My suitemate during senior year of college once told me a concise yet insightful piece of political wisdom from his experience of volunteering on the John Kerry presidential campaign. He said political know-nothings often think political campaigns are based on principles, ideology, and clear-cut policies. In reality, political campaigns are run like military engagements.
My friend’s a smart guy so I took his word for it. But I didn’t know how right he was until I finished watching seasons 3-5 of The Wire. I’ve learned more from The Wire about urban political machines and political posturing than I’ve ever grasped from the news.
One particularly memorable scene from season 4 episode 7 involves newly elected Baltimore mayor Tommy Carcetti having lunch with an older mentor who was a former Baltimore mayor. Carcetti’s mentor Tony warns him:
Tony: All you have to do now is run the city.
Tommy: Tony, I gotta ask you something. Why didn’t you run again after the first term? Nobody had the name you had, the organization…
Tony: Let me tell you a story, Tommy. The first day I became mayor, they sit me down at the desk. Beech chair, dark wood, lots of beautiful things. I’m thinking, “How much better can it get?” There’s a knock at the door in the corner of the room, and Pete comes walking in carrying this gorgeous sieve silver bowl, hand-chased to this big [motions with hands]. “It’s from the unions,” he says. So I think it’s a present – something to commemorate my first day as mayor.
He walks over, puts it on the desk. I look down at it. It’s disgusting! I say, “What the hell is this?” He says, “What the hell’s it look like?” I said, “It looks like shit. Well, what do you want me to do with it?” He says, “Eat it.” “Eat it?” He says, “Yeah. You’re the mayor. You gotta eat it.”
So, okay, it was my first day. Pete knows more than I do. So I go at it. And just when I finish, there’s a knock on the door. And in walks Pete carrying another silver bowl. And this one’s from the blacks.
“This too?” And he nods. I start eating, and when I finish, there’s another knock and another bowl. This one’s from the Polacks. And after that, one from the ministers. And you know what, Tommy, that’s what it is. You’re sitting, eating shit all day long, day after day, year after year. When I realized that, I decided being a downtown lawyer and seeing my family every night made for a fine life. Just a fine life.
I’m not surprised President Obama said The Wire was his favorite television show. We all know he’s had his share of shit bowls to eat from. Mmm, tastes like crude oil.