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Laugh or Cry

Through the election looking glass

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"I don't know whether to laugh or cry" -- a saying we've all heard a thousand times -- has become a kind of personal mantra during this election season. Rather, I should say it's become more of a personal mantra than usual. Even in less combative times, most political discussions would send me into a depressive tailspin if I didn't cling to a strong sense of irony and comic absurdity.

Traditionally, Presidential election years are when America's high tide of absurdity rolls in, when our grandest ideals are invoked and degraded by office seekers who wouldn't know a moral principle if it snuck up and bit them on the ass. Still, since 2004 has turned into the most hotly contested and emotionally charged Presidential election in memory, we might reasonably expect to find ourselves knee-deep in a thorough, thoughtful discussion of the nation's many pressing issues. Instead, we have the usual freak show.

Column space doesn't allow for a full look at the misleading commercials and the insane spins on reality from campaign spokespersons. But you don't need a lot of space to point out two of the biggest absurdities of the season: John Kerry and George W. Bush.

First, you've got a liberal senator with a long history of support for generous social programs and a passion for international diplomacy who feels it necessary to run as Sen. Super Warrior. That, my friends, is absurd. Then there's a President whose pre-White House career consisted of (unsuccessfully) cashing in on his father's connections among the world's wealthiest elite, running as President Regular Joe. That isn't just absurd, it's hilarious. Add to that New England tight-butt Kerry blaring Springsteen songs at rallies, and Vietnam slacker Bush trying to tarnish Kerry's war record, and you start to wonder if the country has wandered through Alice's looking glass.

Last week, Charlotte was a temporary stage for the ongoing campaign show. A couple of weeks after Kerry starred in a canned rally at Grady Cole Center, President Bush came to the Merchandise Mart for an event that morphed into AbsurdityFest 2004. This gathering even began as a fantasy -- a GOP event billed as a forum on women's issues. Sure enough, a slew of pro-Bush women showed up and yelled and waved their signs. Never mind that one of the Bush administration's first acts was to shut down the White House Office for Women's Initiatives and Outreach; that they abolished the 10 regional offices of the Labor Department's Women's Bureau; that they stripped information on a wide range of women's issues from government websites; and that they've shown nothing but hostility to women's reproductive rights. As New York Observer columnist Joe Conason wrote, there are "women who benefit from Bush policies. They happen to be very wealthy women whose incomes were increased by the tax cut, and very conservative women whose political prominence is enhanced by association with the White House."

Which brings us to Rep. Sue Myrick who, in another moment of political surrealism, described Bush at last week's rally, as "the man who stands for all the things we believe in," even though she's spent months blasting the administration for running up the largest budget deficits in US history.

As usual, though, it was Mayor McCrory who inadvertently walked away with first place in the absurdity sweepstakes. His Fratness took repeated swipes at Sen. John Edwards, picturing him as a do-nothing senator of little consequence who has spent his term out of state while running for higher office. This from a do-nothing mayor whose influence on City Council is next to nil and who has spent his last two terms flying from one conference to another trying to build a high profile in national Republican Party circles.

Needless to say, comic absurdity isn't confined to politicians, something that's made clear from the number of people who apparently see this President as an instrument of God -- even though he's sent American youth to die in a catastrophic, unnecessary war, and gutted important environmental laws that were helping reverse some of the damage humanity had wreaked on Creation.

Columnist Mary C. Curtis of the Observer captured the pseudo-religious tones of some Bush supporters at the rally last week. She interviewed members of a Waxhaw family, one of whom was quoted as saying, "George Bush is a man of prayer, getting guidance from God. He's setting things up for the end times. The Lord is getting ready to come back, and George Bush knows that."

If you're not of the ignorant yahoo persuasion, you can react to statements like that one of two ways: howling with laughter, or cringing in fear that these people actually have influence in the White House. For now, do yourself a favor and laugh about it. On November 3, it might not seem so funny.

Either way, don't expect the next six weeks to get any better, or for the Presidential debates, if they're held, to clarify anything of substance. In a year when clarity and substance are sorely needed, what we're given instead is a goofy charade. If the stakes weren't so high, it'd be funny. As it stands now, I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

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