Paying No Attention to the Curtain - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Paying No Attention to the Curtain

Paying No Attention to the Curtain

By Eugene S. Robinson



Because when a leader emerges who is not afraid to lead, we just might lose our minds.

By Eugene S. Robinson

The drill is a familiar one at this point.

Call it divert and refocus, wagging the dog, or call it whatever politicians are doing these days to make us look. Where? Just about anywhere other than the obvious and noteworthy failures owned by these self-same politicians.

So France’s Francois Hollande turns to the Central African Republic under the guise of possible humanitarian concerns. And if doing so made his poll numbers that had recently scraped low lows hit slightly higher lows, well so be it. If, for a second, we pay no attention to the fact that Sarkozy and Hollande each took different government planes to Nelson Mandela’s recent memorial at a cost of G-d knows what to the already cash-strapped France, the diversion almost succeeds. Except it doesn’t, because we’re writing about it.

Discerning noses can smell bullshit from a mile away, so why not just give it to us straight?

And lest we feel a tad too much schadenfreude, we don’t have to look very far for similar hijinks in the U.S. Both Gulf Wars produced the same sort of magical, (sometimes) effective thinking. Gulf War I saw Bush I polling at 89 percent right after the war. Gulf War II saw Bush II polling at 76 percent around the run up to it. Even Obama has benefited by proxy when the initial troubled rollout of the Affordable Care Act was masked by Republican fumbling over the debt ceiling and the government shutdown.

French soldiers in middle of street with C.A.R. citizens on sidewalk watching

French soldiers of the Sangaris operation man their position in the North of Bangui.

Source Getty

What we’re not addressing though here is how totally unnecessary it all is. While it’s quite true that you can fool some of the people some of the time, it might just be OK to not have to fool anybody ever. The news from government officials does not necessarily have to be good, but we can’t help thinking that stern medicine delivered honestly and earnestly might collectively get us all a little further than the endless loop of “positioning” that relentless image management has left us with.

Or more simply put: discerning noses can smell bullshit from a mile away, so why not just give it to us straight?

When the great mayor of New York City’s past, the Italian-Jew Fiorello LaGuardia, was running as a Republican in a 1922 election, he was being smeared by the infamously corrupt and wily Tammany Hall machine that was running a Jewish candidate against him. Claims that LaGuardia was a virulent anti-Semite (all lies and smears), flowed thick from Tammany Hall and saloons all over the Lower East Side of New York. Political operatives of the time predictably urged LaGuardia to counter this slander with a public declaration of his Jewishness. Which he rejected out of hand as being a little too pandering.

But, his unexpected response? To debate his opponent in Yiddish.

Check. Mate. Winner: LaGuardia.

Black and white image of the Mayor speaking at a podium in suit facing left

Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, December 1935

Source Getty

And there are more on the list of those who have made it pay to say it straight. President Harry S. Truman from the “show-me” state of Missouri was famous for his lack of guile, craft, couth, call it what you want. He not only gave them hell, but, in a March 12, 1947 speech during a joint session of the U.S. Congress, advanced the idea that,

No government is perfect. One of the chief virtues of a democracy, however, is that its defects are always visible.

And point them out he did, with great frequency, mincing amazingly few words. 

So while the temptation here might be to chalk up our love for plain spokenness to some sort of political naiveté, we’d take this option 100 times over 100 cynical calculations based on the belief that indeed a sucker is born every minute. 


Just easier – whether you’re the talker or the listener – to look at yourself in the mirror later, that’s all.

And, in some places, that’s worth a lot.

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