The Year of Voting Dangerously
By Miriam R. Kramer
Veterans Day is sacred to both veterans and their family members who sacrificed for our country, to those who served to defend our way of life. Let us now consider the diffuse phrase “way of life.” We consider voting in elections deemed free and fair according to the standards of liberal democracy as a part of our cultural identity and “way of life.” This 2016 presidential campaign has seemingly turned our usual electoral routines into a surreal bar-room brawl, testing and twisting them in a contest between a tough, long-time pol with ethical baggage and a trumped-up business mogul and reality TV star. Through her New York Times writings, the sharp-tongued Pulitzer Prize−winning columnist Maureen Dowd has closely observed eight other presidential elections as a reporter. Her recently released collection of mostly 2015 and 2016 columns, The Year of Voting Dangerously, is a palate cleanser for the noxious three-ring circus that this election has become.
If you know and adore Maureen Dowd’s writing, you will already want to buy the book. Her caustic observations of former Secretary of State Hillary and former President Bill Clinton come from closely observing and writing about them over decades. Take-no-prisoners Dowd includes her insights on the conflict of interest between foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation and Clinton’s State Department position, along with skewering the Clintons’ weaknesses, secrecy, jaded sense of dynastic entitlement, and ethical lapses over the years, including their money grabs in making pricey Wall Street speeches and writing books preceded by huge advances.
As I read these Clinton columns, I could almost see the acerbic Ms. Dowd throwing barbs at a Clinton dartboard, with the former Secretary of State in dead center. When you feel like you’re drowning in Clintonian platitudes and focus-grouped negative ads, you can take a refreshing dip into Dowd’s quick-reading reality checks. She never writes hagiographies for either side, and always has a glinting eye for human peccadilloes and foibles in contenders along the political spectrum.
In 2015 columns Dowd takes on Donald Trump mostly as the flamboyant New York figure with whom she crossed paths at parties. She partially enjoys his scorched-earth swing through the Republican primaries, knocking over mediocre toy-soldier candidates with entertaining, simplistic quips, while noting his irrepressible vulgarity, childishness, and sensitivity to criticism. A Democrat in a family of staunch Republicans, she also opens her column several times to let her siblings hold their own and share varied views on the building impresario. Dowd still comments on him here as a Republican unloved and distrusted by his own party for inconsistency, untamability, and the blatancy of his racist, sexist, and offensive xenophobic remarks, particularly because many in his party would rather use his attitudes more subtly to manipulate voters.
As Dowd’s writing progressed in 2016, she inevitably offended and lost access to the Donald, an extremely thin-skinned extreme narcissist once banned access for the Washington Post, among other news sources he felt covered him negatively in this campaign. (In addition, he has recently attempted to sue the New York Times for libel against women accusing him of sexual assault, and threatened to expand libel laws if he achieves office. This newspaper of note said, in other words, “Bring it on.”) Facing his wall of wounded ego and distractibility, she sometimes simply threw bite-sized topics at him to get grade-school responses from the Twitter Troll par excellence.
With her razor tongue, Dowd discusses his vengefulness, unreliability, paper-thin understanding of domestic and foreign policy, rabble-rousing talents, and frightening ability to hold a grudge. With a verbal flensing knife, she lays open his ignorance, internal contradictions and serial lying, helping us wash down the bitter pills from this Bataan Death March of a campaign with her spoonsful of satire.
The Year of Voting Dangerously is only partially devoted to Secretary Clinton and Donald Trump. I found the title somewhat disingenuous for that reason. That being said, her columns on previous presidents enrich her current observations in going back through the past twenty years or so. She hammers home cogent points about President Obama’s presidency and his ring of advisers, examining his professorial love of the Presidency and theoretical issues to improve the country combined with his disdain for down-and-dirty politics: the horse-trading and schmoozing that makes Congressional opponents vote your way. As she keenly notes, his reluctance to get down in the muck has probably undermined his ability to enact certain meaningful policies.
Dowd also illuminates the Bush dynasty, as she examines familial psychological reasons that caused President George W. Bush to go to war, and internal family dynamics that caused Dubya to push brother and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush out of the way but use his Floridian influence to help grab the ultimate prize of the presidency in 2000. She also casts a rapier-like eye on Jeb’s lost chance at the presidency as he fizzled among the sixteen Republican primary candidates and under Donald Trump’s bullying taunts.
Perhaps my favorite, and certainly the most positive, section of this compendium contains Dowd’s columns on her long-time frenemy, former President George H.W. Bush. His reluctant appreciation of her despite her insights of him as a wanna-be red-blooded blue-blood, her descriptions of their occasional enjoyable meetings, and her account of the goofy, quirky notes they sent back and forth after his presidency shine a different light on his personality and character. Dowd portrays a man who, despite his reality-removed WASP privilege and faults, showed a common decency and belief in the moral imperatives of the presidency, a man who stands as a stark contrast both to his son, the former President George W. Bush, and the candidates we must now consider.
Dowd’s book ends with her column on July 31st. Since a horrifying media bomb seems to explode in this presidential race every couple of days, I also read her subsequent columns in the New York Times. She has focused more recently on the self-destructive candidate she calls the “highchair king,” mocking his “motley crew” of advisers who cannot do the following: control him, prep him for debates in which Secretary Clinton baits him and presents herself presidentially, control his constantly changing policy stances, or effectively deny his hot-miked comments on his ability to grope and kiss unwilling women because of his celebrity.
As an increasing stream of Bill Cosby–like assault accusers starts to come forward, Dowd sardonically comments that he has no idea how offensive his “defense” is, which is that the purported victims of his sexual assaults were not attractive enough to attack. She also reminds readers that Trump’s recent series of late-night Twitter attacks on the former Miss Universe 1996, a Latina whom he called Miss Piggy and Miss Housekeeping for gaining weight, are consistent with his multiple Twitter wars and dashed-off 140-character opinions about various “losers” over the years. These include his flurry of 2012 tweets on the relationship between the young Twilight movie stars Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, in which he opined that Robert should drop Kristen for cheating on him. As she pointedly penned, “We should have known then that Trump was really a 13-year-old girl.”
Dowd has referred to herself as the court jester who reports all she sees at court in the most satirical and amusing way possible. In her most recent post-book writings, she has presented Trump as “a mad king.” She might now portray him as the mad, paranoid King Aerys from George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series and A Song of Ice and Fire books, since she liberally sprinkles references to Martin’s universe throughout her columns. Those who have immersed themselves in Martin’s beloved, cynical series on realistic political strategy in a fantastic world might easily come to that conclusion. Or perhaps she might find the impulsive, teenaged King Joffrey Baratheon a more realistic and aptly cruel Trump comparison.
As we go to press approximately two weeks before the 2016 presidential election, I return to our celebration of Veterans Day. In speaking with my friend, an experienced, proud diplomat who served in Vietnam as a fighter pilot and continued to defend the United States overseas during the Cold War, I discovered that he might not vote this year. A former member of the military, he has been a registered Republican his whole life. He is also a long-time Clinton opponent disgusted by the former President Clinton’s sleaziness, Secretary of State Clinton’s foreign policy errors, and her entitled, unethical use of a private e-mail server when serving in the State Department. Yet he is also incredulous at seeing Trump as the Republican nominee, dismissing him as a poisonous, dangerously inconsistent ignoramus who threatens the First Amendment by trying to clamp down press freedoms while cannily turning this election into a reality show. He told me that he had decided not to vote after finding out that Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate he briefly considered, has no knowledge of or interest in international affairs.
I believe in voting. For me it is close to a religious belief, although I see the defects in our primarily two-party system. I said to my friend what I would say to other veterans: “You fought to defend this country. You put your life in danger to defend the American Experiment. Our very democracy and ‘way of life’ depends on free and fair elections and using the Constitution as our guide. Why would you not participate in this fundamental, essential process that you risked your life to defend?” I hope he reconsiders his stance.
As Americans, we also honor our veterans’ sacrifices through voting. Here is another reason to do so, even if we vote reluctantly and for a candidate we find tainted or jaded. If one flawed candidate could potentially govern the country while the other menaces his own party’s existence, democracy, freedom of speech, foreigners, women, and potentially world stability, it is even more imperative to vote. These candidates are not created equal, however unsavory they both may seem. Few adults ever say that life is fair, but bizarrely we often believe voting must be hopeful, exciting, or fun enough to participate. This year it will be a wrenching process for many Americans. It may have to be our civil responsibility in 2016, the way we view jury duty.
Not voting is also really inadvertent voting. It can potentially swing the election towards a candidate you find completely incapable of ruling the country, one who indirectly affects crucial political and judicial decisions that concern citizens directly. I urge anyone reading this column, not just veterans, to use your voice to participate in your democracy. We undermine our own power when we refuse to vote for President and any other candidates for office on either ticket.
People in other parts of the world yearn to be American citizens able to cast a vote in an electoral process proven free and fair. For years women and African-Americans in our own country either could not vote or fought severe obstacles against voting. For the most part we have overcome those hurdles in our progress as a nation. Our elections, although featuring overly similar parties influenced by lobbyists, are not rigged. We make decisions based on our own values and beliefs. As Winston Churchill famously quipped, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Those reading Maureen Dowd’s The Year of Voting Dangerously would probably agree.