Politicians who fall into disgrace as a result of scandal are a pretty sorry lot, but perhaps even more pathetic are those who tumble into oddball eccentricity and keep chasing the spotlight long after their days of political glory and relevance are over.
The two most famous examples are Harold Stassen and Eugene McCarthy, both sons of Minnesota and both perennial presidential candidates well into their dotage. As they became punchlines (“You want some eggs a la Harold Stassen? They’re always running!”), it became harder and harder to remember what their actual accomplishments were and that they were once considered to be of serious presidential timber.
There’s also former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, once the nation’s chief law enforcement officer under Lyndon Johnson, but more recently a defender of international bottom-feeders like Saddam Hussein, Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Charles Taylor of Liberia.
Stassen and McCarthy have both departed this life, and Clark lately has been quiet, but their successors in the realms of whimsy, peculiarity and crankiness were all on display last week as an organization calling itself the Paradigm Research Group hosted panel discussions at Washington D.C.’s National Press Club on unidentified flying objects and extraterrestrial life.
More to the point, the “Citizen Hearing on Disclosure,” which sounds like a sawdust-dry confab on openness in government and freedom of information, pressed the long-held notion in conspiracy-minded circles that the federal government knows about life on other planets and is covering it up, or is being hush-hush about alien life that has actually dropped by for a visit on our pale blue orb.
The head clown in this sideshow, Mike Gravel, a former Democratic senator from Alaska, proclaimed that “Something is monitoring the planet, and they are monitoring it very cautiously because we are a very warlike planet.” Once considered to be such an up-and-comer that he landed on the list of potential running mates for George McGovern in 1972, Gravel lately has been staging quixotic presidential campaigns under both the Democratic and Libertarian banners. When he shared a few stages with Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and other candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nod in 2008, most of his competitors would shuffle their notes and offer the indulgent smiles usually reserved for a senile uncle as Gravel prattled and babbled.
Some of Gravel’s fellow panelists at the UFO shindig included Roscoe Bartlett, a former Maryland representative who believes that electromagnetic pulses from beyond Earth could imperil the planet’s energy infrastructure; Paul Hellyer, the 90-ish former Canadian defense minister who christened an as-yet-unused landing pad for space aliens in the province of Alberta back in 1967; and Carolyn Kilpatrick, a former representative from Michigan and the mother of felonious former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. UFOs and extraterrestrial life have been “trivialized” in her estimation, and the federal government “has made it green people with horns sticking out. Now I find that it’s much more than that. And it’s not a joke.”
There is one reason why Kilpatrick could have undergone this sudden epiphany: All the panelists were being paid $20,000 each for their participation. The early 20th century muckraker Upton Sinclair once remarked that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it,” but this is an area where understanding could have materialized as soon as the check cleared the bank.
In the 21st century, the last stop on the fame train is usually reality television. And we think a program that has Gravel, Kilpatrick, Bartlett and their cohorts chasing UFOs would, if nothing else, provide exceptionally amusing entertainment.