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Death of a Political Junkie

No more fun in the Beltway

“Political junkie” doesn’t rate an entry in William Safire’s New Dictionary of Politics, the final and much-expanded revision of a book Safire first published in 1968. Perhaps that’s just because its meaning was already too obvious to be worth unpacking by 1993, when Richard Nixon’s onetime speechwriter, by then a Pulitzer-winning New York Times columnist and part-time language maven, updated his labor of love for the last time. I wish that Safire had at least tried to shed some light on who coined the term in the first place or when it passed into popular usage, two things nobody seems to know. But I can certainly recall using it early and often, hearing it tossed around as both pejorative and brag, and applying it to myself and my similarly minded pals back when Rachel Maddow was still a zygote.

The Beltway-bred likes of me must have had to call ourselves something in the 1970s, after all. We were making the leap from high school to college when what I still call our Watergate summers exfoliated from third-rate burglary to John Dean’s cancer on the presidency to Nixon giving one last stiff V-fingered salute before boarding Marine One after he’d resigned. Ever since, we’ve held one truth to be self-evident. If you’ll forgive me for paraphrasing Safire’s fellow lexicographer Samuel Johnson, we know that anyone tired of Watergate is tired of life.

No doubt, we’d have caught the bug no matter what. But to us, Watergate was unquestionably what America’s most exuberant political junkie, Chris Matthews, later called it: “Carnival in Rio.” Talk about letting the cat out of the bag, even if he only did so long after the fact.

Matthews’s nostalgic effusiveness no doubt bewildered non-Washingtonians. They’d been solemnly instructed that Watergate was a national tragedy, often by the same media commentators and liberal politicians who were having the time of their lives behind the scenes. That didn’t mean that the rest of the country wasn’t transfixed by the saga, but so-called normal Americans were transfixed without any exhilaration—unlike the Texas congressman who, so legend has it, went around whistling “Frosty the Snowman” to his Democratic colleagues during the impeachment proceedings until a TV camera’s presence turned him pious on the spot.

If you’ll forgive me for paraphrasing Safire’s fellow lexicographer Samuel Johnson, we know that anyone tired of Watergate is tired of life.

Once Watergate ebbed, we newly minted political junkies went right back to being oddball members of a subculture that was viewed with suspicion, not to say bemusement, by most of our compatriots. Back in the days when Donald Trump was a flashy would-be casino mogul with only one bankruptcy to brag about and no reality show on NBC to lend him gravitas, longtime Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. could write a book called Why Americans Hate Politics with no worry that anyone would gainsay his title’s premise. (It came out in 1991.) On top of that, as far as I could tell, Americans always had. Almost anywhere outside Washington itself, to my considerable surprise in my tenderer years, people like me were instant Martians.

Discovering that my immediate family and friends’ predilection for smack disguised as political news wasn’t universally shared—and was, indeed, despised—was a major shock the first time my State Department parents took the kids to visit our Oregon relatives after we’d been raised mostly abroad. In our various unwittingly exotic homes, which by then included McLean, Virginia, we’d imbibed constant chatter about politics. Our stalwart aunts and uncles were downright scandalized when they heard my sister and I—mere children!—making cynical jokes about, say, Hubert Humphrey when the evening news was on.

In their placid America, which we dazedly gathered was the agreed-upon one, politics—like religion—was taboo as a subject for opinionated discussion. Attending nightly to Walter Cronkite or The Huntley-Brinkley Report while waiting for Gunsmoke or I Dream of Jeannie was a civic duty to them, not a half-hour feast combining the best elements of Western shootouts with the allure of softcore sitcom porn. They weren’t that crazy about hearing us debate the merits of Gunsmoke or I Dream of Jeannie, either, because what on earth was the point?

What I think struck our Oregon relatives as most alienating of all—and in this, they were stand-ins for Mr. and Mrs. White America writ large—was the dawning recognition that our passion wasn’t rooted solely in a belief that political disputes are consequential to the nation’s well-being. Horrifically, it soon sank in that gabbing endlessly about what was up and who was down on Capitol Hill or in the latest Presidential sweepstakes was these goddamn Martians’ idea of fun, sort of like rotisserie football with the nuclear codes thrown in to add spice.

What makes the comparison apt is that your true, hardcore political junkie is more closely akin to a sports nut than anything else. Most of us thrive on being partisan—we want our team to not only reach but win the Super Bowl every year, even an odd-numbered one when only a few governorships are in play—and yet we’re also the kind of buffs who can say “Great game” and mean it even when our guy has just been out-quarterbacked by the opposition’s version of Tom Brady.  

We dote on stats, team lore, and league history, discussing ancient contests and long-gone gridiron superstars as avidly as this year’s NFL season—er, election cycle. To this day, nothing makes Chris Matthews happier than a chance to time-warp over to Arlington Cemetery and dig up Jack Kennedy, his all-time favorite QB. You can practically see the Hardball host’s eyes glaze over with bliss and his chuckle grow beatific as the Camelot syringe nosedives toward his forearm for the thousandth or millionth time.

True, outside Washington, D.C., many American cities have their own enclaves of political junkies, who are usually heavily outnumbered by the place’s literal drug addicts. In Los Angeles, the breed is largely confined to two dissimilar locales, each of them an island surrounded by a vast sea of indifference: movie stars’ homes and Silver Lake coffeehouses. In New Orleans, junkiedom’s siren song is more audible, but localized, with national politics coming in a very distant second to Louisiana politics—which A.J. Liebling famously described as “of an intensity and complexity that are matched, in my experience, only in the republic of Lebanon.” And so on.  

Only in New York City is political junkiedom not only unabashed but somehow organic to the milieu, at least if you know the right parts of town. But it’s also intellectualized and more ideological than partisan, which usually wrecks everything. True ideologues are never in it simply for love of the game, and often disdain those who are. I imagine that many of my New York friends—from mere liberals to ardent leftists—would be confounded by how easily and happily I can bond with conservative P.J.’s elsewhere in the country once it’s established that we delight in the same lore.

Then again, I should probably have found a way to put the foregoing and not only my Oregon memories in the past tense. That’s because, in the Trump era, the creature I’m describing—and, for that matter, the creature I was—has become virtually extinct. And right, I know that sounds counterintuitive. Nationwide, aren’t we all obsessed with Trump’s latest outrage pretty much 24/7, no matter how much we’d give to go cold turkey?

The vestigial P.J. snob in me would love to dismiss this mania as amateur hour gone wild. But the truth is I’d give anything to go cold turkey myself. To behave like a sports nut in today’s political landscape would be as barbaric as getting hooked on a website that specializes in fetishizing coprophagia.

A spectatorial addiction to politics that’s bereft of any sort of pleasure principle somewhere in the mix—e.g., the way that, albeit from a safe distance, we can exult in the untrammeled LBJ-ness of LBJ or even, more recently, the finesse of Obama’s “long game”—is a recipe for misery. Nowadays, the only people who get any pleasure out of Trump’s presidency are the MAGA zealots at his rallies, and as we all know, their idea of fun is on the scary side.  

For us recovering P.J.s, keeping up with Trump’s latest atrocity has become an ordeal, not our favorite recreational drug. And yet, as Pete Buttigieg recently put it, “It is the nature of grotesque things that you can’t look away.” That’s virtually the opposite of the zesty interest we used to take in the spectacle for its own sake, even in eras when the game’s potential consequences were no joke.

To behave like a sports nut in today’s political landscape would be as barbaric as getting hooked on a website that specializes in fetishizing coprophagia.

One refuge from 24/7 Trumpism is escaping into blather about the 2020 Democratic field: who’s electable, who’s running the brainiest campaign or showing the most intriguing flashes of welcome wit and nimbleness, and who’s ahead in the horse race at this meaninglessly early stage of things. Briefly, we get to imagine that we’re back in P.J. business at the old stand again, because this kind of “the rain in Spain falls mainly on Mansplain” musical interlude is the sort of fake-insider prattle that turned us into Beltway nuts to begin with.

But it’s a very temporary treat, because the only reason we can indulge ourselves this way is that the race for the nomination truly is at a meaninglessly early stage. Once the choice of which of these contenders will be the Democrats’ anointed challenger to go up against our nightmare president goes from hypothetical to white-knuckle imminent to, come convention time, irreversible, soul-crushing anxiety about the need to defeat Trump is guaranteed to end our paradoxical vacation—or recidivist retreat into hobbyism, anyhow.  

To whatever extent this is a lament, I realize it’s one unlikely to rate much sympathy from people who didn’t need Trump’s advent—or any earlier administration’s depredations, for that matter—to remind them that politics is a deadly serious business, not a source of entertainment. That Trump himself is, among other roles, our Entertainer-in-Chief is exactly what makes the thought of being entertained so toxic.

Nor, sadly enough, do I expect to ever be entertained again, even after Trump leaves office. Except for Joe Biden, for whom getting back to business at the old stand is both his major selling point and his mission in life, does anyone really believe the country will return to “normal” once our forty-fifth POTUS departs the scene? I doubt that any of the other 2020 Democratic candidates think so, and I bet that Mitch McConnell isn’t planning on it either. More likely, we’re in for something like a generation of strange, wracked, unnerving times, which won’t have much resemblance to how we used to think the U.S.A. was supposed to work.

Maybe I’m no better than a kid who discovers that his favorite electric toy-train set was crammed with tiny, live, terrified passengers when it went off the rails. But I don’t think so, and not only because getting off on politics as spectacle hardly precludes an absorption in politics as deadly serious business. (If anything, it’s more like the spoonful of sugar that always made the medicine go down.) More tellingly, not that many of us realized it until it was no longer the case in Trump’s U.S.A., the pleasures of being a political junkie always depended on an innate belief that America’s democratic system was too resilient to be at more than temporary risk from any demagogue, crook, or would-be despot. 

Rather more naively, we also took it for granted that democracy itself was something we could rely on both parties, no matter how opportunistic or scheming, to preserve and protect. Even the scandal so many of us were weaned on didn’t shake that confidence, since the last and most pious of the Watergate clichés was everybody’s affirmation that, ultimately, “the system worked.” Not usually a man to be taken in by ebullient illusions, the great Jimmy Breslin called his own Watergate book How the Good Guys Finally Won, even though How the Good Guys Won This Inning would have been far more accurate. Meanwhile, as both book and (especially) movie, All the President’s Men was instructing a generation that the press—the future Enemy of the People—was not only part of “the system” but definitely part of the good-guy crème de la crème.

In other words, the reason people like me can’t be happy political junkies anymore is that our superficially frivolous addiction always depended more than we knew on a secret ingredient: idealism. When I try to imagine what a desperate struggle American politics must look like to youngsters shaped primarily by resisting the Trump era—that is, people whose own idealism takes the form of outraged disbelief, not unwitting complacency—I sometimes think of my favorite quote from Talleyrand, that ultimate political survivor: “Only those who lived before the Revolution know how sweet life can be.”