One of the fundamentally grotesque facts of the American political system is that we get the politicians we vote for.
Which brings me to Alan Grayson, the congressman who is vying to become the political equivalent of @_FloridaMan, a never-ending series of cringe-inducing incidents, headlines, and actions that define—and defame—an entire state.
But Grayson, who represents the Sunshine State’s 9th District, is not simply an ill-fated, hard-luck Twitter handle conjured from headlines such as “Florida Man Accidentally Smashes Wrong Car With Baseball Bat,” “Florida Man Compiles Map Detailing the Most Popular Places in Miami to Poop in the Street,” and “Florida Man Pocket-Dials 911 While Cooking Meth With Mom.”
He’s a goddamn congressman, which means he should be held to slightly higher standards than homeless men who are forever masturbating in Walmart toy sections, wrestling squirrels and alligators while fucked-up out of their minds, and punching police horses while protecting imaginary girlfriends. Indeed, Grayson should strive to comport himself with at least the modicum of decorum that Internet phenom and 9/11 truther Alex Jones has managed while having Grayson on his show.
Grayson is in the news now for two reasons. First, that he says he’s seriously contemplating a Senate bid. The second is a nasty divorce he’s working through with the mother of his five children. Married in 1990, the two had been working on a settlement but a court appearance this week ended poorly. "I'll sum it up for you,” explained Grayson to local TV reporters immediately after the proceeding. “Gold diggers gotta dig. That's all I gotta say.”
But it’s not his unseemly statements about his personal affairs that are particularly troubling. He shouldn’t be talking like that, of course, but neither should the press be particularly interested in the personal lives of politicians unless criminality is involved or the matter at hand is directly relevant to their elected office.
No, it’s really the way Grayson talks in the strictly political sphere that is most troubling. In the early 1990s, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously complained that the country was “defining deviancy down.” The problem, Moynihan argued, was that “we have been redefining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the ‘normal’ level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard.”
I actually don’t buy Moynihan’s large argument (much of what he considered deviant, we now rightly recognize as individuality, fashion, or simple expression), but I think his phrase is useful when discussing how politicians act and talk. We put up with a lot more crap from pols than we used to and that tolerance is not leading either to better outcomes or deeper discussions of important topics.
As the self-styled “Congressman With Guts,” Grayson has yet to reach bottom when it comes to throwing low blows. In 2009, for instance, while appearing on Jones’ show and talking about the Federal Reserve, he called Linda Robertson, an adviser to Ben Bernanke, “a K Street whore.”
“Here I am,” he inveighed, “the only member of Congress who actually worked as an economist, and this lobbyist, this K Street whore, is trying to teach me about economics.”
Perhaps Grayson was just nervous in his freshman year in Congress and trying to show off a bit too much. That same year he turned in the performance for which he is probably still best-known: his executive summary of the Republican health care plan alternative to Obamacare as “If you get sick, America, the Republican health care plan is this: Die quickly.” He delivered that message, complete with props, from the floor of Congress.
In a tough 2010 re-election campaign, Grayson ran ads calling his Republican opponent, Daniel Webster, a draft dodger and, more improbably, “Taliban Dan,” in a nod to Webster’s social conservatism. Factually incorrect and overflowing with duplicitous editing, the commercials are pitch-perfect parodies of negative ads and are widely believed to have helped cost Grayson the election. Florida voters, accustomed as they are to reading about “Florida Man,” don’t always want his spiritual cousin representing them in Congress (Grayson would return to Washington in 2013, representing a newly redrawn 9th district).
I’m about as far from good-government types who bemoan the death of civil discourse as you can get (in fact, just recently I published a piece headlined “Clinton Aide Sid Blumenthal is the Human Equivalent of a Semen-Stained Dress”). And while I find Grayson’s economic positions generally idiotic, I actually share his views on many things, ranging from marriage equality to demilitarizing American police to curtailing the surveillance state to ending mindless overseas interventions. (I’m not convinced, however, that the vile Dick Cheney has “blood that drips from his teeth,” as Grayson once testified on MSNBC.)
If he wasn’t so consistently a jackass, who knows? He might actually be more effective at creating the country he wants to live in and building bridges across raging waters. But I guess jackasses have to jack, amirite?
Members of Congress should be held to higher standards than regular voters. They should be expected to live their lives more cleanly than the rest of us and they should talk to one another respectfully, especially on topics where the disagreements are the deepest. I’m not talking about the patently phony decorum that gets trotted out every time a senator starts clearing his throat as he ascends the dais to lecture a nearly empty chamber about the excellence of his colleagues and the desperate need for a traffic light to be fixed in his hometown.
No, I’m talking about the sort of truly honest and open political debate we desperately need in Washington. It’s just not going to happen if our elected officials are steeped in the extremist “wingnut rhetoric” that is properly left to citizens, journalists, and the rest of us with an opinion and an Internet connection.
It’s not just Alan Grayson, of course, even if he is a little too Florida Man for comfort. With the possible exception of presidential elections (I’m thinking 2000 and maybe 1960), we get whom we vote for in the United States. And to the extent that our representatives actually represent us, we’ve got as much to be contrite about as does the honorable congressman from Florida.