who she is and help the Democrats avoid a rerun of 1972.