Republicans held their national convention last week in
Philadelphia's First Union Center, known locally as F.U. (Draw
your own ironies.) Democrats this week will convene in L.A.'s
Staples Center, lair of Zen master Phil Jackson. (Al Gore will
get his presidential nomination in that town's foremost temple of
Buddhism.) It's apt that the two parties chose to gather in
gleaming new sports arenas, for politics has become the new
sports, and sports the new politics.
Think about it. Baseball teams were once passed down through
families, and political candidates were machine made. The reverse
is now true. Political candidacy has become a legacy--witness Gore
and George W. Bush--and baseball teams are machine-operated: by
the Tribune Co., by News Corp., by Time Warner.
If current polls hold up, Americans will elect a former baseball
owner as their next president. Bush governed the Texas Rangers
for almost as long as he has governed Texas, and while "W" is his
middle initial, the same can barely be said for his ball club,
which had a middling .504 winning percentage from 1989 through
'94. If the perception persists that presidential candidates,
like baseball owners, simply spend their way to victory, wouldn't
the most effective baseball owner make the most effective Chief
Executive? Two chilling words, America: President Steinbrenner.
Had Bill Bradley prevailed in the Democratic primaries, we would
now be witnessing the mother of all labor wars: former owner
(Bush) versus former player (Bradley) for control of the free
world. Instead, 32 years after the tumultuous Democratic National
Convention in Chicago, the DNC will pass uneventfully at the
Staples Center, where zealots did riot this year--over the NBA
Finals. (What were once violent conventions have turned into mere
pep rallies, and what were once pep rallies have turned into
violent conventions.) Networks used to report football scores
during a break in coverage of the Republican National Convention.
Last week, ABC aired the RNC at halftime of a football game.
What Americans once demanded from their politicians, it seems,
they now long for from their athletes. Character is no longer
required in the White House (President Clinton's approval rating
remained high during the Lewinsky scandal) but is compulsory for
entry to the Baseball Hall of Fame. (Pete Rose will see the Rose
Garden before he sees Cooperstown.) So our biggest, most
product-mongering athletes have become blander than Gary Bauer.
Tiger Woods--allied with Wheaties, Buick, Nike--doesn't dare
offend anyone who eats, drives or wears shoes.
It's a remarkable flip-flop--like Gore going antitobacco--the way
athletes and pols have reversed roles. Jesse Helms is no longer
the obvious butt of intolerance jokes in Jay Leno's monologue;
John Rocker is (and before him, Reggie White).
Thankfully, most platitude-mouthing, endorsement-addled
superstars now come with quotable (if embarrassing) Loose Cannon
Relatives. Earl Woods and Richard Williams have displaced Billy
Carter and Roger Clinton, thereby becoming the LCRs of the new
century. When Earl made fun of Scotland in Icon magazine--the
reporter taped the interview--Tiger denied the whole affair in
Scotland, at the British Open. "He didn't say those things,"
Woods told a man from the Times of London in a press conference
that could have taken place in the briefing room of the Nixon
White House. "But I know you wrote them." So one more reporter's
name was added to the Enemies List.
Another Woods, Rose Mary, was the loyal Nixon secretary who made
a "terrible mistake" and accidentally erased 18 1/2 minutes of
the Watergate tapes. Coincidence? I think not.