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Russell Frank: Of Politics, Pastry and Point Guards

by on March 02, 2012 6:00 AM

I haven’t been much of a television watcher for most of my adult life. In high school I had a toaster oven-sized color TV in my room and got hooked on “Mission Impossible,” “Mod Squad” (crush on Peggy Lipton), “Room 222,” New York Knicks games (man crush on Willis Reed), and, don’t ask me why, “Marcus Welby, M.D.”

In college, my roommate and I developed a nightly rerun ritual. First we caught the last five minutes of “Perry Mason”: confession (“OK, OK, I killed her -- can’t you see? -- I had to”), commercial, then Perry, Paul and Della post-coitally smoking cigarettes while Perry explains how he cracked the case.

Then we watched “Burns and Allen,” Gleason and Carney (“The Honeymooners”) and our last stop, “The Twilight Zone.” A perfect way to end the day.

After college, though, bupkis. TV-free for 30 years. I missed Michael Jordan’s entire career.  Missed “Dallas.” Missed “Friends.” Missed “Seinfeld.” “Missed “The Sopranos.” Didn’t seem to hurt me any. Great snob appeal.

When my marriage fizzled in 2006, friends told me to treat myself well. Hmmm. I bought an air conditioner and hooked up the cable. That was all I could think of. I started watching baseball, football, a little basketball and not much else.

A month or so ago I was watching a particularly putrid NBA game. Thanks to the lockout, the league had begun its regular season without having had much of a preseason. To make up for lost time, it devised a schedule that requires teams to play three games in three different time zones in four nights. The result has been some of the worst professional hoops ever played.

I was just about to turn off the TV that night when I decided to make one quick tour of cable’s other offerings. And just like that I got hooked.  Here were all the drama and plot twists that the basketball game lacked. Here were rivalries, lies, grandiose statements and phony expressions of piety -- last gasps, all, of a bygone era.

Some of my highbrow cronies couldn’t understand the appeal. “So many plot twists,” I explained. “I can’t wait to see what happens next.”

And now, all too soon, the season is over: No more Michele, no more Rick P, no more Herman. Even Mitt, Newt, Ron and Rick S are done sparring with each other live on national TV.

What, you thought I was raving about “Downton Abbey”? I’m suffering from Republican presidential debates withdrawal.

No more Ron Paul, who, by outsourcing everything to state and local government would turn the presidency into a ceremonial post, like the emperor of Japan.

No more Newt Gingrich, who, as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman nastily but aptly put it, is “a stupid person's idea of what a smart person sounds like."

No more Rick Santorum, whose efforts to sound presidential recall the little chicken hawk’s efforts to be a tough guy in the Foghorn Leghorn cartoons.

And no more Mitt Romney, who is probably the most tone-deaf public figure since Rousseau’s grande princesse figured if the peasants lacked bread, pas de probleme, they could eat brioche (apparently Marie Antoinette never said “let them eat cake” or brioche or any other kind of baked good).

The standard response to this year’s crop of aspirants is, “Is this the best the Republican Party can do?” Obviously, though, it is. After all, this is the party that gave us Sarah Palin, George W. Bush and Dan Quayle, to name just three of the dimmest bulbs on the marquee.

But this, contrary to appearances, is not an anti-Republican rant. The GOP just happens to be the party with an open nominating process this time around so we’ve gotten to watch a gaggle of Republican geese say silly things. Next go-round, in 2016, I fully expect as many members of the donkey party to make asses of themselves.

Why are our pols so pathetic? If these guys aren’t the best and brightest among us, how do they get where they are? What does it take to contend for the presidency of the United States, anyway?

The answer, I fear, is this simple: People who succeed in politics are good at politics. Period. Just as people who succeed in business are good at business. Political and business success requires, first and foremost, a kind of shrewdness: an ability to figure out what you need to do to get what you want, and then do it. That’s a great skill. I envy it. But it doesn’t have much to do with wisdom or creativity, alas.

So we get great television and bad governance. And now, with debate season over, not even great TV. Thank goodness for Jeremy Lin. Praise the Knicks and pass the brioche.



Russell Frank worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years before joining the journalism faculty at Penn State in 1998. He roots for the Yankees, plays blues guitar and harmonica (badly), bikes and hikes for physical exercise and does The New York Times crossword puzzle for mental exercise. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away all the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. He is the author of "Newslore: Contemporary Folklore on the Internet." His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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