In the fall of 2004, I watched John Kerry on one of the Sunday-morning pundit-fests as he was asked a question about the "Swift-boat Veterans," who were then launching scurrilous attacks on his war record. It was a setup, a lob, a chance for Kerry to take a good, angry whack at his lying critics.
I remember watching in amazement as he hemmed and hawed, searching for the precise response that would display both his capacity for understanding his opponents' point of view and the proper degree of "outrage." I also remember thinking, "We've lost."
In American politics, nuance is for losers. The Republicans figured this out decades ago, when the politics of simplicity was fully realized by Ronald Reagan. They relearned it in 1992, when George H.W. Bush, a nuanced man if ever there was one, lost to Bill "It's the economy, stupid" Clinton.
In this American Idol democracy we've created, image is all. You create a brand, an avatar, and stick with it. You're a "maverick" or a "hockey mom." You create a disparaging brand for your opponent and keep repeating it. He's a "community organizer," an "elitist." Keep your adversary on the defensive, offering long explanations to simple accusations.
On his show this week, Keith Olbermann asked Barack Obama, "Is Sarah Palin qualified to be president?"
"Hell, no," I said, from my couch. "If she was, she'd be on television right now, instead of hiding in Alaska for two weeks learning foreign and domestic policy talking points." But Obama smiled. He was courteous and gentlemanly, reluctant to disparage the woman who had trashed him in a nationally televised speech five days earlier.
I wanted him to say, "This is a woman who would make your daughter carry a baby to term if she was raped by her brother. This is a woman who tried to ban books at her city's public library. This is a woman who continues to blatantly lie about how she said 'no thanks' to the 'bridge to nowhere.' In fact, Keith, I'd say when it comes to our country's future, Sarah Palin is the bridge to nowhere."
But nope. Obama stayed on the high road.
I hope to God I'm wrong — and I wish I had more faith in the American electorate — but in this country today, the high road often leads straight to Loserville.