Politics & Policy

Do The Hustle

The senator is desperately trying to be one of the boys.

Last Sunday night, my wife and I hurried home to catch the Red Sox on television after leaving one of those pleasant summer parties where you drink white wine and eat smoked salmon and swat bugs in someone’s yard. We probably would have lingered over the canapés a little longer if the Sox hadn’t been playing the Yankees in the rubber match of a three-game series. And…if the Red Sox hadn’t pulled out a win a day earlier in a game that included just about everything–including a brawl and a walk-off home run. It was one of those wins that gives Red Sox fans hope, year after year. We knew they were eight and a half games behind the Yankees and it was almost August and Derek Lowe was pitching…but still, any day now the sun is going to rise in the West; it is just a matter of believing.

Turned out John Kerry had shown up at Fenway for the game. He had a National Guardsman with him. The latter had done tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and was wearing his beret and fatigues. He took the catcher’s position and Kerry threw him a pitch that landed in the dirt. The fans booed.

The cameras played on Kerry throughout the game. He did an interview in which he described himself as a loyal Red Sox fan and he said the expected things about the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry. He gave one of the Red Sox players a high five. He left after the 8th with the Red Sox ahead by three runs.

It was your average political hustle. One more variation on the old “just a regular guy” routine which they run every four years–so it must work. The Kerry-image commissar might have been troubled by the booing but would be reassured that, hey, this is Boston where the fans are the nastiest in the country–except for Philadelphia where they once famously booed Santa Claus. Just be happy they didn’t boo the soldier.

The sports hustle is an old reliable and the politician who did it better than anyone in history was, of course, Ronald Reagan. Two stories come to mind. There was the time when he went out to Chicago for a Cubs game and wound up in the booth doing some radio play-by-play with the legendary Harry Carey. This was not really that much of a stretch since Reagan had done this kind of thing for a living before he went out to Hollywood and on to glory.

The other great Reagan moment came when he flew down to Florida on Air Force One for the July 4th NASCAR race at Daytona. There was some kind of problem–weather, probably–and he was still airborne when it came time to start the race. Well, Reagan never missed his mark, so he got on the radio and spoke those words that send shivers down the back of any racing fan: “Gentlemen, start your engines.”

Reagan was in the grandstand when Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough put on a great finish to the race and Petty–the King of NASCAR–took the checkered flag for his 200th win. The President stuck around after the race and ate fried chicken with the drivers and pit crews.

Now that is pitch-perfect image manipulation.

But the hustle doesn’t always work, even when the pieces appear to be in place. Bill Clinton tried to work the good old boys when he was a candidate in 1992 and his NASCAR credentials looked a lot better, on paper, than Ronald Reagan’s. He was, after all, the governor of Arkansas, so he not only knew what a shade-tree-mechanic was; he’d probably done some business with one or two. There was even a famous driver from his state–Mark Martin who now drives the Viagra car, the significance of which is both obvious and gnomic.

Anyway…Clinton went down to Darlington, South Carolina for the annual Labor Day Southern 500, a race that draws the clans from all over Redneck Nation. They arrive looking for action: which means a little fighting, a lot of drinking, and some serious and consistent howling at the moon.

Naturally, they booed Clinton. Lustily. Your average NASCAR fan may not have been to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship but he’s smart enough to know when someone is peeing on his leg and calling it warm rain.

To paraphrase Lincoln, “You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time…and that’s usually good enough for government work.”

Kerry had me thinking he actually might have been one of those fans who feels like a vein has been opened whenever the Red Sox lose to the Yankees. But he blew it when he left the game early. If a Sox fan knows anything, it is that no lead–especially not a mere three runs–is safe against the Yankees. You don’t leave until the last dog is hung. Kerry can ask Clinton the exact meaning of that phrase but he best not try using it. And he’d be advised to skip the stock-car races where they would boo him until it melted the wax in his ears.


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