It was Tip O'Neill, the former Speaker of the House, who coined the phrase "all politics is local," a consistently true and delightfully pedestrian aphorism which has been used, maybe over-used, for a generation. It is the Moore's Law of politics, a simple truth so elegant, it gleefully flies in the hard, pock-marked, complex face of American politics. The idea that you can double the number of transistors on a computer chip every two years, increasing functionality while at the same time having the price consistently go down seems to defy logic. So too does the notion that if you just address the needs of your constituents in a timely, direct manner, you will be politically successful most every time. Yet here we are.
It's probably for the best that Speaker O'Neill isn't around today to witness this wicked iteration of his folksy truism: all politics is personal. We've taken our politics in America to the next level -- or down a level, to be precise. Today, politics isn't about localities -- cities, towns, neighborhoods, counties. It's about drilling down to individual people, tapping into their emotions. You and me. Sara Palin is the High Hostess of this all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of lowest common denominator politicking. Don't like Muslims? Sarah has a tweet for you. Like to use your stockpile of guns carelessly? Sarah has a Facebook update you may want to see. Abstinence hypocrite? Tea party nut? War monger? Death panel provocateur? Have we got a half-term governor for you. It's not about representing people and their issues -- it's about finding a base and doing or saying anything to torque them up.
A sad tale of this latest unfortunate embodiment of our American politics is forthcoming. But first, I'd just direct you to my last post on Mike Huckabee.
It's one thing when a lunatic right-wing radio talk show host asks, breathlessly, "Don't you think we deserve to know more about this man?" and be talking about the sitting president, who has been in office for more than two years, now. He's catering to the personal proclivities of a small group of woefully misguided Americans with an awful lot of time on their hands.
This is an of itself is not so much a problem. After all, this is the business of entertainers. Limbaugh and Beck, O'Reilly and Coulter, and all the others would never describe themselves (publicly) as entertainers, but that's just what they are. Replace their verbal bile and despicable rhetoric with some f-bombs, two-bit jokes, and a brick wall background, and you've got comedians working the stand-up circuit. Did I tell you the one about the guy from Kenya...? This Muslim walks into a bar...
A more serious problem manifests itself when a serious contender for President of the United States responds to that question in all earnestness:
"I would love to know more. What I know is troubling enough. And one thing that I do know is his having grown up in Kenya, his view of the Brits, for example, very different than the average American. When he gave the bust back to the Brits..."
This is the most intellectual thing you can muster about the guy you want to run against in a year or so? How can you reasonably say you don't know anything about him only to then grossly misrepresent his background in such a profound way? All of which is compounded when your spokesman offers this as clarification:
"When the Governor mentioned he wanted to know more about the President, he wasn't talking about the President's place of birth - the Governor believes the President was born in Hawaii. The Governor would however like to know more about where President Obama's liberal policies come from and what else the President plans to do to this country - as do most Americans."
When the Governor mentioned he wanted to know more about the President, what he meant was, he's not real familiar with, you know, financial reform, TARP, the auto industry bailout, health care reform, financial aid reform, the administration of two wars, and a whole host of other issues he can't be bothered to even Google.
Governor Huckabee, I don't know who your spokesman is, but fire him. That, or don't run for president.
Or do. After all, all politics is personal, and this is nothing less than aiming a verbal poison dart at the very soul of folks who are already nervous for a host of reasons. This is apparently the new gambit from the Republicans: don't talk about issues. Don't talk about things that affect a wide swath of Americans -- black, white, poor, rich, middle-class, lower-class, upper-class, West coast, East coast, middle America. Talk about stuff that'll fire up the few, the proud... the clueless. Mention Kenya a lot. Try to work in the word "madrassa". Talk about how freaky they are in Hawaii. They give you those flowers around your neck, they wear funny shirts, and say "aloha," and it's where Dog the Bounty Hunter is from.
Talk to those folks who think 'Obama' is a funny name.
After all, all politics is personal. And Obama is... just different.
Locally, the issue of how the personal is separated from the political representing a larger community is a matter of considerably more weight.
I want you to imagine this:
Police officers are serving a warrant on a criminal with a long rap sheet and a history of violence. This is a dangerous man. After some delay, they enter the house. The bad guy is in the attic. An officer enters the attic to arrest the man. After it looks like the arrest might end peacefully, the bad guy gets the drop on an officer and shoots him in the face. Twice. Killing him instantly. He wounds another officer.
The situation turns into a kind of horror-show standoff with the bad guy nefariously using the body of the dead officer as bait to lure other officers into danger. He kills another. He uses one of the dead cop's radio earpieces to track the movements of officers in and around the house. After a day of chaos, mayhem, destruction, and death, the house is destroyed and the bad guy is dead.
A few days later, another cop from the same city is gunned down on the street by a boy, just 16.
Imagine the suffering that community will undertake.
Now imagine the cop killers are white.
Today the the Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg, a African-American man named Goliath Davis, was fired. The circumstances around his termination ended up being pretty simple. After the first incident in which two St. Petersburg police officers -- Thomas Baitinger and Jeffrey Yaslowitz -- died, he attended the funeral of the killer, Hydra Lacy, Jr. He did not attende the funeral of the officers, though they were both hired when he was the Chief of Police.
His explanation today actually made sense -- but it didn't excuse the behavior, was too little too late, and didn't address the larger problem in a community he served for an awfully long time.
The problem of all politics being personal.
Here's the deal. St. Petersburg has a recent and ugly history with respect to race relations. There have been issues with the police force. And there has been overt, ignorant, embarassing racism in the Tampa Bay area.
There is also something wrong in the African-American community in St. Petersburg, and maybe Pinellas County at large. In a county where white kids graduate high school in the 85-90 percent range, and black kids graduate somewhere around the 60-65 percent mark, there is no other word to use but "wrong".
I told that story above the way I did for a reason. I watched the resignation of Go Davis on a TV in a room with mixed racial company. An African-American person was quick to point out after Davis was done talking that indeed the Lacy family had lost someone, too. It sounded an awful lot like a defense of Davis's actions. It sounded a lot more like embarrassment.
And who wouldn't be embarrassed, if we're all honest with ourselves? Three dead cops in the period of a few weeks, all killed by black men (in the case of Officer Crawford, a black boy of only 16, but he'll be tried as an adult, which if that doesn't make him man enough, prison certainly will). Count the recently killed cops in Miami, and it's the same: white cops, black male. True for the killing of two Tampa police officers: white cops, black killer.
With an uncomfortable ease, the Goliath Davis incident can start to look like an awful lot like a white establishment demanding a sort of performance-based extortion of respect. How many more white cops ya'll gonna kill? The least you could do is come to their funeral...
However, with all of that said, there is another contextual layer, here, and that is that 1.) government just can't be the answer to all our problems (especially with respect to race issues), and 2.) it was widely accepted that Go Davis was the "Mayor for black people" (a phrase I'd heard more than once from people of varying races).
Hey, all politics is personal. And we have some racial issues. Maybe it seemed like a good idea at the time.
And race is about as personal an issue as you'll find. Huckabee and the other fly-by-nights like Haley Barbour only think they've hit the racial politics motherlode with respect to their half-assed dog-whistling to birthers and racists. They should come check out how twisted it is in St. Petersburg. Huckabee can debate the pros and cons of post-colonial thinking with Omali Yeshitela, the militant leader of the Uhuru Movement, which is essentially a political lit match looking for a powder keg.
When all politics is personal, that match won't have far to travel.
None of that is fair to Davis, but it also doesn't mean it's not true. Davis had a long and accomplished career in government, one worthy of admiration and respect. This is an unfortunate way to end it, but it may have been necessary, and it may have been the only way.
I've worked in government for a long time. One of my early mentors was at the Drug Czar's Office. He was a former New York cop, and he was a great guy. His name was George Kosnik, and he taught me a lot about government, a lot about bureacracy, a lot more about politics, and probably more about life than I'd like to admit, even today. George had a great lesson when it came to working for important people and being successful. He said: "There's pretty much one thing you need to know in order to do well in this line of work. Help your boss solve problems, and you'll be successful. Make him or her look good solving problems, and you'll be very successful. If you're the problem, the success will be in getting rid of you."
This was said today by Reverend Sykes: "I think what comes next is critical to creating a climate of collaboration and healing, but if nothing is done, people will be left to their own interpretations of not only what happened, but what it means for the future." While I tend to agree with the sentiment, I find it interesting that Reverend Sykes, the local head of the NAACP was at the Davis press conference at all, along with the aforementioned Mr. Yeshitela, it should be noted.
Why were they there? Because Davis may have played his cards wrong on the funeral situation, but he's not politically ignorant.
And remember, all politics is personal.
What comes next ought to be the dissolution of the idea that all politics is personal, that we have a mayor -- or deputy mayor -- to represent the interests of a singular group of people. The mayor of any city ought to represent all the people, and the team who works for him ought to do the same.
I don't know if the firing of Goliath Davis will make the politics of the personal better or worse. But I do know that working together to put the fights and divisions of the past behind us, we can make politics what it should be, we can make it work for everyone.
We can make all politics local.