I know that John Kerry shares my values. I know that John Kerry shares your values. I know that John Kerry shares John Edwards’s values, who also, by the way, shares my values. I know they both share your accountant’s values, your butcher’s values, your mechanic’s values. If a Martian showed up from outer space, they’d share its values, too. . . . I know that because they say so. In speech, in rapid responses, in interviews, Kerry and Edwards remind us these days how darn tootin’ chock full of values they really are. They’ve got heartland values, middle-class values and even conservative values, according to themselves. They are to values what Donald Trump is to gilt: they’ve got it; you’re gonna see it. Of course, if Kerry really shared our values, he probably wouldn’t have to tell us so every minute, and once, just once, he might actually say what the values we share actually are.
When Kerry uses the word “values,” it’s meant to send a message: I am not who I am. I am not the blue-blooded prep-school kid who married two millionaires, dated a movie star and has a prenup and umpteen homes in tony locales; who has spent the past two decades as a moderately liberal senator from Massachusetts; and who likes to snowboard at Sun Valley and windsurf off Nantucket. I’m just your back-fence neighbor in Mayberry, out there in overalls, sidlin’ over to the fence to chat: “Howdy neighbor! Would you like to come visit for a spell and hear about my values of faith, hope and opportunity?”
This campaign’s version of middle-class values is like the Cracker Barrel restaurant version of a small town: a manufactured replica of a wholesome, down-home America that never existed. A realistic portrait of middle-class values would include tattoos, carb-counting and the purchase of voluminous amounts of lottery tickets by people who dream of escaping from the middle class.
But, of course, this campaign has to insult our intelligence while it condescends. Personally, I long for the day when rich people were free to be rich people, when Franklin Roosevelt could cruise around in that roadster with that big cigarette holder jutting from his mouth. I long for the day when rich people left morals to the middle class because they were too busy worrying about manners, which are more glamorous. Yet here we are on the cusp of one of the greatest episodes of spiritual slumming since Marie Antoinette built that fake village and played at being a shepherdess. Both John Forbes Kerry and George Walker Bush Ã¢€” who, let’s face it, ain’t exactly John-Boy Walton Ã¢€” are going to compete furiously over the next three months to see who is the most spiritually middle class. Because that’s what we apparently want in a president Ã¢€” a really rich guy who worships our middle-class pabulum.
I say if these upper-class types want our values, they can have them. Just so long as they give us their real estate.
Clearly, this is very much a bipartisan phenomenon. Every presidential campaign in my memory has had some variant on this theme, most notably the “Family Values” mantra that was long a hallmark of Republicans. It was never clear exactly what those values were or how they would be translated into public policy, but we know our guys had them and the other guys didn’t. In politics, vague is usually good, as it lets each voter fill in the blanks in a way that suits them.