Why Alfred E. Newman Is President (July 23, 2003)

This morning I rose with The Answer, which I want to share with you. The same corporations that jerk around gasoline prices and smother public outrage against the practice, during the millennial corporate celebration when Enron stock was running near $100 a share, decided to sell the American people on Alfred E. Newman for president, “just because they could.” What they couldn't achieve by ballot, they stole.

AEN (aka GWB) was a masterpiece of political marketing. AEN is an archetype, a creature of the collective unconscious, a foreign land now being colonized by pharmaceutical companies seeking dream genes. Conveniently for the flak masters, several generations of voters with actual connections to Mad Magazine from about the 4th to the 8th grades, had largely forgotten it and the idiotically grinning little man who invited you into it with that beguiling question: What, me worry?

I remember one millennial night in a bar in Los Banos, a cotton community in the San Joaquin Valley of California, watching a group of normally sane, crooked Valley farmers bemused by the sheer idiocy of Bush in a debate with Gore and yet unable, as I was, to conceal their fascination with his face and words.

There was, as corporate advertising geniuses knew well, something bewitchingly familiar about that face. That face was associated with laughter, lunacy, careless youth, total irresponsibility. What could happen if such a face became the president? We could all imagine ourselves to be happy children again in the 5th grade, going fishing, playing baseball and everyone would know that Ike was really president, even if dead, or George Sr. could keep his son, George Alfred, in line, even if he were of the living dead.

Compare that with Gore's campaign. The gentlemen with whom I was watching the debate that night were well-acquainted with Gore's chairman at the time, Tony “Honest Graft” Coelho, a former congressman from their district who still fixed cotton subsidies for them.

“Why do I like Bush, a Texan out to screw me,” one guy said, “when I know Tony's going to help me?” I couldn't answer him at the time. There was something magic in that idiot face, those stupid, stumbling words, that sneering buffoonery. I thought first of Brecht, forgetting like so many, the real origin of our stunned musing. We were like deer reading Mad Magazine in on-coming headlights.

In Los Banos, it was a naked head-against-heart situation — your Step I Step II Step III cotton export subsidy v. sitting in the shade with your fishing line out in the creek reading a copy of Mad Magazine, spending a quiet afternoon with the village idiot, laughing and sneering at the world with the one character who really understood your budding criminal intent. Just the face of Alfred E. Newman on the cover of the magazine, the “What, me worry?” kid, was a door opening to guaranteed amusement and escape from the little cares of life. Alfred would take you, for as long as it took to read the issue, away from spelling quizes, cow-milking, chicken-tending, weed-hoeing and all the other oppressions of the child's life, singing the siren's song of complete irresponsibility.

This is just my thought, from some experience in political campaigns. I think campaigns are won when campaigners fully accept the challenge involved and rise to it with creative endeavor. I knew Clinton would win the election in 1992 the day the Adelante con Clinton T-shirts arrived in Modesto. It was early August. When campaign bric-a-brac arrives in Modesto that early, it points to several things: intelligent distribution of campaign stuff (campaign workers love T-shirts, Modesto was Clinton Country and printing them in Spanish was even more acute — somebody up there was actually thinking and, more unusual, actually doing, too); it pointed to good communication between Modesto, the state Clinton campaign and Little Rock; it pointed to much soft money.

The Florida election and the Supreme Court decision were as brilliantly creative as Arthur Andersen accounting practices or the Clinton's campaign's “It's the economy, stupid.” No one expected Alfred E. Newman to be elected to the presidency honestly. It would have totally violated his style. You expect his election to be an open display of the most idiotically venal corruption imaginable. Having chosen the path, you want satire to do what satire does best — reveal how stupidly corrupt the system really is — and vindicate again the deepest boyishly criminal proclivities within your innocent pre-pubescent heart.

Only the nature of the inspiration differed between the 1992 Clinton and the 2000 Bush campaigns, the intensity was the same.

Clinton brought Democrats who had been Republicans since Reagan back to the party of their fathers, something traditional, adult, human. Although he failed, Clinton tried to be humane and in so doing, brought humanity back into the political arena. But he ended up betraying their trust in the worst way, despite the final word on it I got in a Merced barbershop interview from a cop: “One thing everyone lies about is sex. It's in a special class.” But that didn't matter. Whatever you could say about adultery and lying about it at the barbershop couldn't exactly be said in the sanctity of your home, nuclear family or church. If you weren't still actively engaged in nuclear-familihood or hadn't been born-again lately, you still might have a live-in jealous girlfriend to contend with. Now you didn't have to go as far as some suspected Coelho's successor, Gary Condit of going to regularize God-fearing nuclear-familihood, but you couldn't quite be out there endorsing adultery. Slick Willie really pissed off the rednecks and they kicked themselves in their asses for being dumb enough to believe in him. So, in 2000, the flakmasters offered them Alfred E. Newman — balm to a perturbed heart. They voted a straight satire ticket in great enough numbers to precipitate a constitutional crisis in Florida — the perfect realization of the Alfred E. Newman for President campaign. It was better than any of his media campaigns in the 50s and 60s which, nonetheless, had prepared the collective unconscious for the real thing. It was better than Pat Paulson who never in his wildest dreams could have come up with hanging chads.

Somehow, the national imagination couldn't focus on what was coming down because, back in the nether regions of collective American dreamland, there was that question guaranteed to produce the equanimity the nation yearned for in its innermost heart: “What, me worry?”

You knew Alfred would select to be his attorney general a former US senator who had been defeated by a dead man in Missouri; Cheney, Oil Central's man; Rumsfeld, ridiculous in his first attempt at government, who made a fortune by downsizing and selling two corporations; Netanyahu's boys, Perle and Wolfowitz, Woolsey, Kristol; Miguel Estrada, a judicial nominee chosen because, in addition to rightwing attitudes, he was Hispanic and possessed a disabling stutter; Gale Norton, James Watt in drag; the lovely Laura herself, possibly the regime's angel flying too close to the ground; Bremer, who announces without hint of irony he will run Iraq according to the principles of Stanford Business School, in desert boots.

What we have here is a case of American working-class glasnost. Every working person in the country ever screwed by a prick in management — which would consitute the largest voting block in the nation — said: OK, let the whole fucking thing fall down. You can't run your businesses, you don't know how to work or think, you ain't got no skills at anything but office politics, you can't drive a truck, a forklift or a tractor, you can't man a machine or make one, all you know how to do is steal. Let's see how you run the government you already own out in the open, out front for once. Let's see what the world thinks about your arrogance and your idiotic mismanagement, which we have now fully suffered. We declare absolute peace.

You win. You bought the country fair and square with our money. We quit. The country ain't worth fightin' for anyway, anymore. We're giving it to Alfred on our way to the free food kitchen so he can give you a great big tax cut. Today ordinary working people, employed and unemployed, get out of their own worries long enough to worry about all those people in Houston that Enron screwed. People talk about that all the time. That one is not forgotten. Meanwhile, Alfred E. Newman is good entertainment — until the utility cuts off your electricity.

One Response to "Why Alfred E. Newman Is President (July 23, 2003)"

  1. Mark Laszlo   June 27, 2020 at 8:29 am

    IT yr piece is Illuminating about how we got to this weirdest
    location in history, w perspective of a veteran campaigner. It
    stirs echoes of the charming wag’s run in the run of the
    spirochete now running the country. Malapropism prone
    aristocrats & carnival barkers are both entertaining, in a
    nihilistic way.

    Reply

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