In search of a contemporary artist

Monday, October 28, 2002

KENNETT, Mo. -- When Missouri's famed 19th-century painter George Caleb Bingham portrayed an election campaign in our state, some 80 to 90 faces of spectators, along with the intent visage of a serious candidate, were portrayed. Without so much as a word, Bingham conveys to the observer the intensity, as well as the uniqueness, of this long-standing electoral process.

There are no television cameras in Bingham's painting, no high-powered paid consultants, no fluorescent yard signs, nor are there any visible notes in the speaker's hand. Behind the candidate there are no drawings of the speaker's early childhood days, no illustrations of his walking, coat slung over this shoulder, down the steps of a building resembling a capitol.

Bingham captured the essence of political life a century and a half ago in Missouri and most of the rest of the nation. Were he to attempt to portray the same event in oils today, his painting would have to include a somewhat different set of characters, and in place of an attentive audience listening to the speaker's words, it would portray a couple seated in their family room watching a television screen, with a background of cheering supporters applauding a previous speech or some reenactment of the speaker's past achievements, with his children looking on adoringly and his wife beaming with pride. Sheer bliss/perfect politics.

Of course, Bingham's life-like portrayal of politics in America in a new millennium would have to include other modern alternations: paid campaign fund solicitors, backroom campaign consultants fabricating the candidate's past records, and a den of evil-doers (excuse me, George W.) who are devising a wide assortment of illegal deeds perpetrated by the opponent, his family members and his in-laws.

Since jaundiced voters have come to expect the worst from their political leaders, it is only natural that today's candidates must serve as prosecutor, judge and jury while carrying out his or her vendetta against alleged evil, duplicity and false claims and statements. This is what we voters expect, what campaign managers frantically search for, what the political parties would die for in the take-no-prisoners environment of today's modern electoral theater.

I have no idea when this political transformation began, nor why. It may have had its beginning at some moment in the political aging of our representative system of government, a time in which the political fortunes of the losers were at their lowest, thus creating a sense of utter futility among those in Great Britain still called the Loyal Opposition. Perhaps it was during our post-Civil War period when Republicans held control of all three branches of the federal government, although perhaps it has a more modern antecedent in the post-Hoover era when Democrats thrashed about, looking for any way to salvage the American economy.

When it started is less relevant than why, but I believe this may have more to do with filling a void than any evil plot that might have been hatched in some sleazeball consultant's backroom. Life in America has become complex and so evolving that even the slightest of deviations is discernible and, presumably, correctable. If our society uncovers a deviant personality whose actions threaten the lives of innocent citizens then we feel obliged to attach this to the national, a.k.a. political, agenda of our nation. Before long, the crisis evokes less germane discussions, such as the right to bear arms, and we are soon debating not the best way to restore public trust in law enforcement programs but the true meaning of the Second Amendment and what was intended by the founding fathers.

Often the great campaigns of our time have dealt with less structured subjects and dealt with how various shadings of basic rights and responsibilities should be handled. For example, no one questions the right of the federal government to levy taxes to carry out certain duties and responsibilities. The 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia established that power long ago, and it has been strengthened by such amendments as those installing specific taxes for specific duties. The argument is not over why but how much and for what. It is at this exact moment that citizens of good will can disagree, and since there is some cloud of disagreement, those who believe they can gain from it will quickly adopt it for their political insignia. Over the years, the arguments pro and con on this and many other subjects have reached levels bordering on insanity. Human nature being what it is (an inconsistent absence of consistent common sense?) we maintain those items which have been converted to the political agenda not because they were natural agenda issues but because they lent themselves to a division of public policy that offered exploitation -- and perhaps political gain.

More and more of us are finding the nation's electoral, i.e., political, process more and more distasteful and less and less satisfying in our search for orderly, logical answers. Both Jim Talent and Jean Carnahan want to be our state's next U.S. senator, and as the campaign progressed, the race has proved less and less clear -- not because the candidates have not offered solutions but because the electoral methods used are more and more objectionable, obtuse and offensive to the public.

We seem unable to elect bright leaders because the process fails to enable voters to reach proper decisions based on valid intellectual points. Bingham painted flamboyant political candidates seeking approval from interested, alert voters. He did not exaggerate his portrayal. Today's television screens portray candidates who have false smiles, make false promises and offer false remedies.

The problem is that we understand what has happened to our people's republic -- we just don't know how to fix it.

Jack Stapleton is the editor of Missouri News & Editorial Service.

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