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Works and Days

They Aren’t What They Seem

June 8th, 2007 - 4:06 am

The Paint-by-Numbers Candidate

It’s hard to know what to make of the latest incarnation of John Edwards. Kerry apparently once picked him as his VP mate on the basis of his supposedly moderate views. At least I remember in the 2004 campaign some reference of his that we were safer after 9/11, and positive acknowledgment of his vote and soapbox speech in 2002 in support of taking out Saddam.

But now all the recent press of his newfound populism at odds with the $400 haircuts, the 30,000 sq. ft. mansion with a playroom (e.g., “John’s Room”), the $50,000 lecture on poverty at a UC campus—all that and more suggest a man of the people also quite comfortable with the material rewards of US-style capitalism, especially its more ruthless variety as practiced by trial lawyers.

Given that Mr. Edwards has only the political experience of one-term in the US Senate—and a propensity to come across as superficial—one would think his advisors would caution him about appearing flighty, hypocritical, or transparently opportunistic.

That was sort of the impression he earned after his lackluster performance in the 2004 Vice Presidential debate. Obviously he has rhetorical skills, intelligence, and ambition—the critical requisites for a multimillionaire trial attorney—and now apparently thinks he can reapply them into reinventing himself into some sort of southern populist to the left of Hillary.

He knows too that no Democratic candidate has ever won the popular vote after 1960 without a Southern accent (e.g. Johnson, Carter, Clinton, Gore), and Kerry reiterated that losers’ rule of Humphrey, McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis. But somehow Edwards seems to have misjudged that calculus. The Southern flavor for Democrats was to provide the appearance of centrism, an offset to a perceived 1960s party of big government and softness on defense.

Running from the hard left with a twang of sorts not only cuts away the naturally moderate base in the South, but hardly appeals to independents there in the general election. And the black vote in the South will go to Obama, not Edwards. And such poor timing!—scoffing at the ‘war on terror’ at about the same time they arrest terrorists planning mass murder at Fort Dix and JFK.

And for all his talk of two nations, a bald William Jennings Bryan sweating in suspenders, he ain’t. My grandmother used to recite to us Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech, a sort of bible among broke farmers born in the 19th-century. I can’t imagine anyone quoting Edwards on anything other than young legal eagles after watching videos of him in the summation of the awards phase before a jury.

A Grouch’s Recent Thoughts on Europe

After traveling on extended visits to Belgium, France, Greece, Germany, Holland, Italy, and Portugal within the last three years, I offer the following subjective impressions.

Race: I don’t think one would ever see a Secretary Rice or Attorney General Gonzales as a German Foreign Minister or Greek Justice Minister. There are of course blacks, Arabs, and Asians in Europe but they are mostly segregated and gravitate into specialty restaurants, street hawkers, farm laborers or sanitation workers. In this regard the multiracial nature of the United States is truly remarkable, in that various races permeate the economic ladder and are found in almost every sort of employment.

For all the talk of greenness and environmentalism, European roads and sidewalks have more trash and clutter than in the United States. No American state highway system would tolerate the garbage thrown out the window as is commonly done on the roadsides in Greece. No US train would have waste from the toilet falling directly on the tracks as I experienced in Germany. No construction company in New York or San Francisco would allow the sidewalks to be ‘bombs away’ debris zones of construction waste as was true in Italy.

Smoking? Europeans of course smoke in the restaurant next to you. Their non-smoking hotel rooms smell like cigar-lounges. Boats, buses, and trains are worse than the air in LA. I say all this as a non-smoker who grew up in a house of smokers, and doesn’t care much whether people puff next to me, but instead one seeking to square the Euro-hysteria about environmental quality and “getting along” with the apparently selfish and unhealthy trait of public cigarettes.

No need to comment on public toilets, or the effects of the Euro no water toilet, that apparently requires more water to flush twice—if the sound of constant flushing in hotels is any indication.

As for rudeness: by and large utopian pacifist European clerks and PR people are far ruder to strangers than are their American counterparts. A New York hotel employee is downright bouncy compared to her counterpart in France. Can it be that our cutthroat capitalist system—to the extent it is even cutthroat—demands performance in a way the zillion-person, lifelong-tenured staff at a Greek bank office does not?

A Kinder and Gentler Continent?

So I’ve never quite bought into the EU mythology of a caring socialist paradise—not when there is no accountability, few can be fired, and there aren’t enough incentives to reward initiative. I could add a lot of empirical examples from a recent 16-day stay in Greece, but why pick on a southern Mediterranean country, when a European powerhouse like Germany will do? Take a recent flight on a Lufthansa flight from Athens to Frankfurt:

1) An announced 30-minute delay in boarding due to some Lufthansa employees (pilots?) not having enough down time from their previous flight.
2) Another 30-minute in-air delay due to congestion at Frankfurt—circling, then announcement of imminent landing, then more circling, then more delay, etc. Happens everywhere? Keep reading…
3) A 15 minute-delay as plane waited for an open birth, which, in fact, was sitting open, but 30 yards and thus an eternity away from the plane.
4) Next, the sudden decision to load passengers in bus to drive them 50 feet across the street for additional passport control: 10 more minutes to load full bus, 2-minute U-turn. 15 minutes later we still were in the bus and had not achieved a fifty feet advance. And the result? The additional passport clerk decided not to check anyone’s passport. With a grim look (the sort of “why are you here anyway?’), she waived us through.
5) Then the crowd followed her directions to an elevator. Next, elevator with the first eight of us gets stuck. Temperature climbs to about 100 degrees inside. After the eight’s constant banging and ringing of emergency bell, and failed efforts to force open the door, an occasional businesslike voice comes on the elevator intercom, “I will be there in 5 minutes.” To our swearing, the calm German voice reassured “I said 5 minutes”. Fifteen minutes later, doors are pried open. Attendant growls and walks away. Sweat-drenched late passengers begin mad dash to planes, cursing German rudeness.
6) But the rush stops at a 3rd passport control checkpoint. The crowd lines up for two booths, one open with one attendant, the other closed—with six attendants chatting outside it. They look peeved at passengers’ begging to open up the other booth, and turn their backs for their group smoke. Long lines merge into one, with more angry late passengers. As we snail forward, every 3-4 minutes Lufthansa attendants with a trail of the privileged crowd in–and break the line to push ahead groups of 4-5 select in need of haste. As they are herded ahead, cut in, and passed on, lots of voices of the hoi polloi sound, “That’s not fair. ” They are met with Lufthansa scowls. A Spaniard has the gumption to admit to me “I’ve never seen anything like this in the States.” He seems to be suggesting egalitarianism is to be practiced not preached.
7) Two more passport controls. Complete body wanding, but no need to take off shoes.
8) Then one redeeming feature: Neither an airline nor an airport that treated people like that could ever have an on-time flight, so the connecting flights were delayed as well, and the ritual sort of started over with the next passport check…
9) Thank God for cutthroat Anglo-Saxon capitalism.

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