When melody conveys more than words

The MORE I SEE of politics the more impressed I am by the power of culture: the power of our communal tastes, feelings, amusements, our shared habits and memories, distinct from society's codified expectations. As in a poem, the part that can be summarized in a few words is often less significant than the less conscious part, what might be called the melody.

Los Angeles may seem a strange locale for that observation, and a national political convention an unlikely moment to reflect on culture. But like the L.A. entertainment industry, the political parties strive mightily, sometimes desperately, to understand American cultural attitudes. Like the people who make the movies, campaign managers embody official social structures whose purpose is to assay and manipulate the unstructured, unofficial desires of the culture.

This manipulation is not always easy or predictable. The spectacular recent example is the impeachment crisis brought on by hanky-panky in the White House. Journalists and comedians harped on the matter relentlessly, in print and on the screen. Politicians yakked, pronounced, and bloviated. During the impeachment process in the House of Representatives, the Republican representatives uncorked their rhetoric-trove, invoking Shakespeare, the Bible, Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington, as well as their own children. Inevitably, other sexual scandals erupted as bipartisan sideshows, and the air of disgrace billowed around Washington like swamp gas.

And contrary to the expectation of many professional anticipators, the American people indicated that they thought the whole mess was embarrassing and distasteful - but not worth changing government over, not a threat to our children or our way of life. As happens with embarrassment, the situation also seemed funny to some people. But not important enough to affect the running of the country any more than it already had.

That judgment, which surprised many, was a cultural judgment. It turned out that American culture - on the level of dream life, of imagination, of what strikes us as funny or moving or angering - didn't want to assign grave importance to the social phenomena of scandal, deception, and pronouncements about them. To put it simply, we just didn't care that much about it.

Our feelings about those events seem to be playing some role here in Los Angeles, as it did in Philadelphia. What that role will be in the election is very far from certain, I think. Maybe none, or none that will ever be clear. It's a clich for pundits to deplore the appeal to symbols and feelings, rather than "the issues." The role of the irrational in politics is routinely called sinister. Hitler's pet filmmaker has left us a terrifying record of "good visuals" and "reaction shots," the use of music, lighting, emphatic delivery by the leader.

But a good poem marshals both the rational element of statement, the part that can be summarized, and the part I've called "the melody." Far from evil or stupid, the element of feeling, symbol, and ritual in public life enhances and corrects what we can define or express as "policy." As in a poem, the two elements are in a kind of dance or drama.

At the Staples Center, the present stage of that drama, the new entirely symbolic nature of the national conventions appears in dreamlike events and details. As in Philadelphia, there is a Shadow Convention, with Gary Hart as a bizarre counterpart of Arianna Huffington. My memory of the mound of sneakers in Philadelphia, said to be those of American children killed by handguns, merges with the mound of cow manure dumped here in Los Angeles by a man in a pink pig costume, demonstrating for more ethical treatment of animals. In the paper, a color photo shows the anthropomorphic pig with its hands or trotters being handcuffed behind its back by two officers, in front of the dump truck.

I won't pretend to understand the national shared dream being played out in this election. But here's a theory. Maybe the country's attitude toward President Clinton is like that of someone who has defended a brother or friend on the playground, or in a bar. He has acted like a jerk, but he has been attacked by jerks, so we defended him. Now, that is over and we have him at home and want to let him have it. We feel Clinton has been a good president, but he acted like a jerk, so having defended him we want to punish him. But only Al Gore is available - will we decide to punish him instead, unfairly, but as part of a plausible if dreamlike psychological process?

Or maybe that isn't it at all. But whether I have the dream right or wrong, a dream of some kind will have an important part in the unfolding of events, and the melody may tell us more than the words.

Robert Pinsky recently completed three years as US poet laureate.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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