The show must go on: A review of the year’s political theater

by Ayad Rahim

“A mistake in Washington is when a politician tells the truth”; so goes an old adage. Well, during this inaugural season of COVID, there have been a few slip-ups.

The biggest doozie of them all might have been Joe Biden’s boast, just ten days before the election, that “we have put together, I think, the most extensive and inclusive voter fraud organization in the history of American politics.” We might yet determine whether this was a slip of the tongue, or a Freudian slip. The same goes for Biden’s mention of “a Harris-Biden administration,” and his running mate’s reference to, “a Harris administration.”

An obvious mistake took place in late September, when the governor of Pennsylvania and a state representative laughed about performing “a little political theater” with the face-mask, “so that it’s on camera. Before the start of a September 29 press conference on Obamacare, Governor Tom Wolf told State Representative Wendy Ullman: “So, Wendy, I’m gonna take, I’m gonna take my mask off when I speak.” She replies, “I will as well — just, I’m waiting, so that we can do a little political theater.”  “Okay, that’s good,” the governor responds, as they both laugh, and Ullman continues, “so that it’s on camera. In other words, they were reviewing their steps before going on stage (it sounds like they’ve done this act before): we walk up to the podium, with the face-mask on, and then, before we start speaking, we take off the face-mask, so that the cameras capture the costume-change, all for the entertainment of the audience at home.

In early September, Los Angeles County’s public health director informed education and health professionals that the schools couldn’t open “until after the election.” In the tape of the September 9 conference-call, Barbara Ferrer says:

We don’t realistically anticipate that we would be moving either tier 2 or to reopening K-through-12 schools at least through — at least until after the election…. like when we just look at the timing of everything, it seems to us a more realistic approach to this, would be to think that we’re gonna be where we are now, until we get after — until we, we are done with the election.

The public health director of Los Angeles County may not have been ready for “prime time,” but the governor of New York should have been. In April, though, the governor got carried away a bit, and revealed the intended emotional effect of his performance. At the April 23 press conference, a reporter noted that “there are protesters outside right now, honking their horns, and raising signs, and they’re saying that they don’t have time to wait for all of this testing and they need to get back to work, in order to feed their families. Their savings are running out; they don’t have another week; they’re not getting answers. So, their point is, the cure can’t be worse than the illness itself. What is your response to them?” The governor straightened up in his chair, eyeballed the reporter, and, emphatically enunciating each word, declared: “The illness is death. What is worse than death?!

One who should definitely be ready for prime time is the Speaker of the U.S. House.  Sometimes, however, the mask slips off, the politician has to improvise, and we get to see the real person behind the act.

On October 13, Nancy Pelosi showed some real pique at being challenged, and she told the world how she really sees the public. CNN host Wolf Blitzer asked Pelosi why she wasn’t working on a deal with Republicans to meet the immediate needs of citizens across the country. Shaking her head at Blitzer’s impertinence, Pelosi, dripping with disdain, rebuked him: “What makes me amused, if it weren’t so sad, is how you all think that you know more about the suffering of the American people than those of us who are elected by them, to represent them, at that table.” As Blitzer kept pressing for an answer, Pelosi repeatedly smiled and wagged her head.  Then, with eyes opened wide, she put Blitzer and the two Democratic politicians he quoted in their place, because they didn’t know the issues or about the negotiations.  Blitzer should respect the knowledge of the committee chairmen (she later called them “my chairs”).

Blitzer retorted, “It’s not about me, it’s about millions of Americans who can’t put food on the table, who can’t pay their rent, who are having trouble getting by — in these long food-lines that we’re seeing,” at which Pelosi, shaking her head, cut in: “And we represent them! And we represent them. And we represent them”; and, tapping her chest with her fingers, as if to say, We own them, you damn fool — who are you to speak on their behalf?!, she continued, “And we represent them! We know them! We represent them, and we know them! We know them. We represent them.” Then, to conclude the audience, Pelosi, wagging her head, replied sarcastically, “Thank you for your sensitivity to our constituents’ needs.” “I am sensitive to them,” Blitzer replied, “because I see them on the street, begging for food, begging for money.” Pelosi, shaking her head and smiling, shot back, “Have you fed them? We feed them. We feed them!,” as she flipped her hand away from her chest, to show generosity and reassert ownership of, “the people.”

But maybe the most farcical set-piece was a photo-op in Washington, two weeks after the death of George Floyd. For a group picture, two-dozen Democratic leaders in Congress “took a knee,” in a large marble-floored hall — spaced evenly apart from each other, in a checkerboard pattern, a kente-cloth stole wrapped around each politician’s neck (hanging perfectly on the front), with each member wearing a face mask, looking down to the floor, hands resting on the upright knee. They held that pose for eight minutes and 46 seconds. It makes one wonder how many professional photographers, choreographers, and other visual and political designers it took to prepare that tableau vivant.

Ayad Rahim is a bookseller in the Midwest and a former journalist.

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