'Deciding the Next Decider'
Calvin Trillin offers a delightful record of the 2008 presidential campaign in verse.
For those of us suffering from Post-election Political Blog Withdrawal Syndrome, Calvin Trillinâ€™s Deciding the Next Decider, a chronicle in verse about the just completed presidential race, is an irresistible shot of instant nostalgia.
Trillin started writing political poems for The Nation in 1990, setting the bar high for himself with â€śIf You Knew What Sununu.â€ť
Since then, heâ€™s punctured the pretensions of politicians right and left, wielding iambic pentameter and inspired rhymes in the service of insightful, hilariously entertaining liberal-leaning commentary. His dogged doggerel has been collected in â€śDeadline Poetâ€ť (1994), plus two volumes about the Bush administration, â€śObliviously On He Sailsâ€ť (2004) and â€śA Heckuva Jobâ€ť (2006).
One may wonder where Trillin will find humor in a no-drama Obama administration, but as these pithy poems about the 2008 presidential race show, he never has to look far for political punching bags: Trillin is an equal-opportunity critic.
His 26th book begins with the 2006 midterm elections and takes us through Iowa, New Hampshire, Super Tuesday and on, across the bridge to nowhere to Joe the unvetted plumber, the economic meltdown, slime ads, and Democratic neuroses, right up to Obamaâ€™s victory speech in Chicagoâ€™s Grant Park: â€śYes, hereâ€™s how presidents are meant to talk.â€ť
Trillin is so good at zeroing in on key moments, itâ€™s hard to believe he wrote these poems while events were unfolding rather than with the advantage of hindsight. Such adeptness is challenging enough in prose; pulling off incisive commentary in rhyming couplets is akin to dancing backwards in high heels.
Remember the crowded stage at the Republican debates during the primaries? It feels so long ago, yet Trillinâ€™s lines bring it back sharply. Mike Huckabee? â€śHeâ€™s wacko, yes, but heâ€™s sure pleasant,â€ť Trillin writes in â€śThe Nicest Republican.â€ť He compares Mitt Romney to a Ken doll, â€śso slick of speech and slick of garb,â€ť while of â€śalmost-ranâ€ť Bill Frist he writes, â€śSome problems came along, the worst one being/ A blind trust that seemed capable of seeing.â€ť
He describes the early criticism of Barack Obama: â€śExperience was what he seemed to lack./ And to be frank, they pointed out, heâ€™s black.â€ť
To the suggestion that the young first-term senator acquire more experience before running for president, he comments in a tart parenthetical aside, â€śProducing legislation at a trickle,/ Some Senate members donâ€™t mature, they pickle.â€ť
Harping repeatedly on John McCainâ€™s moral compromises, Trillin stresses that not all change is good: â€śNo longer did he seem the same man who/ Had charmed the voters (and reporters, too)/ With candor as heâ€™d cheerfully express/ His willingness to call BS BS.â€ť
He adds, â€śA maverick. Indeed, heâ€™d earned that word/ â€™Til, desperate to win, he joined the herd.â€ť
Nor does he mince words about what he calls the distorted â€śRove-o-Cloneâ€ť ads and robo-calls released by McCainâ€™s campaign: â€śMcCain of old would not allow such scat./ His honor meant much more to him than that./ But into Bushâ€™s role with Rove heâ€™d slid./ What torture couldnâ€™t do, ambition did.â€ť
Several stanzas are set to familiar tunes, including â€śHeâ€™s Still My Bill,â€ť an update of the â€śShow Boatâ€ť classic for Hillary Clinton, and â€śOn a Clear Day, I See Vladivostok,â€ť a fresh version of the Barbra Streisand hit for Sarah Palin.
Palin, of course, was a gift to comedians, but Trillin unleashes indignation along with zingers. He faults her for trampling on the truth, noting that when challenged, â€śSheâ€™d say it yet again, with no contrition,/ As if sheâ€™d make it true by repetition.â€ť Alluding to her costly sartorial makeover, he concludes, â€śThey dressed her all up. They could put her in Prada/But what she can say thatâ€™s of substance is nada.â€ť
As fun as this is now â€“ especially for Obama supporters â€“ â€śDeciding the Next Deciderâ€ť may prove even more valuable down the road as a concise reminder of this amazing chapter in American history.
Heller McAlpin, a freelance critic in New York, is a frequent Monitor contributor.