Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Have Gun Will Travel

Rudy Giuliani - Presidential Election of 2008 - Republicans - Elections - Politics - New York Times

This highlights, perhaps, the most relevant flaw in Giuliani’s mostly impressive record in public life if we are going to try to imagine him as a leader in world affairs, standing on that wall. He has never really known when to stop. This was his downfall in New York, before the attacks of Sept. 11 reminded New Yorkers of why they had put their faith in him in the first place. Having ruthlessly driven out the windshield-wiping “squeegee men” and the triple-X theaters and the corner dealers and the pickpockets, having cleaned up the sidewalks and restored the parks, Giuliani just kept going. By the second term, he was after the jaywalkers in Midtown and the cabbies who broke the speed limit. Having brought an admirable measure of control to the ungovernable metropolis, Giuliani seemed to want to control everything. His followers called him inspiring, but “my way or the highway” are the most common words you hear about Rudy from those who worked with him and didn’t love the experience. He was brilliant, they say, intellectually agile, but utterly unyielding.

Giuliani doesn’t exactly run from this image; it is, at bottom, part of the notion he is selling of a leader who won’t back down or settle for mediocrity, who has the sheer force of will to “do the impossible.” After all, Churchill and Reagan were both accused of harboring a dangerous kind of single-mindedness, and history now records their intransigence as visionary. If Giuliani has a problem, though, it might not be that he can tolerate abortion but that he has not been given the historical luxury of campaigning to succeed a Neville Chamberlain or a Jimmy Carter. Instead, his nomination would follow eight years of a president who has already been, if anything, too steadfast and too self-certain. The country has endured a venomous period of unrelenting partisanship and inflexible agendas, and there’s not much in Giuliani’s history or in his own campaign pitch that would suggest he’d be all that different. It’s possible that even weary Republicans are ready to try a new approach.

I used to watch cowboy programs a lot as a kid. My favorite was "Have Gun Will Travel"--which was a little non-standard. Paladin, the hero, was a professional gunslinger based in San Francisco, where he spent his downtime at fancy bars wearing a brocade smoking jacket and gambling for high stakes. He had business cards with a chess knight as his logo and I think he employed a Chinese factotum named Hop Sing who would report when offers of gun-slinging jobs came in. Paladin, I seem to remember, was selective about which assignments he took. When he went on a job he dressed in a black cowboy outfit, meant business and always got his man--but then went back to San Francisco, got back into his brocade smoking jacket and took up his life again.

At the beginning of the show, as the theme song was playing, Paladin appeared in profile in his tight, black working clothes--a fine figure of a man, which I appreciated even in deep prepubescence.

Have gun will travel reads the card of a man
A knight without armor in a savage land
His fast gun for hire he's a calling [something]
A soldier of fortune is the man called Paladin.
Paladin, Paladin, where do you roam?
Paladin, Paladin, far, far from home.

In retrospect, "Have Gun Will Travel" was different from standard westerns. First, the assumption was that those cowboy towns where gunslingers and their antagonists had gunfights were anomalous--strange hinterlands. The real world that framed each episode, beginning and end, was San Francisco. Paladin's real life was there. He went to the outback, frontier towns with dirt streets and board sidewalks, to do his job in the way that consultants go to obscure places in the Third World to do a quick fix and then fly home. Secondly, Paladin's job was the surgical strike: he was hired to get one particular Bad Guy, not to clean up Dodge City like Matt Dillon, whose show followed immediately at 10 o'clock. Have Gun Will Travel was not about a Clash of Civilizations or about the winning of the West: it was about a lone knight taking out a lone villein so that decent people could get on with their lives.

Finally, and most importantly, if I remember correctly Paladin was a cultured, intelligent, sophisticated man who was brave and tough, and could out-gun everyone. In this respect, he was like Zorro, another favorite of mine who was, in private life, Don Diego, a consumate sissy or like Superman who, disguised as Clark Kent, was a mild-mannered reporter for a large metropolitan newspaper. The difference was that "Don Diego" and "Clark Kent" were personae and, in an important sense, fakes: Zorro and Superman were the real characters. The real character on Have Gun Will Travel was the San Francisco Paladin: it was the cowboy outfit that was the disguise--just working clothes when he went out to do a job. Paladin was in the tradition of Robin Hood, who was really Robin of Locksley. (Robin Hood came on at 7:30, had lovely, curly hair, dimples, an English accent and looked wonderful in tights. I've liked men since I was 2.)

And then there is Rudy Guliani, attempting to do cowboy in the dominant tradition, who "darts from small town to smaller town in Iowa, offering himself up as a true urban cowboy. He studies his Nascar. He eats turkey legs at the state fair. He bounds onstage to the twangy rhythm of Brooks and Dunn’s 'Only in America.'" The assumption, which he, his groomers and trainers, imagined the American public shared, was that even if a few academic, journalists and urban professionals remained out of touch in their ivory towers and glitzy high-rises, the real world was Dodge City where a Clash of Civilizations was likely to continue for decades--or centuries. And in this long war intelligence, education and sophistication were ipso facto disqualifications. Poppy Bush, a fighter pilot shot down in combat, ran afoul of the "wimp factor" because of his "patrician" image; Little Bush, a National Guard deserter, was elected, and re-elected as a War President because he had a bad accent and pretended to cut brush on his "ranch."

I don't think the American public is buying this anymore: there's too much empirical disconfirmation. Or at least so I hope.


Anonymous said...

I think you may be right: what might be potentially a politicking strength if he were facing a Jimmy Carter, is an albatross in the wake of George W. Bush, who took that quality to an inflexible extreme (because he lacks the charm and grace of a Reagan, and the sheer brilliance and eloquence of Churchill) and bludgeoned the nation with it. And instead of trying to soften the shared qualities of the men above, Rudy just keeps hammering them home. He may be campaigning at the wrong time.

Anonymous said...

Please consider changing the color theme of your blog. You say a lot of very interesting things, but it is very hard to read when it's written with light-gray on white.