Ritual Political Suicide

The allure of the ironic.

By Fred Stenson

Why do so many politicians take a cleaver to their own political careers? It isn’t just that they make a blunder: a hand in the cookie jar when no one’s looking, or getting a little carried away at the office Christmas party. It’s more like they think “What would be the worst thing I could do to my career? What would the voting public least forgive me for?”

After they’ve parsed through a catalogue of forms of corrupt and deviant practices, they choose the one that provides the most absurd irony when applied to themselves. And they go out and do that thing: not just once, as a rule, but repeatedly until they’re caught.

“I’ve got it! After proposing legislation for stronger measures against sexual exhibitionism, I’ll rent a small plane from which I’ll dangle (ha ha) on a rope in a state of entire nudity, while carrying a flag that reads ‘This private member stands for stiffer exhibitionism!’ That should do it. That should blow my career to unrecoverable bits.”

Am I exaggerating? Maybe, but not much. We can always look to America for reliably lurid examples. You’ll remember, I think, the well-known US congressman who, in his spare time, spent $70k on escorts—or the other US politician who thought taking photos of what was in his pants and emailing these to women he hardly knew was a creative form of flirting.

You’ll also remember the latter gentleman’s surname: Weiner. That’s how the individualization of one’s attack on oneself works. You don’t just choose any bit of sensational nonsense; you try to zero in on the one most quirky given who you are or what you’ve previously been vehemently for or against.

You’ll notice I’m not mentioning the current American president. (Note to factchecker: please review the state of impeachment proceedings by press time.) He provides too many examples of self-sabotaging excess, and I hate to see one person hog the field.

The brightest lights, the real magnesium flashes, simply must cheat on their expenses or have sexual fiestas in Moscow hotels.

When you research this tendency among politicians—that is, try to find out why they do it—a host of material pops up from magazine psychologists. Many of them have the same idea: that the tendency to touch off a scandal about yourself proceeds from politics being a risky business. The job appeals to natural extreme risk-takers. The pop psychologists are essentially saying that politicians are like war heroes or test pilots—so very full of bravery and adrenaline they simply can’t help but leave the politically safe and honest realms behind. The brightest lights, the real magnesium flashes, simply must cheat on their expenses or have sexual fiestas in Moscow hotels. They are that exceptional.

On the campaign trail, this pop-psychologist image translates into something like this:

“UPC star candidate Roger Sausage skydives, has climbed K2, and will go to the outer edge to protect your tax dollars. He’ll walk a high wire if necessary to stave off those who want to reach into your wallet and take your hard-earned cash. Hang on tight to your spouse when Roger Sausage knocks on your door…! But forget that. Roger’s the kind of firebrand you want representing you in the legislature.”

How can a merely steady and honest type compete?

“Sally Dumbwaiter is overly cautious when it comes to the public purse. She’d rather hold a lit match to her own nose than spend a taxpayer’s nickel on anything untested or unproven. You can be sure it’ll be same old dry biscuit on offer when Sally comes to your neighbourhood.”

It’s almost an axiom that the risk-takers in politics philander. Again the magazine psychologists tell us it’s because politicians “tend to be confident, assertive and outgoing. They make direct eye contact and strike confident poses.” Do you hear the James Bond inference there?

Given all of the research, it’s a wonder any politician stays on the straight and narrow. Imagine a roomful of politicians at a conference, all of whom have been reading this stuff on the plane. All that confidence and assertiveness blocking access to the Pimm’s bowl. The pinching and grabbing. The fiscal conservatives swinging by the cash bar to swipe the tip jar.

One of many US politicians to blow up his own career had a slightly less self-flattering way of describing his demise. He said that after a while, given success, a politician can start thinking of oneself as “master of (his/her) own universe.” As such, he suggested, you set up your own ethical criteria, opposite to what the little people think is right and wrong. The little people are not driving in the fast lane, wind combing back their beautiful hair, speedometer climbing past 150.

I think we owe it to these risk-taking politicians to save them from themselves. By all means, place your vote elsewhere lest they be on your conscience.

Fred Stenson’s most recent novel is Who By Fire (Doubleday).Other books include The Trade, Lightning and The Great Karoo.


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