The Politics of Dancing

Everyone is focusing on the polls and spreadsheets, on the scandals and negative ads. This in fact may be the year negative advertising reached critical mass. Voters are no longer running from the room saying, “Smith is dishonest, I must vote for Jones!” They’re slouched in front of the TV thinking, They’re all bums, I’ll try to pick the least bummy. Or asking, “Honey, which bum is least likely to raise my property taxes?” The irony of the ads: Their relentless tearing down may force voters to decide based on actual issues.

But this is about something else. This is about the dance.

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The dance is where you see the joy of the joust. It’s a gifted pro making his moves. It’s a moment of humor, wit or merriness on the trail; it’s the clever jab or the unexpected line that flips an argument. It’s a thing in itself and is so much itself, so distinctive, that whether you are left, right or center, red team or blue, you can look at the moves of a guy on the other side and say with honest admiration: “Man, that was good.”

FDR, of course, could dance. He gets caught breaking a vow he’d made in Philadelphia when first running for president. What to do? He and his aides agree. “First thing, deny we were in Philadelphia!” FDR on the stump, chanting the names of his congressional foes, rolling their names in his marbly tones. “Martin, Barton and Fish!” And announcing, gravely, that he is not offended by charges he used government transport to ferry his pets, but his little dog Fala is very upset.

Or this: It’s the 1960s and California’s new governor, warring with the public university system, goes to meet with the chancellors. Students mass to protest his arrival by standing shoulder to shoulder and staring at him in complete and jarring silence. He arrives, walks past, turns at the doorway and puts his finger to his lips. Ssshhhh, he says, and winks. They start to laugh. Or the time he was heckled at a rally in 1984, and said, “You know, I may let Mr. Mondale raise his taxes.” Ronald Reagan could dance.

Or: Jack Kennedy waving with his short modest chop as the nuns jumped as the cavalcade passed and the crowds went mad. The sweet, knowing smile that said “I don’t deserve it”, and “But don’t let that stop you.” He had the dance too.

It’s hard to find the dance this year. On the stump Barack Obama shows pleasure, a lower form of the dance. So does Republican Rep. Mike Pence, who says he’s a conservative “but not in a bad mood about it.” John McCain can dance. In one week he wowed college kids on “Hardball,” bopped Hillary Clinton, and announced that if Republicans lose Congress he’ll “commit suicide.” Translation: I love Republicans, and if they lose I’ll be fine!

Arnold Schwarzenegger has dance. In a debate the other night he accused challenger Phil Angelides of reflexively backing tax hikes. The Los Angeles Times: “At one point, smiling across the stage at his rival, the governor taunted: ‘I can tell by the joy you see in your eyes when you talk about taxes, you just love to increase taxes. . . . Look out there right now and just say, ‘I love increasing your taxes.’ “ That’s a gift for the game.

Dirty DancingBill Clinton is still the master. Last week he went to Iowa, in the middle of the country, and told Democrats to reach out and embrace with love all these poor Republicans who no longer have a home. Their party has been taken over by “the most ideological, the most right-wing, the most extreme sliver of the Republican party!” Republicans are good—it’s their leaders who’ve gone nutty! “Forget about politics. Just go out and find somebody and look them dead in the eye and say, ‘You know, this is not right.’ “

He’s moving to drive a wedge between an unpopular president and his frustrated party. It’s a move to reframe, to separate and pick off. And it’s exactly how to go at moderate Republicans right now, not with a punch but a hand on the shoulder.

It’s classic Clinton. He gets real nice when he smells blood. You may say he has a natural advantage: The dance is what he was born for; governing was his problem. But give him his due. He can foxtrot.

As can his wife. Here she was this week in a timely clarification of her long-ago fable that she’d been named for Sir Edmund Hillary, who climbed Everest six years after she was born. “It was a sweet family story her mother shared to inspire greatness in her daughter,” said her office. Ah. She was just showing loyalty to her mother’s tender efforts to ignite dreams in a daughter oppressed by patriarchy and pervasive gender bias. (A less sweet way of seeing it: Mama lied, I didn’t!)

The clarification came days before Hillary’s first debate, where her challenger might have uncorked a reference to famous fibs, throwing in Everest. He can’t now.

Mrs. Clinton, who will soon go fully national again, shrewdly makes more and more religious references and has taken to wearing a cross on her neck on the campaign trail. Ben Smith of New York’s Daily News called it a diamond cross. It looks like one. But diamonds would be an odd thing for a Democratic politician to campaign in. No Democrat or Republican politician has worn expensive jewelry in New York since Mario Cuomo looked at his wealthy opponent in their first debate and purred, “Nice watch, Lou!”

A hunch. Hillary is just waiting for someone to ask her about the diamond cross so she can shyly respond, ‘Lord, it’s glass, actually.’ Her office will elaborate: It was given to her by a little girl in Poughkeepsie, to remind her of what’s important. Hillary promised to wear it every day. Then she promised a dying boy she’d hit a home run for him, while wearing her Yankees hat.

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The Clintons, Mr. Schwarzenegger and Mr. McCain are the exceptions. There’s a dance dearth out there. This is surprising, isn’t it? The issues are large and deep. Great battles are ennobled by happy warriors. We have two weeks left. If you’re bothering to run, get off the grim reading of talking points. Show some roar, show some game. Show some dance. Joylessness is unworthy of a great republic.