Political Culture: Two Guys Named George Play Ball

Written by Current Events, Political Culture

In our current age of hyper-partisan combat and contempt – to which I have proven myself at least as susceptible as my fellow fifth-rate political blatherers – it sure does chap my ass when I find myself appreciating the talents and perspective of a conservative.

It’s going to be a tough year for many Democrats, who currently find ourselves despising a candidate from our own party while finding it difficult to work up much of a lather over John McCain. He’s an altogether good man, a rare commodity in Washington these days, who (apart from a little obligatory ass-kissing of certain “agents of intolerance”) is refraining from all the name-calling, dissembling and other standard-issue bullshit we’d have every reason to expect from anybody else who might have been the GOP nominee.

John McCainI’d be willing to bet that McCain will prove himself the only Republican in the whole country who’s capable of getting through this entire election season without saying the word “Hussein” unless it’s got “Saddam” attached to it. (A shout-out to Eric, whoever you are: You’ve already lost this bet, based on your performance in the comments beneath last week’s column. Congratulations.) McCain is wrong on Iraq, he’s anti-choice, and his party is a cesspool of corruption, bigotry, selfishness and incompetence – but at least he is an honorable man who promises four years of higher ethics and moderation. A McCain presidency, if combined with a filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the Senate, is not an entirely unappealing prospect.

Of course, the last Republican candidate who promised moderation gave us our current long national nightmare instead. This column is really about that guy – and about another guy who I found myself loathing a little less on Sunday, if only for a few minutes.

Nationals ParkThe subject on which I found myself incapable of mustering the usual outrage with George Bush and George Will was baseball. Sunday was, of course, Opening Day – a time when politicians and pundits traditionally set down their brickbats, put on their rose-colored glasses and celebrate the one shared obsession that renders partisanship obsolete (unless you’re a Yankee-hating Red Sox rooter, or vice versa). And both these guys named George rose to the occasion with performances that betrayed a generosity of spirit one wishes they would exhibit when it came to the more important issues of the day.

Will’s annual baseball-themed column in the Washington Post was short, sweet, and a classic of its kind. It was a reminder that, even as we obsess over the current political gamesmanship between teams Obama and Clinton, the games that started up Sunday night at the new ballpark in Washington hold lasting lessons that can (and should) be applied to the affairs currently plaguing our state. Here’s a sample paragraph:

George Will“Bill Veeck, who did more for America in one night than most of us do in a lifetime (the night in September 1937 he planted the ivy along Wrigley Field’s outfield walls), said that the great thing about baseball – aside from the fact that you do not need to be 7 feet wide or 7 feet tall in order to play it – is: Three strikes and you’re out, and the best lawyer can’t help you. Baseball, which provides satisfying finality and then does it again the next day, is a severe meritocracy that illustrates the axiom that there is very little difference between men but that difference makes a big difference.”

When Will writes like this – as he has done in a couple of excellent, best-selling books, Men at Work and Bunts – a baseball obsessive can’t help but recall his essential contributions to Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on the subject from 14 years ago. (To my wife’s eternal dismay, I break out the videotapes of that show every 18 months or so, and devour every one of its 19 hours.) His stentorian voice is at once wry and authoritative, and when listening to him talk baseball one is reminded why, in his advancing age, he is much better as a television commentator than as a print columnist. He’s quick on his feet and erudite in the extreme, but he’s most useful when he’s got less airspace in which to vent. Here’s Will discussing Willie Mays.

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He’d clearly not been effective in his time-management while putting together the infuriating column that appeared just three days earlier, in which he spotlighted some shoddy statistics cobbled together by a right-wing think tank to argue that liberals are less charitable than conservatives. (While imagining that liberals’ addiction to government spending left them no desire to offer private contributions, Will completely ignored the phenomenon of religious tithing – not to mention the hundreds of millions in checks cut to televangelists each year – both of which would drive conservative percentages skyward without necessarily resulting in much “charity.”) It reminded me of the ass-backward logic employed by Republicans in 2004, when John Kerry, joined by other millionaire Democrats, noted that the Bush tax cuts had been too generous to the wealthy. “If John Kerry’s so worried about not paying enough taxes, why doesn’t he donate more of his money to the government?” they muttered, before emptying their drool cups.

Speaking of contributing to the government – or not – George Bush last Sunday took a break from dismantling American democracy to throw out the first pitch at the Opening Day game between the Braves and the Nationals. He was roundly booed for his efforts (a ball, head-high to a giant), as one could only expect for a man with a 28% approval rating.

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Of course, as with all things in these times when “reality” is based on ideology rather than, you know, facts, whether or not Bush was booed depends on whether or not a Republican has doctored the soundtrack. More videos here and here confirm the lusty booing. Yet, courtesy of a contributor calling him/herself “RepublicanRevolution,” here is your next Emmy winner for sound editing:

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The real scene was practically a photographic negative of Bush’s pugnacious stroll to the mound at Yankee Stadium in October 2001; with the 9/11-stricken crowd screaming its approval, he had confidently thrown a perfect strike that night, providing symbolic evidence that America would quickly vanquish any foe that challenged its cherished values (or its national pastime, which had been forced to delay the World Series by a week).

Or so it seemed at the time; Bush, unfortunately, has spent the last seven years undermining those same values in the name of not-quite-vanquishing any of those foes. Nevertheless, on Sunday, after his far less triumphant return to the mound, Bush did something amazing: He made a couple million ESPN viewers forget what a douchebag he is, if only briefly.

George BushVisiting with game announcers Jon Miller and Joe Morgan in the booth for an inning and a half, Bush was affable, humble, knowledgeable about the game and clearly enthusiastic about what he was doing. He expressed sincere concern over the steroids problem and hope for baseball’s handling of it, he laughed at his lousy pitch (even playing along as Morgan used ESPN’s “K-Zone” technology to show just how bad it was), and he even happily admitted mistakes and inadequacies from his days as part-owner of the Texas Rangers. He didn’t, for once, seem like he was holding onto long-discredited ideas just to avoid the embarrassment of being proven wrong, and he wasn’t enunciating his words slowly and clearly as though he needed to prove he knew how to say them. He was, for a span of about 15 minutes on the air, that guy Americans wanted to “have a beer with” in 2000; for a quarter of an hour, even I wanted to have a beer with him, as opposed to looking forward to his death so I can urinate on his grave.

Of course, soon enough I switched over to the news and saw his most recent “press availability,” in which he snapped to a reporter, “We are withdrawing troops – it’s called ‘return on success.’” And once again I felt I was being lectured to by the dumbest man in the country. Still, during that ballgame I saw the path George Bush should have taken with his life – a rise to baseball commissioner, rather than leader/decider/destructor of the free world – and I saw a man I might actually have liked, had he taken that road.

Just as Will’s column had done earlier in the day, Bush’s engaging appearance on ESPN reminded me that even when a man makes his living disparaging and/or destroying every political ideal I’ve ever held, I should retain enough goodwill to see where he and I might find common ground and a shared passion.

But only for a moment. And only over baseball. And then it’s back to the barricades.