After reading the week’s shipment of Donald Trump-related news, I retreated to my burrow and buried my head in the past.
One of the things that is most appealing when things in the present seem unremittingly bleak is to seek refuge in the idea that they were not always thus. The term nostalgia comes from Greek for homesickness, and generally you can tell a lot about your era from its specific nostalgias, what it pines for in its moments of weakness. The one you feel got away always encapsulates everything that you feel is wrong with the one you have. You should have gone to sea with Bob, you think. (Of course, if you had gone to sea with Bob, you would wish you had stayed home with Paul. There is no winning counterfactuals.)
What I have been pining for lately is a higher caliber of political insult.
This summer, for instance, saw the release of a documentary that marks the simultaneous high and low watermark of political discussion: the 1968 debates between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, cross-programmed with coverage of that year’s Republican and Democratic national conventions.
For the past several days I have done nothing other than absorb footage of these debates, seeking insight into our present dilemma. After this period of conditioning I now lean back in my chair and drawl all my lines, like a drowsy prep-school-educated cat.
I like very much the idea that once upon a time we had a public discourse conducted as though someone had told both debaters, “Your real goals are twofold: Work as many vocabulary words in as possible, and remember that you are secretly auditioning for the lead in a Tennessee Williams drama.” You could just show up one day on the East Coast and talk like a pleasantly soused Encyclopaedia Britannica and people went with it. “That’s probably how people talk,” they said to themselves. It’s like the passage from Evelyn Waugh — they were always quoting Evelyn Waugh — where two people are staring at a piece of horrible purple prose. “Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole — would that be it?” “Yes,” said the managing editor. “That must be good style. At least it doesn’t sound like anything else to me.”
Erudition! Abstruse, recondite erudition! What eristic discipline they brought to their sciolistic quibbles, though prone to occasional bursts of rodomontade!
Now we have someone named Deez Nuts entered as a candidate for president, as well as Trump, a man with the vocabulary of the Incredible Hulk but without the charm. Politico wrote that he spoke at a third-grade level, and I am alarmed he scored so high.
Here’s Trump, insulting Jeb Bush: “I don’t see how he’s electable. Jeb Bush is a low-energy person. For him to get things done is hard. He’s very low-energy.”
And CNN called this a “throw-down.”
Here’s Bush, insulting Trump: “Mr. Trump doesn’t have a proven conservative record.”
Trump, later: “You know what is happening to Jeb’s crowd right down the street? They’re sleeping.”
“He was supposed to do well in New Hampshire? He’s going down like a rock.”
Trump doesn’t even know what “passionate” means, using it to describe some men who said they were inspired by him to allegedly viciously beat a homeless man.
Contrast this to the 1968 debate, which sounds like it was scripted by Noel Coward.
Vidal called Buckley “the Marie Antoinette of the right-wing . . . always to the right and almost always in the wrong,” while Buckley sniped: “The author of ‘Myra Breckinridge’ is well acquainted with the imperatives of greed” to which Vidal countered that he had based Myra’s “passionate and irrelevant” polemical style on Buckley himself.
When Vidal called Ronald Reagan an “aging Hollywood juvenile actor,” Buckley retorted that the adjective aging “contributes nothing . . . extraordinary to the human understanding. We’re all aging.”
“Even you,” Vidal retorts, “perceptibly before our eyes.”
It may not have been nice, but at least it was polysyllabic.
Well, initially, anyway. Then it got ugly.
This is the trouble. Even nostalgia only can get you so far. Even then we weren’t able to have nice things.
Their debates were also the low watermark of discourse — one eventually runs out of polysyllables and switches to monosyllables, and boy, did they, slinging “crypto-Nazi” and “queer” in a moment of near-violence that went down in infamy. And we discovered, to our horror, that it made for better television. So much for the past.
The moment when you discover that something awful makes for good television is always the beginning of the end. Remember how many of us watched the Trump debate?
Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog at www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/compost.