We're well on our way to the bottom, and we're not even out of February. Our distinguished Democratic candidates for president argue about whose stump rhetoric is borrowed poetry and whose is recycled doggerel, who had the most fun playing dress-up on a holiday abroad, who makes naughty when the other makes nice.
Yesterday in Pennsylvania, two brothers-in-law, caught up in the excitement of a primary, fought to a bloody draw in an argument that ended with a stabbing over the merits, ethics and virtues of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. One brother-in-law (a Hillary fan) was dispatched to the pokey and the other, an Obama addict, to the hospital with a knife wound in his belly.
No guts, no glory, but that anyone could find enough merits, ethics and virtues in these two worthies to fight over with a sharp knife is a mystery and a puzzle to grown-ups. We're usually content to let the pols bore us to death. Our "issues" this time are mostly suited to hair-pulling at recess.
The latest Clinton portrayal of Barack Obama as a closet Muslim is the thinnest soup the lady has served yet. The evidence of a plot hatched at the mosque lies in a six-year-old photograph of Sen. Obama in the headpiece, skirt and sarong of an elder, taken in a remote Kenyan village. No indication whether this is a Muslim village, but if you want to think that, the Clinton campaign won't mind, despite Hillary's denying everything last night. The Obama campaign called the circulation of the photograph by unknown villains "a smear," and Maggie Williams, Hillary's latest campaign manager, scolded with straight face the Obamanoids for taking offense, for suggesting that the sight of Mr. Obama in the finery of Africa is "divisive." The Obamanoids "ought to be ashamed of themselves." Why, Hillary has occasionally donned such "divisive" duds herself.
Mr. Obama's friends explain that he wasn't trying to hide behind anyone's skirt, that he wore his own skirt proudly. This latest fuss only shows that borrowing another culture for a photo-op is risky. The Vietnamese ao dai, filmy silky pajamas that suggest a lot without showing a lot, looks sensational on slender Vietnamese women, but not so sensational on, say, Madeleine Albright. The cheongsam, with the skirt slit to the waist, is splendid on svelte Chinese women, but Hillary is well advised to stick to her pantsuits (not slit up the leg). Presidents look particularly ridiculous when they can't resist putting on somebody else's clothes.
Mere presidential wannabes have to be particularly careful, too. This year's crop of wannabes should consult Michael Dukakis, who defined himself forever when he put on a helmet and climbed aboard an Abrams battle tank for a bumpy ride around the block. Or John Francois Kerry, who dressed up in some sort of bunny suit and only looked like a giant sperm. Calvin Coolidge looked faintly ridiculous in the long feathered headdress of a Sioux war chief in a famous photograph, which was exactly what Chief Standing Bear, photographed beside him suppressing a smile, probably had in mind. White man sometimes not smart.
Dirty tricks may be too late to save the Clintons, but suggesting Barack Obama is a closet Muslim can only set him up for grief later, when the party gets rough. The sophisticates among us pretend that the culture has moved beyond religious tastes and tests; the campaign of '08 offers ample proof otherwise.
Mitt Romney couldn't survive suspicions about Mormons, and many of those who decry religious prejudice loudest are put off by Mike Huckabee's evangelical Christianity. Barack Obama has yet to persuade a lot of voters that his association with a pastor who doesn't much like Jews and other white folks shouldn't be a deal-killer.
Louis Farrakhan, who called Judaism a gutter religion, endorsed the senator from Illinois over the weekend. The October surprise lies still ahead.