Magazine article The Spectator

My Meaninglessness Is Clear

Magazine article The Spectator

My Meaninglessness Is Clear

Article excerpt

LAMAR ALEXANDER re-emerged last week. He's the former Tennessee governor who lost the Republican nomination to Bob Dole in 1996 and is toying with another run at it next year. He is, it seems, unimpressed by his rivals' campaign slogans, `Compassionate conservatism' (George W. Bush) and `Practical idealism' (Al Gore, though in fact the phrase was first used by Richard Nixon). `These are weasel words,' complained Governor Alexander. ' "Compassionate conservative" is just like Al Gore talking about "practical idealism". They're designed to mean nothing.' And, believe me, Lamar Alexander is a guy who knows about meaninglessness. He's the Mozart of meaninglessness, the Beethoven of bullshit.

What, for example, was his own campaign slogan back in 1996? It was: `Remember your ABC - Alexander Beats Clinton.' After saying this, the governor would step to his electronic keyboard and play his campaign song, `Alexander's Ragtime Band'. The Washington pundits, who apparently have never dropped in on openmike night at a bad karaoke bar, considered this approach daring and refreshing and cranked out pieces about Lamar - or `Lamar!', as his posters billed him - being the man to watch -- 'A Republican Moderate with a Populist Touch', etc. As proof of the latter, they cited the red-and-black plaid shirts worn by Lamar! and his campaign team. A plaid shirt is a thing of beauty (in moderation: as Diane Keaton moans in Baby Boom, despairing of gnarled old Yankee menfolk, `I'm so sick of plaid'). Looking down on my own red-and-black shirt, I can spot the dark streak of my dipstick, some sausage gravy from the Hungry Bear Diner circa 1995, a few rusty spots of blood from the deer season and, in the corner, what looks worryingly like presidential DNA. The plaid-clad members of Alexander's ragtag band were more fastidious: their shirts were fresh off the plane from LL Bean and, just in case, some thoughtful person on the campaign team had taken the precaution of ironing razor-sharp creases into them. They looked ridiculous, just as I'd look ridiculous if I were given a Tom Hanks Nehru jacket to attend a White House gala in and insisted on first covering it with oil and gravy stains and whitetail entrails.

The governor's other big thing was his plan to walk the entire state of New Hampshire, meeting the people and giving them `Lamar Walked Here!' signs to plunk in their front yards. In the early hours of primary morning, one appeared on my town common. Although it seemed unlikely that Lamar! had Walked Here! at three in the morning when so few folks would be around to greet him, most of us were charitable enough to assume that a plaid-clad member of his ragtime band with a `Lamar Walked Here!' sign had Walked Here! But, on closer inspection, the lack of footprints suggested that someone from Lamar!'s team had actually Driven Here!, tossed a `Lamar Walked Here!' sign into the snowbank and driven on to the next town. Instead of walking across the entire state, Lamar! walked a few hundred yards in towns in the southern third of the state, waited until the TV crews had got their pictures, then climbed into his limousine to continue his cross-state walk in another lucky town, as long as it was close enough to the airport to get back in time for the last flight out. This is what a `populist touch' means in the Nineties - a populism blessedly untouched by anything as messy as people.

Anyway, after his mild criticism of their meaningless slogan, the George W. Bush team, recognising that they were in the presence of the Master of the Meaningless, was suitably cowed: a spokesperson made a feeble attempt to explain that `compassionate conservatism' actually does mean something and then slunk away. The Gore camp, by contrast, came out swinging. The Vice-President announced, through his aide Chris Lehane, that he considered it 'unfortunate' that Governor Alexander `has joined the Republican attack pack in engaging in this politics of personal destruction'. …

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