The Campaign Spectator

Political Babble-on Revisited

Reveling in the clichés of the campaign season.

By 6.21.12

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Frank Sullivan, the now forgotten New Yorker magazine humorist, invented a character he called the Cliché Expert, known as Mr. Arbuthnot, whom I ran into the other day after many decades. I feared he had passed on.

"You're looking well for a man of your advanced years, Mr. A, but I presume you've been closely following the current Presidential campaign."

"I have indeed," he said. "It's a battle for America's soul."

"So I've heard. It sounds as if you've still got your ear attuned to all of the current political banalities. What do you make of the situation in Washington these days?"

"I've never seen it this bad," he said. "The country is more polarized than anytime I can remember. In the old days, Tip O'Neill would battle Ronald Reagan from the floor of the House and then they'd go out and have a drink!"

"That sort of camaraderie just doesn't exist anymore," I remarked.

"You took the platitude right out of my mouth. You might call it Congressional gridlock."

"You might -- and indeed you did," I said.

"It's going to be a very dirty Presidential campaign, the worst in memory," he said.

"Yes, it's always the worst in memory," I noted. "What else have you noticed?"

"Obama doesn't have a plan," said Mr. Arbuthnot. "Also, the country's patience is running out but Congress has turned a deaf ear to all of his proposals."

"Any other conventional political wisdom you care to deliver?" I inquired.

"Romney hasn't got a plan either," said Mr. Arbuthnot. "Nobody has a plan."

"You've read the polls, I presume?"

"The polls don't lie," he said. "They all say America is headed in the wrong direction."

"And just what direction would that be?" I wondered

"North by Northeast. We need to be headed South by Southwest."

"Interesting. Tell me, Mr. Arbuthnot, is there a way out of this --"

"Quagmire?"

"Very nicely said," I told him.

"It requires a new resolve in Washington to pass any legislation," he continued, "but it's going to get worse before it gets better, which I should add is also true of the economy, Afghanistan, climate change and, well, just about everything."

"What is your take on Obama?"

"Obama is doing his best but nothing seems to work," Mr. Arbuthnot noted. "People like him personally but he's lost his mojo. His campaign needs to fire up the base."

"Boy, you said an empty mouthful there," I smiled.

"Even many of his most diehard supporters are disenchanted," noted Mr. A, adding, "Obama seems to be drifting, but Romney hasn't really caught fire either."

"Mitt's record with Bain Capital was impressive," I reminded him.

"And let's not forget he saved the Olympic Games," added Mr. Arbuthnot. "He has good management skills, but will that translate to government?"

"Running a company is not the same as running a country…" I cut in.

"Hey, that was my line! You're stepping on my clichés."

"My apologies," I said. "So how about the debt crisis?"

"We desperately need to do something about the debt crisis, the budget and campaign financing," Mr. Arbuthnot replied. "They're all spiraling out of control."

"Spiraling -- precisely! You do have a way with dog-eared punditry."

"The problem with America is that we don't make anything here anymore," he observed. "America has become a service economy."

"So how can we get back on track?" I asked.

"People seem to have lost hope," he said. "China is going to overtake us by 2050. The Chinese have tasted American-style capitalism." Mr. Arbuthnot was really on a roll now. "We're in grave danger of turning into a second-rate nation. Our money has lost value, our word is no good, immigrants are taking all our jobs, education is not a priority…"

"A fine list of hand-me-down opinions," I said, "but you failed to mention the infrastructure."

"Ah, of course -- but I think you mean the 'crumbling infrastructure'," he corrected.

"We need some bold federal works projects, like during the New Deal," I suggested.

"Which reminds me, you haven't mentioned Obamacare," I prodded.

"Obama wants to take away our freedom, a little at a time," he said. "And yet," he went on, "people still want to come here! The American Dream is not dead around the world, even though our young people are demoralized, can't find a job, expect to be paying off their college loans for decades and…."

"In other vacuous words, it's just not like it used to be," I commented.

"Parents used to assume their children would have a better life than they did, but that's not necessarily true anymore," he said. "There are now two Americas."
"I'm afraid we've got to leave it there, Mr. Arbuthnot. You've covered much of the campaign rhetoric, bromide-wise. I do admire your ear for hackneyed political discourse."

"Yep -- same old same old, I always say," he smiled, as we shook hands and parted.

"Very astutely put, as always, Mr. Arbuthnot."

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About the Author

Gerald Nachman is a writer in San Francisco and most recently the author of Right Here on Our Stage Tonight!: Ed Sullivan's America (University of California Press).