The recent kerfuffle over a secret recording of Sen. Mitch McConnell’s campaign strategy meeting, which focused on opposition research about a likely opponent, actress Ashley Judd, has divided observers into two groups.
One consists of those disturbed by the bugging of a private conversation. The other consists of people who were mostly offended by the content of the conversation, which concerned Judd’s emotional problems, and laughter about certain odd comments she has made over time.
First, welcome to reality. Nothing about this episode, first exposed by Mother Jones magazine, is novel or especially outrageous, except for the allegedly illegal activity. Many may find the content of Team McConnell’s discussion unappealing, obnoxious, mean, or … banal, anyone?
But anyone pretending shock that opposition research includes discussions about a person’s emotional or mental health has been dwelling in some alternate universe. What people write and say in the public square is fair game, and Judd wrote in her autobiography about her emotional challenges and suicidal thoughts — a reasonable existential exercise, if you ask me and Albert Camus, who described suicide as the only “truly serious philosophical problem.”
If you want to elect a senator who has never been depressed or contemplated suicide, vote for a dog.
What people say in a private meeting among trusted colleagues, meanwhile, is of a different order. In a wiretap world, where and when does anyone get to be frank? Or, heaven forbid, irreverent? If we have to always worry about someone recording our thoughts, beware the perfect thinker.
It is true that McConnell’s people were laughing at certain comments Judd has made, including feeling alien in an American airport. (Who doesn’t?)
Sample: “I call it the American anesthesia. You know, I come back to this country. I freak out in airports. The colors, the sounds, all those different ways of packaging the same snack but trying to, you know, make it look like it’s distinct and different and convince consumers that they have to have it. … The last time I came home from a trip, I absolutely flipped out when I saw pink fuzzy socks on a rack. I mean, I can never anticipate what is going to push me over the edge.”
Whereupon the meeting leader ominously intoned: “So pink fuzzy socks are of concern.”
Permission to laugh granted.
Later, participants discussed Judd’s criticism of the patriarchal order of Christianity and the traditional family model. In other words, shocker, Judd is a liberal Democrat. Naturally, her opponent might wish to highlight these philosophical differences.
What sent some commentators lurching for the salts, however, was a comment that Judd is “emotionally unbalanced,” the implication being that McConnell’s minions would publicly question her emotional and psychological stability.
Whether this would have transpired is irrelevant since Judd decided not to run before the tapes were leaked. But the desired objective was achieved: The specter of men making fun of a woman — who, let’s be honest, is most memorable for vastly enhancing the desirability of perspiration — inspired an emotional/protective response and portrayed McConnell as a bully.
Suddenly, questions of illegal recording were displaced by the continuous looping of mean McConnell’s strategy of personal destruction. Then again, he might have figured such an approach would be politically imprudent. Few today would approve of the treatment handed Thomas Eagleton, who lost his place as George McGovern’s vice presidential running mate in 1972 because he had had electroconvulsive therapy during an earlier depressed period.
These days, we are more sensitive to emotional and mental health issues and generally attach no shame or dishonor to counseling, which is simply a sophisticated method of problem-solving. Moreover, do we really want to limit our choices for public servants only to those who have had no challenges (liars), or who think they have no need for greater self-awareness?
This is a worthy question for debate, but meanwhile, a couple of concluding observations:
McConnell’s team was reviewing what they knew about their opponent, as every politician has done and will do until the end of time. In the immortal words of Robert Penn Warren’s fictional Gov. Willie Stark from “All the King’s Men”: “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.”
What Team McConnell might have done with that “something,” we’ll never know. What we do know is that someone taped a private conversation and should be prosecuted accordingly.
As for Judd, smart girl took a pass.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org