Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

Alice Roosevelt Longworth

Alice Roosevelt Longworth

Alice Roosevelt Longworth (1884-1980), the daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) and wife of House Speaker Nicholas Longworth III (1869-1931), was long the doyen of Washington society. Being invited to one of her afternoon teas - long held in her Beaux Arts townhouse just above Dupont Circle at 2009 Massachusetts Avenue - was a sign of having made it - of having arrived. Alice was a witty, fearless, way-ahead-of-her-time grande dame long known for the quality of her tea and an unerring ability to speak her mind. She is perhaps best-remembered for having described two-time Republican presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey as “The little man on the wedding cake,” and the slogan embroidered on the pillow adorning her settee, which served as a kind of throne: “If you haven’t anything nice to say about anyone, come sit next to me!”

“Lady Alice’s” bon mot could easily be the slogan of all seasoned political operatives; particularly those tasked with doing opposition research.  For those not in the know, opposition research is to bare-knuckle political campaigning as advance scouting is to professional baseball . . . an absolute must. The purpose of researching an opposing candidate is, of course, to have a collection of “facts and fables” with which to  tar one’s opponent(s) if and when it becomes necessary.  I have long been of a mind that opposition research should also be carried out with the same diligence on one’s own candidate; the theory being that If we can find out what our guy/gal has done, so can they.  It is one way of lessening the possibility of getting caught with one’s pants down - both literally and figuratively.  

Today, of course, with all the cyber search engines at one’s beck and call, opposition research is ever so much easier than in days of yore. The Internet contains far, far more anecdotal information than a week or two spent going over miles of microfiche files at the Library of Congress. Then too, it is also far, far easier to find and post tons of “facts” - and images - which simply are not true.  Case in point, a photo of former Texas Representative - and potential Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke posing before a camera, the words “vegan,” “feminist,” “atheist” and “queer” painted on his mostly nude body. (As if any of these should absolutely disqualify a person from running for the presidency.) Despite the fact that this “fact” is nuttier-than-nougat, the photo - and “story” behind it has already wound up in thousands upon thousands of cyber mailboxes, which means there are lots of people who are dead certain that Beto is a beast.

Of course, opposition research is nothing new.  As but one example, back in the presidential election of 1884 between New York Governor Grover Cleveland (D) and Maine Senator (and future Secretary of State) James G. Blaine (R), the candidates’ campaign slogans were based on what was worst and most immoral in their opponents’ lives and careers.  Blaine’s campaign slogan - based on the out-of- wedlock child Cleveland allegedly had fathered was “Ma, Ma, Where's my Pa, Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha!”  Likewise, Cleveland’s campaign slogan, “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, The Continental Liar from the State of Maine!” referred to Blaine's involvement in unethical business deals with the railroad industry and his behavior after they were exposed.  Although there were actual issues in the campaign, no one remembers what they were . . . short of the far more interesting matter of Cleveland’s promiscuity and Blaine’s perfidy.

Although political campaigns can - and do - engage and entertain (and enrage) the masses, they are also - ideally - meant to enlighten the electorate. Sadly, with the sweep and scope of 21st century opposition research, they have made the latter - the enlightenment part - next to impossible. And the product of the opposition research has been getting fiercer and more fatuous - not to mention earlier - with every passing cycle. The fact that there is already a negative hit job being done on Beto O’Rourke -even before he’s decided whether or not he’s going to run - is simply breathtaking in its mendacity. We already “know” many negatives about Senators Warren, Klobuchar, Harris and Booker to name but four. Please note that each of the links leads to a series of articles detailing their negatives far more than their proposals.  In the 50-plus years I’ve been engaged in politics and political campaigning, I’ve never seen the “fruits” of opposition research being published a full two years before an election. This is both a shame and a pity, and is an early indicator of just how filthy the 2020 cycle is going to be.    

Elizabeth Warren, as an example, has been going around the country talking up specific proposals she would like to see enacted - whether or not she is elected POTUS. One of these is a much-needed (and highly doable) program to make childcare and preschool affordable.  Although rarely talked about, childcare and preschool accessibility and affordability is of major importance.  The percentage of income that goes into these early forms of education is staggering.  Senator Warren’s plan has been well thought out, and if enacted, could have a positive effect on American society.  To date, there has been precious little conversation about her proposal.  From the right side of the aisle, predictably, it has been dismissed as ‘socialism,’ and ‘turning over the raising of children to the state.’  From the left side of the aisle, one hears complaints that the plan doesn’t go far enough — that it should involve free, direct public provision of child care, not subsidies to private provision. As the New York Times’ Paul Krugman has noted, “There’s certainly a case for a more expansive policy. There’s also no chance that it will happen anytime soon.” While the demurral is well intended, one must remember, that the perfect can be the enemy of the good.   In other words, rejecting going on a one-mile jog because a 2 mile jog would provide more needed exercise is likely to keep people from jogging at all.

Interestingly, like Senator Warren in 2019, Hillary Clinton had a serious plan back in 2016, but the news media was too busy obsessing over emails to pay attention. Most of what we read, hear or see about Senator Warren’s nascent campaign deals with whether or not she has so much as a single drop of Native American blood or how much she’s worth, rather than what she’s proposing to do as president.  In other words, opposition research has “proven” that she’s not perfect.

We’ve arrived at a point in American political history that most of what we know about presidential (or congressional or state legislative) candidates is that they are not perfect; that they are far too human to be worthy of our support, let alone our vote. Stated so baldly, you know it’s trash; we should be seeking and supporting people who are smart, thoughtful, experienced in the fine arts of governance, leadership and diplomacy; people who are both willing and able to listen and learn; candidates who tend to surround themselves with advisers who are even smarter, more thoughtful, and more experienced than they are.

By demanding or expecting the perfect, we are making it virtually impossible for the good to ever succeed.

Or, in the words of “Princess” Alice’s father, the nation’s 25th president, “Look Toward the stars but keep your feet firmly on the ground.” 

618 days to go until the next presidential election.

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone