The Breakfast Table

As Ordinary as They Wanna Be


Picking on Ordinary Americans, are you? You and Steve Brill will have a lot to talk about in Hell.

A question: What is an Ordinary American? Are there criteria for membership in the club? (Hasn’t heard of Tina Brown. Watches CBS. Thinks Slate is a blackboard surface.) I ask because I’m not sure who qualifies anymore, or what constitutes ordinary. I was on a trip to West Texas last month, and my wife, daughter, in-laws, and I stopped in Marfa, population 2,500. Giant was shot in and around there in the mid-50s, and the main drag probably doesn’t look much different today than it did then. We were in a Mexican restaurant having lunch, the sort of time-capsule place where people smoke freely at their tables and vegetarians like me are out of luck. I thought to myself: So this is the last unsullied place on earth; these are the last holdouts from the modern world; these are the last Ordinary Americans. And then we heard a dusty coot in a cowboy hat in the booth behind us talking about his IPO.

It is definitely true, as you say, that politicians turn the folks they refer to as Ordinary Americans into props. I’m reminded of the time in late ‘95 or early ‘96, during his belly-flop presidential bid, when Phil Gramm introduced Dickie Flatt to the world. Ol’ Dickie, we were told, was a printer from Mexia, a tiny Texas town whose previous claim to fame had been that it was the birthplace of Anna Nicole Smith (which itself is one for the Hall of Dubious Distinctions). Dickie worked so hard and such long hours that his hands were forever stained with printer’s ink–and if that didn’t make Dickie Flatt and Ordinary Americans like him deserving of a massive tax cut, well, tarnation. Dickie was indeed from Mexia, but he wasn’t just some printer; he was a longtime volunteer on Gramm’s campaigns. It’s not as if he was picked out of a rope line to play a round of Who Wants to Be a Campaign Accessory; he was a committed partisan duped into portraying no one in particular. When politicians talk about Ordinary Americans, what they really mean is: Ordinary Americans Who Already Agree With Me, Whose Life Stories and Lifestyles I’ve Vetted for Anything Embarrassing and Untoward, and Whose Personal Misfortune I’m Going To Exploit For My Own Ends Until the Election Is Over, at Which Time No One on My Staff Will Return Their Calls.

That ‘96 race is worth recalling for another reason you mentioned: At no other time in the history of American politics have both halves of a presidential ticket referred to themselves so frequently in the third person.

Dole: Hello, Jack? Jack Kemp? Bob Dole wants you to be his running mate. Kemp: Jack Kemp would be honored. Dole: Bob Dole thanks you. Kemp: No, Jack Kemp thanks you. Jack Kemp is happy to quarterback your team. Dole: Arrggggh. Bob Dole. Doley Bob.

I couldn’t help but work in a sports metaphor, which was the other maddening aspect of ‘96. If I had to hear one more football reference … And it’s no better this year. The great disappointment of the Bradley campaign has been the incessant use of basketball terminology by political reporters. I think it’s lazy, empty writing at its worst, and I’m sure Ordinary Americans agree.