So now that Artur Davis has delivered back-to-back speeches at two national party conventions – the Democratic in 2008 praising Barack Obama, and the Republican in 2012 blistering Barack Obama – what are the odds he’ll go for the hat trick, three in a row, at the Libertarian convention four years from now?
Sad, sad, sad. Just two years ago, there was talk that Davis, who represented the state’s Birmingham district, might become Alabama’s first African-American governor. As a candidate for the Democratic nomination, he had the support of none other than George Wallace’s daughter, Peggy. That he nevertheless lost the nomination – to a candidate who in turn lost the general election to Republican Robert Bentley – obviously left him embittered.
In over half a century in politics (yes, that long), I have yet to meet a losing candidate, other than Barry Goldwater, who took personal responsibility for his loss. They are either (1) let down by people they depended on, (2) victimized by the lying tactics of their opponents, or (3) misrepresented or otherwise treated unfairly by a biased media.
Davis, for his part, chose Option (1): He blamed his loss on what he perceived as the backstabbing treachery of Alabama’s Democratic establishment. That in mind, he packed his bags, left Alabama, and headed for Northern Virginia, within a local phone call’s distance from the White House where his friend and former Harvard law school colleague Barack Obama now lives. What happened next – Davis’ switch to the Republican Party, his endorsement of Mitt Romney, and his appearance at the GOP convention – can best be explained by what didn’t happen.
To the point, can you imagine this sort of political embarrassment being visited on a White House run by either Lyndon Johnson or Bill Clinton? Obama’s campaign aide Stephanie Cutter attributes the defection to Davis’ being a self-interested, attention-seeking opportunist – as if that tells us anything we didn’t know about anyone (including the man she works for) who runs for political office.
No, whatever Artur Davis’ egocentricity, my bet is that he wouldn’t have switched parties, endorsed Romney, or shown up in Tampa if the man whose nomination he seconded four years ago, and/or members of his White House staff aimed the slightest bit of – to borrow a once-favored Obama term – empathy in his friend’s direction.
A job offer? Possibly, though presidents like Johnson and Clinton knew that reaching out to wounded egos often means simply a private lunch or dinner; a weekend at Camp David; a flight aboard Air Force One; or merely a photo, autographed, taken with the president.
Ah, but this president, as Jane Mayer revealed in her recent New Yorker piece “Schmooze or Lose,” isn’t much for that sort of empathy. He has no time for posed, autographed photos with guests at White House holiday parties. Little time for table-to-table schmoozing at fundraising dinners. Not even, as Maureen Dowd tells us, a thank you note to supporters who make their homes available for fundraising events.
How to explain a president who sees and practices politics this way? Looking back (before my time), I can think of only one model. Not Kennedy, as Obama’s admirers would have us believe, or Carter, as his detractors would argue, but Woodrow Wilson, another cool professor with no time for the nitty-gritty.
Of course, for all that, Wilson did win a second term – but narrowly. Whatever that bit of ancient political history tells us, it would be well for Artur Davis’ erstwhile friend in the White House to remember that Tip O’Neill had it only half-right: All politics is local, yes, but more than that, it’s personal.
Sound Bites to Remember (in translation):
“In order to become the master, the politician poses as the servant.”
–Charles de Gaulle, circa 1965
“You kiss ass one day so you can kick it the next.”
–Alabama Gov. Big Jim Folsom, circa 1955
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