[I originally wrote this in 1992 for a newspaper I contributed to at the time. I understand that this is now construed as auto-plagiarism unless properly confessed, but it still seems relevant to current realities, and is hard to find anyplace else, so I am, modestly, reprinting it here as a public service.]
Quick, what do broccoli, tofu, fruitcake, and Democratic presidential candidates have in common? The first answer is probably most people’s first reaction to all of these: “Eeeeeeuuuww!” The second answer is that I suspet very strongly that this reaction, in all four instances, has been conditioned by, if not a Sinister Media Conspiracy, something at least as effective.
Kids are raised, from the first time they set eyes on televised food commercials, to dislike vegetables, and especially broccoli. Sometimes it is the purveyors of some veggie delicacy themselves who teach this lesson. “You may think broccoli is yucky, but we do something to it that you’ll like!” Tofu is the butt of everybody’s jokes about Japanese cuisine, nouvelle cuisine, vegetarian cuisine, and healthy New Age living. And fruitcake, over the last few years, has become a staple of Christmas jokes. Nobody eats fruitcake, the joke goes; they just wrap it up and pass it around the family from generation to generation, using it as a doorstop between holiday seasons.
In point of fact, broccoli, like any other green vegetable, can be quite tasty if not overcooked. Tofu takes on the taste of whatever it’s cooked with, for better or for worse. Which means that, cooked with decent seasonings, it can be a tasty, no-fat substitute for meat or cheese. And fruitcake–well, I may be prejudiced by the fact that my family recipe for fruitcake starts out with soaking a bunch of dried fruit in rum for 24 hours or so, but I like fruitcake, quite a lot actually, and so do about half the people I know.
Still, the bad press given to these laudable foods is really harmless in the greater scheme of things. What happens to Democratic candidates is more serious. For instance, a poll done shortly after some spectacularly bad economic news last fall indicated that 56% of the population would vote for an unnamed Democratic candidate (sort of like a first draft choice, I suppose) against Bush. But the figure dived to well below 50% for any specific Democrat.
In 1984, Ronald Reagan not only succeeded in carrying the popular and electoral college vote against Walter Mondale, but in completely destroying Mondale’s personal credibility. A monogamous churchgoer who had spent twenty-odd years getting regularly re-elected to Senate and Congress from a conservative sobersided state somehow became perceived overnight as a weak-kneed defender of sexual promiscuity and financial profligacy. He has essentially not been heard from since, and could probably not be elected to a local school board.
Then, in 1988, a wide array of well-educated, experienced candidates with a variety of interesting positions on important issues got shot down, one by one, for a spectrum of personal failings ranging through all the Seven Deadly Sins. The lone survivor of the process, Michael Dukakis, was the successful governor of a then-thriving state. But before the campaign was over, he had managed to blow a 17-point lead and came out looking like the patron saint of wimps and rapists. His credibility has been destroyed, and he would have a hard time getting a credit card these days. After these depressing examples, one can hardly blame the electable Democrats for not getting into the race until about two months after the start of the usual season, or Mario Cuomo for being unwilling to get into it at all. In most elections, even the loser gains something, be it only name recognition for a business or professional practice, or a good shot in the next election. When a Republican loses in the presidential primaries or the election, he can live to campaign another day, possibly for another office. Look at Reagan. And Bush. And Goldwater. Even Nixon is surprisingly lively. But when a Democrat does it–at least since McGovern–he’s out of the picture, and out of almost any picture, forever. Clearly, he has very little to gain and almost everything to lose by running. Now that any Democrat with the IQ necessary to sign his own nominating petition has figured this out, we have to assume that those still willing to run are either crazy or very very gutsy and dedicated.
Maybe that really is how we progressives want our candidates selected–the survival of the craziest. But if it isn’t, we need to bring to our own awareness and then the public’s, to the insidious mechanism that clicks into action against any Democrat the instant he becomes known as a possible presidential candidate–the conditioning program to trigger the Broccoli Reflex. Face it, folks, nobody could be simultaneously as vapid and wimpy and corrupt and stupid and insubstantial and dangerous and dull as we always end up believing all of the Democratic candidates are, and still tie his shoes and stay out of jail, let alone get elected to state or federal office and perform even the most minimally ceremonial duties of that office. A Democrat could have the charisma of Franklin Roosevelt, the vision of Eleanor Roosevelt, the devotion and integrity of Mother Teresa, the brains of Albert Einstein, and the good looks of Robert Redford, and the Sinister Media Conspiracy would still find a way to trigger the “Eeeeeuuuww! “reflex at mere mention of his name or party affiliation.
When we hear the current batch of candidates called the six-pack (“all lite, no head”), we need to recognize that this isn’t political satire, it’s operant conditioning. The GOP mastered the trick by accident in 1972 (actually coining the neologism “ultraliberal” for the occasion because even they knew nobody would swallow the idea of McGovern as a radical), and lost by accident to the same mechanism in 1976. (Everybody thinks it was the Nixon pardon that cost Ford the White House. In fact it was Chevy Chase’s persistent portrayal of Ford, on “Saturday Night Live”. as a maladroit malapropist.) Since then, they haven’t faltered once, and nobody has spotted the wires under their levitation act.
I don’t mean to imply that all Democratic candidates do in fact combine all the better traits of a Roosevelt/Teresa/Einstein/Redford hybrid. Obviously, Hart and Biden really did adulterate and plagiarize, respectively, and some of the others made minor but genuine goofs that year. But a Republican can lie, cheat, steal, fornicate, adulterate, and sell out the entire American economy to the Japanese–can have the brains of Dan Quayle, the family life and war record of Ronald Reagan,and the ethics and looks of Richard Nixon–and still be perceived by just about everybody, including most Democratic voters, as “presidential caliber.” There is more going on here than meets the eye. Broccoli, fruitcake, and tofu were only trial runs. The way things are going now, in 1996, the Republicans could run a Big Mac for President–a Big Mac over 35 years old!–and win. Next time somebody says “six-pack” (except, of course, when referring to beer), STOP the conversation right there. And don’t let it proceed until you have forced all participants to ask themselves “Where did I hear that? Do I really want to say it or endorse it? What do I really know about any of these guys?” And let’s be really conscious that there is a real difference between satire and sabotage.