Kennedy's staff claims the video vindicates him, because it shows Patton wasn't as seriously injured as she claimed. And it's true that Patton, a rather repugnant character, has tried to use California's liberal laws on paid leave to win a permanent vacation out of the incident. But it's absolutely mystifying that the L.A. City Attorney's Office has decided not to press charges against Kennedy. Those odious scanning checkpoints have for the last 15 years provided Americans with the most high-intensity experience of authoritarianism they're likely to encounter in their day-to-day lives. It's not just that you stand in long lines for the pleasure of having some brute in a blue blazer rattle a metal detector between your thighs, or that you have to put your personal possessions on display for the entire airport. It's the atmosphere of grimness, best embodied in those Warning! Do Not Joke! We Will Prosecute You! signs that would have been unbelievable in the atmosphere of liberty that prevailed in this country up until the mid-1980s. And what makes airport security most reminiscent of an authoritarian state is that the whole rigmarole is totally useless. (When was the last time you heard of a bomb being smuggled on board a plane in a carry-on bag?) So my sympathies are with Kennedy qua airport traveler. But what do you think would happen to you if you shoved a female law-enforcement officer in an airport?
Now, the firing. Days after Patton announced that she was considering suing Kennedy, The Boston Globe happened upon?well, whaddya know!?a record of all of Patton's criminal convictions stretching back to the 1960s, and ran an A-section feature on it. Argenbright then fired Patton for having falsified her job application in 1997. The company claims the dismissal had nothing whatsoever to do with information stemming from the Kennedy altercation. Do you believe that?
I think the First Commandment of the Information Age should be: Those who mind their own business shouldn't have their lives destroyed. This whole tale reminds me a bit of Balzac's great short novel Le Curé de Tours, in which a monk is given?without asking for it?a nice room that another priest covets, and winds up with Parliament, the army and the pope bent on his destruction. The same rules apply in the Kennedy cosmos: if someone harms you, you get punished. As a businessman ruined by Patrick's grandfather Joe Kennedy in the 1930s once said, "I don't know why Joe turned on me. I never did anything to help him."
Trite Stuff The Adjective of the Year award must go to Stu Rothenberg of Roll Call, who last week called Al Gore "a trite politician." We've grown used to the Al Gore who says trite things, but Rothenberg is the first to note that there's a personal triteness about Gore that goes to the very core of his being.
If we think of a "trite" politician as one who is (a) a lackluster orator, (b) indistinguishable on the issues from someone in the dead-center of his party and (c) indistinguishable in his thinking from whatever his party's platform was five or 10 years ago, then triteness is actually a good measure of political prospects. In presidential elections, un-trite politicians don't always win?there's Goldwater and McGovern to remind us of that?but trite ones always lose. Who forms the Pantheon of Trite over the last half-century? Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, Gerald Ford, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Bob Dole.
Perhaps Gore isn't the tritest politician in America. That honor would have to go to Hillary Clinton, who actually said in her nomination speech last week: "It's not about candidates. It's about children. It's about families. It's about our future." (What, by the way, is "it"?)
It must be admitted, too, that the cliche-o-thon that is the normal Gore stump speech is leavened somewhat by an interesting oratorical tic. Unfortunately for him, it's one that drives voters battier and battier the more they hear it. I am referring, of course, to his habit of using scare metaphors that make no sense. "Risky tax scheme" was first identified as a Gore favorite in this column in the summer of 1996. Back then, Gore referred to the Dole-Kemp across-the-board tax cut as "a risky tax scheme that will blow a $3-trillion hole in the deficit." (But how do you "blow a hole" in the deficit? Isn't the deficit itself a kind of hole?) This summer he's decided to apply the "risky tax scheme" trope to George W. Bush's proposed tax cut and Social Security reforms. Together, Gore warns, they will "drain $3 trillion out of the economy." (But isn't the problem with ill-advised tax cuts that they pump too much money into the economy?)
Politically, the best thing about Dubya's proposed Social Security privatization plan is not the plan itself but the fact that it brings out the lazy thinker in Gore. (Ronald Reagan's attacks on "welfare queens," meaningless as both oratory and policy, tied his Democratic foes in similar knots.) Gore is in a pickle on Social Security. There isn't enough money to fund it at present levels?but Gore is so frightened of being identified as the tax-and-spend Democrat that he is at heart that he refuses to budget any money for it. That, remember, would mean raising taxes. So instead, Gore's plan estimates that the through-the-roof tax revenues from the stock-market boom of the last half decade will persist reliably and indefinitely.
But whenever Bush talks about investing, the stock market changes from Ol' Reliable into a fickle monster. Gore warns that letting people decide what to do with their own retirement money would be playing "stock market roulette."
The other big problem Gore faced last week was the pledge he made two months ago?back when Bush was still bloodied on campaign-finance reform by John McCain's primary challenge?not to use party soft money. At 8 points down, Gore needs all the help the Democratic National Committee can give him. What makes the promise so hard to back out on is the pompous self-importance with which Gore made it. In a March e-mail to Bush, he said that Dems would disarm for the presidentials, as long as Republicans did: "It's up to you and your party whether you want to start the ad war arms race," Gore wrote. "If you are willing to do the right thing, we can change politics forever."
Oops. Bush, who has more hard money than any political candidate in human history, said, "Fine." The RNC has spent zip?zero?on the presidential race. So now Gore is trying to pretend that "forever" is a synonym for "until around late May." His aides are scrambling to find any local independent expenditure that they can call soft money. Expect them to find something to be outraged about later this week.
Gong Show The silliest thing said during last week's debate over whether to set up permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with China came from House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt. Referring to China's persecution of the Falun Gong sect, Gephardt said, "They are now arresting people for being in an exercise group. This is not even a political organization. They pose no threat to the Chinese government, and they're arresting and torturing hundreds of people because they choose to be in an exercise group. This would be like if you go to Gold's Gym over here, the government comes and arrests you because you choose to exercise in the morning at a particular time."
This column is the last place on earth you'll see China's human rights record defended. But the fact is that, in China's authoritarian culture, assaults on the regime have historically come from secret societies, cults, business and family alliances, and other informal organization that can grow like wildfire if not brutally repressed. What does Gephardt think a Tong is? Mao Zedong brought elements of such organization to the Chinese Communist Party in the 1920s and 30s. Before then, he organized opposition to the government through (1) workers' night schools, (2) study circles and (3) a chain of bookstores. According to Gephardt's logic, for China to have feared Mao back then would have been like our fearing Barnes & Noble today.
Surely Gephardt doesn't think China would be willing to risk the trillions of dollars riding on PNTR just to crack down on a few joggers. The officers of the People's Liberation Army may be ruthless. But they're not stupid.