Nicholas Chiaroscuro is one of the most important men in American politics. Not that he is a politician. Mr. Chiaroscuro does not aspire to the lofty position of political puppets whose only qualifications are an insipid face, a case of hair spray, and an infinite capacity for self-gratification. Chiaroscuro looks upon such creatures much as an experienced coach regards the brainless meat machines that are, alas, indispensable to the game he loves.
Like his rival, the late Karl Rogue, Nick Chiaroscuro was a protégé of the legendary Grant Blackpool, who pioneered the new science of hardball politicking. Blackpool was as wily and as mean as a snake, and, if Nick inherited his wiliness, Rogue got the meanness. “Why waste time being clever,” Karl used to ask, “when an anonymous slander or blackmail threat can get the job done just as well?”
Nick is just the opposite and views electioneering as an art in itself. Results are only secondary. He is like the professional gambler who will never win honestly—a sucker’s game—so long as he can cheat. It is a question of pride. He devised an approach to campaign commercials that he described as “subtextualizing.” Friendly critics called the method “subliminal implants.” His legion of enemies preferred “voodoo.” As the names suggest, Nick designs commercials that win over viewers not by the explicit message but by indirectly planted suggestions. Now, as a campaign technique or legal trick, the method can be traced back at least to Cicero, who famously referred to Clodia’s brother as her husband, then corrected himself, saying, “I always make that mistake.” This generated a big laugh from a jury convinced that the pair had an incestuous liaison. Despite his Italian name, Nick has probably never heard of Cicero, and he may have based his method on the famous Willie Horton commercials that suggested, and none too subtly, that Mike Dukakis would give carte blanche to Negro murderers.
Willie Horton was a sledgehammer, so ponderous it would give a hernia to the Republicans who wielded it. Nick had a much lighter touch. Sometimes, he was absolutely Byzantine. It was he who suggested Viagra commercials to Bob Dole, who could never pass up a chance either to leer at the camera or to make easy money. Other Republican strategists were aghast. Karl Rogue told him that Dole would make himself and the party a laughingstock. Chiaroscuro observed that Dole and the party had already done about all that could be done in that direction. What could have been worse than the Doleman’s ’96 campaign? The point, he insisted, was to rescue both the candidate and the party by suggesting indirectly that they were not a bunch of desiccated Kansas rubes but real sex machines, who would go on fornicating all the way to the grave. “Look at Clinton. Apart from a few old Republican garden-party hags, people love him, women as much as men.”
Nick, it hardly needs saying, thought Newt Gingrich was crazy to attack Bill Clinton, and not just because Newt’s own private life was less creditable than the President’s. Great men are often scoundrels. “Look at Julius Caesar and Napoleon, look at Jack Kennedy for Chrissake. They lied, cheated, and stole; they murdered and they whored, but the people loved them. Nixon, on the other hand, was a faithful husband, and look where that gets him. Even that dumb jerk Kissinger can now make fun of him, and where would Henry have been without Nixon? Teaching international relations at Nebraska Tech, where he belongs.”
I had heard a great deal about the Chiaroscuro touch and wanted to meet him. Fortunately, I had friends who had known Grant Blackpool back in C-——, and they assured him that I was a harmless crank, the kind of highbrow philosopher-type who could be an eyewitness to murder and the murderer would get off. Even if I attacked Chiaroscuro, no one would pay any attention. Prompted by such recommendations, the great man agreed to see me on a Saturday evening he was going to spend, as he always does, watching television.
I wanted to ask him about all the tricks that have been used to propel faceless nonentities into the Senate and up to the White House. Where did they come from, how can they be learned—or are they, rather, the reflexes of a shark that smells blood? Chiaroscuro acted as if he hadn’t heard me; perhaps he hadn’t. Remote control in one hand, a small 7-Up bottle in the other (a tribute to his hero, the VP), he fixed his gaze on the TV screen.
“Look at this. Whaddaya see?”
“It’s just a commercial,” I replied absentmindedly, “for a middle-priced car.”
“Just a commercial. Even a guy who knows Greek must have heard that TV programs are the stuff inserted between commercials. What is this commercial saying?”
“I suppose it says buy this car, because it is fast and good-looking and takes you nice places. What else?”
“The car doesn’t matter. It’s an American car made by affirmative-action workers. Everyone knows it’s crap . . . ”
I tried to interrupt, but he cut me off. “Advertising is never about the product. Notice, for example,” he explained in a condescending tone, “notice how in the beginning the guy is in a suit and tie, obviously a worried businessman. He’s alone. But when he gets in the car he has taken off his tie and rolled up his sleeves, and there’s a girl beside him—and what a girl! Not just a bimbo, but the kind of girl you’d want to marry—this car goes for 57-9 without extras, and the guys on the line could never afford it. No, this car is for accountants and 35-year-old execs looking for the right kind of woman. Buy this, and you buy a new life.”
“Yes, I understand. Sex sells.”
“Sure,” he said, “sex sells, but so do fear, greed, gluttony, envy, and hate.” He clicked the remote, and we saw a commercial for “silver” vitamins. “See that, these 60-somethings still have it. They’re going to the beach to make out, but better than that, they’re cheating death. If they can just stretch out their lousy pointless lives long enough, the scientists will come up with a cure for death—that is, if global warming doesn’t destroy the planet.”
He switched again, this time to a detergent commercial. “Notice how the little black girl is telling the adult white woman what detergent to use. The black kid is a twofer. The rule in advertising is even more explicit than in government grants: Black trumps white, youth trumps maturity—and old age—female trumps male. If you don’t like it, join the Ku Klux Klan or, better yet, write letters to your congressman.”
“This is all very interesting, if a little obvious, but I came here to learn about political strategy . . . ”
“What do you think I’m talking about? You think I like commercials? I can’t stand television and don’t watch any movies made after the death of Steve McQueen.”
I made the mistake of asking him “Why not?” He explained that, with very few exceptions, there were no actors or stars or even actual human beings in Hollywood films, only the faux-celebrities manufactured by his counterparts in what is jokingly called “the industry.”
“The new breed—and I use the word advisedly—of celebrities is not even good-looking. Take Brad Pitt or, better still, Lindsay Lohan. She can’t sing, can’t act, and has the face of a weasel in heat, but they—or should I say, we—put her on the front page of every so-called newspaper in the country. Even after the makeovers, she’s not beautiful, but what difference does it make? She and Britney and Paris Hilton define beauty, and someone who thinks otherwise should move to France.”
“If you can make anyone a star, why not pick someone talented or at least beautiful?”
“What would be the point? Where would be the fun? It’s the same in politics. Yes, we could have groomed an intelligent and principled war hero like Admiral Stockdale and made him a senator, but it was a lot more fun to pick John McCain, who is so goofy he does not even realize how many people he annoys every time he opens his mouth. The best part is giving him this campaign-reform shtick, when the guy has more mob contacts than Barry Goldwater or Paul Laxalt. But, my friends in the other party have become the real pros. Who are their two front-runners? Hillary and Obama?
“I’d love to manage Obama. The guy’s been in politics, what, 13 years, and no one knows anything he’s ever done or any stand he’s ever taken. He’s a dream walking, so dumb he thinks he’s smart. I think he actually believes his message, ‘Time for a change.’ He never asks himself, ‘Change from what to what?’ It’s just time for a change. Ever notice, by the way, that when one of these guys runs for a new office, it’s always time for a change, but once they’re up for reelection, they want us to stick with experience?”
I asked him if Obama could win. “Probably not,” he told me, somewhat sadly. “What does he have to offer? Their party already has the black vote and the conscience-stricken liberals, so they don’t need him. A few liberal or moderate Republicans would cross over, just to feel good about voting for a minority, but after his crack about nuking Pakistan, he makes even liberals nervous.
“To tell the truth, I think Hillary put him up to it.”
I looked incredulous. “Sure. Until Obama got in, nobody in the party leadership could stand her. I’m positive they were going to do a Howard Dean on her—remember how they manufactured the scream?—but with Obama in the race, she becomes the less awful alternative.”
I asked him about John Edwards. “That’s too easy. Even you could figure it out. On the superficial level, Edwards is impossible: just an expensive haircut, a cross between a hippie and a cocker spaniel. He is another smarmy rich kid, like Al Gore, who bleeds for the poor he keeps at a distance from his palace. He is as wacky as Hillary and Obama. But on a deeper level, he is posing as the salvation of the Democratic Party. As his wife said so sweetly the other day, ‘John can’t help it if he isn’t black or a woman.’ Translation: He may be a wacko, but he’s a white male wacko. If Obama or Hillary were the candidate, he or she would not only lose but just might alienate the white male vote (especially in the South) for the next ten years. Remember McGovern? After him, the Democrats had to destroy Nixon and undermine national security to get little Jimmy elected.”
“What about the Republican candidates?”
“Candidates? I don’t see any candidates. They’re all talking about Romney after the Iowa Straw Poll. Mitt—who’d vote for someone named Mitt, anyway; what’s next, Muffy?—Mitt has got to be running for VP or a cabinet post. He’s too religious for country-clubbers, and, being a Mormon, he loses the mackerel-snappers and the Pat Robertson types. In this party, what’s left?
“Then there is the very shy Fred Thompson, probably the best bet. Good old Republicans think that if their best President was Ronald Reagan, who was an actor, then Fred Thompson, being an actor, would make a great President. That’s American logic today.”
I told him he had spotted an undistributed middle. “Undistributed middle. I like that. Then my whole method is to capture the undistributed middle American.”
“Does Giuliani have a chance, despite the children who hate him and the rumored mob connections?”
“Listen, just because Rudy’s Italian, doesn’t mean he’s in the Mafia. Look at me—the closest I’ve got is an uncle who ran numbers back in the day. Rudy’s biggest problem is that he is New York, and every normal American, especially Republicans, hates New York. But, if there’s another 911, he can do it. Scared people will vote for anyone they think is strong. It’s what they call the Führer Principle.”
“You’re pretty cynical about politicians . . . ”
“Cynical about politicians? Not me. I’m an artist. I don’t vote, because it would only confuse me. I can’t afford to get attached.
“No, it’s not politicians I despise; it’s the American people and their so-called wonderful democracy. This is a country where people eat Big Macs and think it’s food, drink fruit-flavored Miller Lite and think it’s beer, watch Spielberg movies and think they’re entertaining—or, better still, they’re art—and read David Frum and Charles Krauthammer thinking they’re political intellectuals instead of being political flacks like me, except they’re not good enough to get into the practical side of the business.
“When I started out, I knew politicians were rats, but I thought the people were good, only they were misguided.”
I tried to stick an oar in: “Didn’t Metternich say the German people were good but their heads were confused?”
Ignoring my interjection, he continued. “Then how could bums like Harding or Truman get elected? If the American people had good hearts, Ron Paul would be President. Let’s get serious. The whole art of politics today is to pander to the weakness, fear, and greed of the people.”
“But surely there are issues . . . ”
“Issues? What issues? Romney used to be pro-choice, but now he says he’s pro-life. What kind of man could change his mind on that kind of issue without spending the rest of his life on his knees, asking his god for forgiveness? Look at George Bush. He campaigned on an isolationist platform, and his chief advisor persuaded him to play McKinley. Apparently nobody remembered that McKinley opposed the Spanish-American War and only got dragged in by big-business imperialists like Teddy Roosevelt, his loony future vice president.
“What’s the point of going on? We killed a couple of hundred thousand Flips and got dragged into a war in the Pacific with the Japs. Do you really think that war was an issue? It was just a little sweetening to the plutocrats who owned the party. Nothing has changed, and it shouldn’t.”
I tried to protest, but Nick Chiaroscuro had dismissed me—and the history of the republic—from his thoughts. Taking a swig on his 7-Up, he turned on FOX News and laughed uproariously at how badly Sean Hannity delivered the lines he had been fed. “Sap doesn’t even understand ‘the issue,’” he chortled.
I knew it was time to leave and closed the door slowly on the way out.