Wednesday, October 1, 2008


Sometimes when a consumer buys an article of commerce, he gets something defective. Lee Iacocca, the legendary Detroit automotive executive, once wrote that generally the best cars are the ones assembled in the middle of the week, that is, before robots and computers did much of the assembly of various parts into a vehicle.

If you bought a car that passed the assembly line Monday or Friday, chances are higher that you would get a “lemon”, as compared to cars assembled between these days. Why so? Because of work inertia, he explained. On Monday, the average worker is still sluggish after a weekend of relaxation. On Friday, they are too eager to get off work. So, the nuts and bolts may not be as tight as they should have been, which could produce a lemon.

If there are product lemons, there are political lemons as well. How do you assemble a good political product, and how do you get to know which are the lemons?

In countries where there are real political parties, it is the responsibility of the party to make sure they foist no lemons on an unsuspecting public. Mature political party leaders choose who they consider the best among them, and present him or her to the public. Great parties like the Labour Party in Great Britain, at a time of continued rejection by British voters owing to the popularity and accomplishments of Margaret Thatcher, the Tory prime minister, purposively groomed a young and brilliant leader with immense communication abilities, got him elected “easily” in a district with a pronounced Labour constituency, and steered him through the ranks until the party, with young Tony Blair as leader, snatched Parliament from Conservative control.

Up until recent years, the Democrats and Republicans acted with profound circumspection in the choice of their candidates for high public office. As they were produced by the usually sober judgment of peers, the Democrats produced a Franklin Delano Roosevelt, an Adlai Stevenson, a John F. Kennedy to carry their standards, win or lose. The Republicans chose among themselves and produced the likes of Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.

But with the universality of audio-visual communications, the manner of choice even of party peers became more and more dependent on opinion polling, which in turn became a function of the right soundbyte the candidates mouth on national television. “It’s the economy, stupid” mouthed by Bill Clinton defeated a less quotable incumbent George Bush, Sr. Giving motherhood statements on almost every issue allowed George Bush Jr. to squeak past his two Democratic challengers, plus a bit of vote manipulation.

With the TV phenomenon came the rise in the importance of “handlers”, who were able to sharply define for their candidates the image that would correlate to the emotions of voters. This desired image was articulated in soundbytes, became the anchor of public debate refrains, and defined the storyboard of advertising campaigns. Of recent memory, we’ve heard of Dick Morris for Clinton and Karl Rove for Bush.

A great success story was how an African-American in the person of a young senator from Springfield, Illinois sneaked from behind and upset the Hillary Clinton bandwagon into an applecart with broken wheels. His handlers did well, and by the way he scored, even if thinly, against John McCain in their first debate, Barack Obama has also shown that he has listened well, and prepared well for the most difficult job in the world. There are two more debates, and if he scores against McCain once more, only a major gaffe and a tide of racism (which would make America look so degenerate in the eyes of the world) could stop his march into Pennsylvania Avenue.

But this early, it looks like the handlers picked a lemon in Sarah Palin. They needed someone to electrify the campaign of an ageing candidate whose greatest appeal was his being a genuine war hero at a time when more than half of the population are weary of wars and misadventures. They needed someone who would be antithetical to the brahmins of Washington D.C., successfully corrupted by Barack Obama as the policy-makers of continuing American decline.

So they chose a fresh new face from remote Alaska who looked good and could be made to sound good, the all-American beauty with a “crusader’s” zeal. She electrified the limping Republican campaign on convention day indeed. It was a good speech, spoken, it seemed, from the heart and not read from a teleprompter. Immediately, McCain’s numbers zoomed, and inched above Obama’s. Novelty paid off, or so it seemed.

But then a lemon is a sweet-scented fruit, and it’s flower is among the sweetest-smelling of all. But once you get through with the peeled zest and past the white inner layer of skin, as the Trini Lopez song went ( I was in grade school then, for those who can’t even fathom who I refer to) “but the fruit of the poor lemon, is impossible to eat”.

Now that American media is peeling off the sweet-smelling rind of Palin’s pretensions, the all-American beauty rose is getting more and more “impossible” to turn into a potential president of the “greatest” nation on earth (the world is beginning to challenge that, and bets are being placed on when the greatest gets displaced).

Her past has come up under microscopic scrutiny, including clues to her apparently high-handed, even vindictive character. Her “lies” are being exposed. And perhaps most damaging, her lack of any comprehension about foreign policy has been brought out in a one-on-one interview that has been televised and circularized further via YouTube. What does she know about foreign policy? Well, Alaska is next-door to Russia, ain’t it? That’s foreign policy for you. Geographical proximity is peddled as profundity. And to think America made fun of Vice-President Dan Quayle because he couldn’t spell potato rightly. When they realized their mistake, they thrashed him along with his Bush Senior.

But Palin the lemon is being discovered this early, and it would do well for McCain to reconsider a mistake before she drags him down much, much more than his white skin and all-American patriotism can manage to challenge Obama’s message of change.

Still and all, we citizens of the benighted land cannot but feel a quantum of envy at the manner politics is practiced in the land of milk and honey. There they are able to expose, through a vigilant, inquisitive and adversarial media, the warts and flaws of pretenders for public office. Media and public interest groups do actual research, delve into the minutiae of past and present, in order to serve the nation’s best interest, which is to make a wise and informed choice about the men and women they elect to high office.

Sadly in the benighted land, media peddles little more than churned press releases with accompanying thick envelopes, and advertising fuelled by lots of money, whether earned from “sipag at tiyaga” or “singit at taga” or “C-5 at taga”, or land-grabbing and fake titles, or the undue use of coercive influence and self-gratifying power, are able yet to give a patina of gilt over shoddy dross.

That the unravelling comes this early however gives the Filipino electorate a chance to see the monumental fakery that they are being asked to buy. They will after all pay for it with their future and that of their children, in times most desperate, in an environment of hopelessness.

May the Almighty in His infinite wisdom bless His oppressed people, at the very least, with the charism of discernment, after allowing us, again in His infinite wisdom, to suffer in seeming endless misery because we chose, or were made to choose, the least among us, to lead us.