It's like something out of Wag the Dog. Or perhaps (a better film) Bob Roberts. A political party, on the ropes in the elections, has to come up with something awe-inspiring, not to say jaw-dropping, to effect an eleventh-hour miracle. A foreign war, perhaps, or an assassination attempt. In the States, where reality seems increasingly to shadow the silver screen, the latest rendition of this cinematic theme lacks both the hyperbole and the engaging humour of the previous renditions.
Senator John Kerry has, it is true, made one of the cardinal errors in modern politics: he told a joke. It wasn't a bad one and his meaning was absolutely clear but the danger with getting a laugh is that you too often find the last laugh is on you. The irony is that the reaction has in some ways proved his point: it would take a moron not to realise that his purpose was to mock the President -- and, sure enough, George W. Bush didn't get the joke, proved himself a moron, and may end up with more dimpled chads in the bag. There ain't never no votes in being clever.
That reminds me, by the way, of the old story from the late David Penhaligon. Constituents of his asked why there was not an intelligence test required for parliamentary candidates. He replied that the House of Commons is supposed to represent the whole country, that's why there are so many bloody fools in it.
And a fool with bloody hands the lame-duck American President may be. But his manufactured anger may be a Bob Roberts moment. What does not surprise me in this is the wilful misunderstanding the Republicans have perpetrated. On one level, you've got to admire their mastery of the dark arts. But what is more amazing -- and hugely disappointing -- is how the world's press reports the incident. The BBC this evening have repeatedly described it Kerry's 'gaffe'. Perhaps the story deserves air-time, but does it really need the British Broadcasting Corporation to be the American Republicans' mouthpiece?