“The banality of evil” is one of those vapid and misleading phrases that can churn up a tidal wave in a mud puddle. In a trivial sense, Nazi bureaucrats were banal enough, but there was a heroic dimension to the evil of Hitler and Goering, a delirious striving toward the superhuman that commands our attention, if not respect. Hitler and Stalin were both bigger men than Roosevelt and therefore capable of more deliberate evil. (God save us from big men.) It has been some time since democratic politics called forth heroism, and every four years the American electorate could hear, if they were listening, the crank of the ratchet lowering the human level of American politicians by a notch or two.

What could have been more banal than the Republican Convention? The possibility of going to San Diego had never entered my mind, and watching it on television I experienced Dante’s horror on first entering hell, but in my case the misery was all in the eye of the beholder. The real star of the proceedings was television itself, reducing everyone on both sides of the screen to two dimensions of pointilliste abstraction. If any of these lost souls had ever had a life, it was impossible to tell, now that they had reduced themselves to visual cliches: the perkiness of little Susie Molinari; the forward-pass progressivism of Jack Kemp, allegedly one of the first professional quarterbacks to have all his plays called from the bench (one of those stories which, even if false, was not invented by chance); the unctuous condescension of Colin Powell declaring his conviction that women had a right to kill their children and asking Republicans to tolerate diversity on this point—”Can’t we all just get along?” Then there was the stirring patriotism of the nominee, telling us that newly arrived immigrants have the same right to the American dream as descendants of the Founders. If this means anything (highly unlikely as it is). Senator Dole would seem to have come around to Thurgood Marshall’s opinion that aliens have the same rights as citizens. Later, addressing a meeting of black journalists, Dole repudiated the plank in the Republican platform denying welfare privileges to aliens. So much for the conservative strategy of winning the platform. “Here we go again . . . I’ll be her fool again, one more time.”

The Republican Convention combined the spontaneity of a meeting chaired by Ross Perot with the excitement of a rigged game show on a summer rerun. Much of the credit goes to Michael Deaver, the king of the influence peddlers and author of the defining apothegm of the Reagan years: “What I did may have been unethical, but it was not illegal.” It was illegal, as it turned out, but criminal lobbying is a badge of honor in a party that nominates the Senator from Archer Daniels Midland, the benefactor of Gallo wineries, the defender of the Koch family from documented charges that they were scamming oil from reservation Indians, the friend of any downtrodden capitalist with a tax problem, the Senator for Sale (in the title of a recent book) who has sold (perhaps we should say “loaned”) his vote so often that he cannot keep his commitments straight.

The high point of the convention was Liddy Dole going down into the audience like Oral Roberts about to heal the afflicted—which would seem to include a majority of the previous speakers. Lapsing into a Bogart pose (I watched the convention only between commercials), I thought, “You’re good. Really good.” It was nice, after the parade of freaks and feebes, to sec a real woman for a change and the nearest thing to a man in the Republican leadership. Her touching account of her husband’s injuries could almost make us forget that it was the first wife he dumped and not the trophy wife he picked up who took care of him after the war.

If center stage at the GOP convention was occupied by the lame, the halt, and the blind, the Democrats were determined not to be outdone, and their schedule promised an array of the physically, mentally, and morally impaired: the Brady Bill Bunch, a quadriplegic Superman, Jesse Jackson, Hillary the Commodities Whiz, and Senator Carol Moseley-Braun, recently back from an unauthorized trip to Nigeria, where she said she was consoling the dictator’s wife for the loss of a child. Consolation could be a big business in Nigeria, where the leader has murdered thousands of his political opponents. It is, of course, only an accident that Carol’s boyfriend and advisor has been a lobbyist for Nigeria. Like Jesse Jackson, the Senate’s first black female has apparently never heard of the Logan Act.

In general, though, only the black delegates seemed normal. Perhaps it had something to do with the entertainment. As I watched the moon-faced white males and their fat wives swaying to the Macarena and twitching spasmodically to a group of gospel rappers, it was like a mass dramatic try-out—thousands of untalented amateurs doing their best to impersonate Steve Martin in The Jerk.

I was hoping against all hope for a better show from the Democrats, but it is too much to expect that they would repeat their Chicago performance of 1968. The best parts of the television coverage were the tributes to the 68’ers, solemnly assuring journalists that they had changed things. Only David Dellinger had the guts to say that in 1968 international business ruled the world, and they were still running things in 1996. Glorious it was to be alive in 1968, watching the crazies collide with the con-artists at the last good political convention, covered by a set of journalists who might just as well have been demonstrators or delegates: Norman Mailer was there playing the journalist; William Buckley and Gore Vidal had their famous cat fight; William Burroughs tape-recorded the convention, “exterminated” (i.e., randomly cut and spliced) the tape, and played it back, hoping to alter the delegates’ consciousness—a perfect parallel for the conservatives’ platform maneuvering at the ’92 and ’96 GOP conventions.

In 1968, the crazies were more original, and the pols more substantial. In 1996 Hubert Horatio Humphrey would tower over the Democratic Convention like a moral and intellectual giant. We are pygmies standing on the shoulders of pygmies, unable to see anything above our ancestors’ privates.

I was asked by a network news show if I would be willing to comment on the political rhetoric both of the Democratic Convention and more generally of the campaign. I tentatively agreed and repented as soon as I put down the receiver. Luckily, the program eventually fell through. What could I have said? There was no rhetoric at either convention, except in the sense that both parties have made self-government a rhetorical question in the United States. If the orator, as defined by Quintilian, is “a good man skilled in speaking,” our political leaders fail on both counts.

Let us pass over in silence any claims to virtue put forward by the well-paid supporters of both candidates and concentrate on the speechifying. President Clinton’s idea of a refutation is to reduce his opponents’ arguments to a string of imbecilic cliches—”There are those who say we should send our senior citizens out onto the ice floes to die from starvation and exposure”—before solemnly pronouncing, in the accents of a first grade teacher correcting a spelling test, “This is wrong.” Senator Dole, despite his genius for the one-line put-down, has perfected a kind of Kansas dyslexia that made him the envy of George Bush—himself a master of incoherence.

One of the Podhoretzes, in describing the Bob Dole-Mark Helprin acceptance speech, used words like “sublime” and “luminous.” To my ears it was the rhetorical equivalent of a Wyndham Hill album: a formless prettiness on the surface with nothing underneath—a sugarcoated M&M with a hollow center.

There is no point, either, in attacking the matter of political speeches, since both President Clinton and Senator Dole are mere actors, reciting—often without full comprehension—the texts their handlers have created for them. Bob Woodward, in The Choice, describes the dismay of Bob Dole’s aides, every time the Senator begins to depart from the prepared remarks. The really strange part of this is not the supine compliance of men who want to “lead the free world” but the delusions of the handlers and consultants who seriously believe that they have crafted little masterpieces of persuasion that can strategically position their candidate to have the broadest appeal without offending any possible group.

We are stupid, but not perhaps in the way they think. I have talked to marketing experts from time to time who like to take credit for the success of products they have promoted. There are, of course, “geniuses” who can create television commercials (e.g.. Burger King’s Soviet beauty pageant) that are far wittier than any comedy show. For the most part, however, marketing really comes down to getting the product name on the air over and over and over. One of the most effective commercials in the history of television was the ancient Anacin spot with a clanking hammer in the brain. Anyone who has the money and the time can ultimately sell enough Bayer aspirin or Big Macs to make a profit, and if Mr. Clinton is the quintessential Big Mac (fat, insipid, vulgar). Bob Dole’s candidacy is based on the same principle as an ad campaign for a product that is exactly like the generic alternative except for the brand name and higher price. What the pain-reliever doctors (of philosophy) recommend most is socialism, and it does not matter a great deal whether the label reads Democrat or Republican. Without product recognition (and the money spent to guarantee it), there is scarcely a Democrat or Republican who could get elected to office.

The very least we can expect from a politician is that he write his own speeches. I do not mean that he should not have researchers and advisors to assist him on technical points, but that he, not the handlers, should be in charge of basic policy, that he, not the speechwriters, should be responsible for the words he uses. In Hollywood they call it “creative control.” When Mari Will put a speech on Hollywood decadence into Bob Dole’s mouth, the candidate ended up passing judgment on films he had never seen, expressing ideas that had never occurred to him, using words that had passed from teleprompter to microphone without passing through his brain. Elect Mari Will, if you want a “family values” President, because Senator Dole does not know what she is talking about.

I should never presume to advise anyone on whom to vote for, but there arc several obvious categories of politicians that should be rejected out of hand. Apart from men who do not think their own thoughts and speak their own words, there are politicians who do not stand by the interest groups and constituents who elected them. Politicians are caught in a bind, whether to carry out the wishes of the voters who elected them or cater to the needs of the special interests who fund their campaign. The code of the lobbyist was once explained to mc by a Marxist “oral historian” who asked me if there was any liberal I could support. When I replied “Gene McCarthy,” he snorted and said he preferred John Anderson, who “when he was bought, stayed bought.”

The best we can expect from any politician is that he will regard himself as bought, at least in part, by the voters who elect him rather than as a wholly owned subsidiary of his funders. The Democrats, by this criterion, usually do better than the Republicans. Democrats get elected to office by promising to spend public moneys on women, racial minorities, the shiftless, and the immoral, and—by and large—they keep their promises. Bill Clinton is the exception, in promising to represent working- and middle-class people then turning around, after the election, to help the homosexuals who had given him money. But, as a traitor to his supporters, Clinton is an amateur compared with the Republicans who use the Nixon strategy to get elected every four years by appealing to white males and middle-class families. After the election, they turn back, like the proverbial dog to his vomit, to corporate tax cuts.

Selling out ordinary Americans to the rich is bad enough; in recent years, the buyers are increasingly non-American. The worst scandal of our public life is the ease with which overseas business interests, multinational corporations, and foreign governments can bribe American politicians into granting them favors. In many cases, the bribes come straight out of the taxpayers’ pockets in the form of taxes and higher prices. American foreign policy these days sometimes seems like a tug of war between Israeli interests and Arab oil interests. The patriotic foreigners who buy up shares in the American government are only playing Realpolitik according to the rules, but there is no reason to vote for anyone who has taken a penny from AIPAC, Saudi Arabia, or South Korea.

Americans are said to be naive in worrying about the character of our politicians. We are naive, not because we think a man’s character is an indication of how he will govern, but because we look at the wrong things. If the Clintons have an “open marriage,” it means only that they are typical of the post-Christian Yuppies who hold the levers of power. If they have agreed to stay together for the sake of their child—or only for the sake of appearances—then President Clinton is far less culpable than politicians like Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, and Phil Gramm, who trade in the mothers of their children for a younger model (the same goes for pro-choice mother of the year, Susie Molinari, who also traded up). If they break their vows to their spouses, just imagine what they will do to us strangers.

In choosing leaders of a Christian community, St. Paul advises, we should select only men with well-regulated households. I take this to include men who wear the pants in the family. We have had enough petticoat government in recent years, and I would not vote for any man whose wife takes more interest in politics than, say, Joan Mondale did, fretting about the arts, or Lady Bird Johnson, who planted bulbs all over the District of Columbia, or Pat Nixon, when she stood by her man with grace and dignity.

Most of these criteria come to a basic question of what Clyde Wilson often calls authenticity. An authentic man (I am not saying good, intelligent, or competent), an authentic man is what he is. If he is an upper-class twit like George Bush, he will not don a cowboy suit and drop the final “g” from his participles. Teddy Roosevelt was an aristocrat and did not care who knew it. If he is a cheap little haberdasher like Harry Truman, he will not put on airs (at least not more than he has to as President) like Jack Kennedy, descendant of bogtrotters, rumrunners, and political fixers, and—for all the Kennedys’ cultural pretensions—one of the least intellectual men to sit in the White House. In conducting a televised tour of the White House in her breathy voice, Mrs. Kennedy came across like Marilyn Monroe discoursing on Proust. According to a recent book, Kennedy was the best golfer ever to be elected President, and yet he had to pretend to dislike playing a sport that was too obviously a rich man’s game. Nothing is as it seems. Gerald Ford was probably the greatest athlete to be President, but the White House press corps devoted themselves, night and day, to collecting pictures of an awkward Ford, stumbling over his own shoelaces. Looking back, it now seems like an impossible dream that there were once apparently decent (I say nothing of their intellect or political views) men like Gerald Ford and Fritz Mondale, running for President.

A telltale sign that a man’s authenticity is wearing thin is the habit of speaking of himself in the third person. “Bob Dole’s gonna do this Bob Dole will never do that.” Dole’s handlers are working on the problem, but it is clear that the Senator has come to view himself the way John Wayne did near the end, as a kind of trade-marked property. Clinton is more careful, although in the 1992 campaign he was fond of referring to himself as “the comeback kid.” Richard Nixon, faced with hostile criticism, could not avoid self-objectification, telling reporters after he lost the gubernatorial election in California: “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” and at the height of the Watergate crisis, “Your President is not a crook.” Lyndon Johnson was probably less deluded than most crooked politicians, and when he told an astonished female aide, whose bed he was slipping into, “Make room fo’ yo’ President,” it was probably not his ego that was foremost in his thoughts.

Third-person references are obviously an imperial style, but in the case of kings and conquerors, it is a useful device for keeping the sacred person above the fray. Julius Caesar composed his lying Commentaries in the third person, because (as one of our editors says) it would have been hard to say something like: “I broke faith with a German ally of the Roman people, killed his women and children, and used this slaughter as the pretext for a campaign against the peoples of Gaul who have never done us any harm.”

For lesser men, this tic has the effect of fiction, like Faulkner’s “Byron Bunch knows this.” To see yourself as the hero of a novel is an adolescent temptation; grown men—apart from celebrities and politicians—eventually come to realize that everyone has his own play with his own script, and if he chooses to play a supporting role—”one that will do / To swell a progress, start a scene or two”—it may not be for the greater glory of Bill Clinton or Bob Dole.

What have I left out? “People who eat peppermint and puff it in your face,” perhaps. If I go on in this vein I shall turn into Tito Perdue’s Lee, a 72-year old man who goes about the streets beating the crud out of rude teenagers and illiterate librarians. Only fiction, apparently, can do justice to our age. The times require a W.S. Gilbert, and all we get is P.J. O’Rourke. It is not the banality of evil that defines the modern mind so much as the evil of banality.

I know they throw away most write-in ballots, but if and when I do vote in 1996,1 am going to write in my own name, to show how little I think of the system. Tom Fleming wants your support.