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The Most Popular Sport in America

Politics as a Not-nice Game.

by Everett Wilson
July 29, 2006

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The Most Popular Sport in America

One of my favorite movie lines is spoken by the computer in War Games. The computer has been programmed to fight a total war, and as far as it knows, that's what it does. After the game is over, the robot's metallic voice says, "That was not a good game, professor. How about a nice game of chess?"

In The Last Hurrah Frank Skeffington asks his favorite nephew, who works for a newspaper, what he thinks is the most popular sport in America. As the young man tries to choose between the usual major suspects, his uncle—who happens to be both the mayor and political boss of a major city on the east coast—tells him that the most popular sport in America is politics. The uncle is about to make the last run of his long career, and invites the nephew to join him as an observer and a companion. He doesn't need another advisor, but he could use someone along who loves him, who is interested in what he is doing, and can understand what his uncle means by politics as a sport. 
When I was Barnabas for this journal, and my columns were roughly concurrent with the last three years of President Bush's first term, I was writing more like a sports columnist than  a political analyst. I was a non-player; I was an amateur as far as the game itself was concerned; I was god-like in my point of view. I was often right, but when I was wrong, my opinion had dictated no policy. Good coaches don't get their strategies from the opinion pages of the sports section, and good politicians don't get theirs from pundits.  
One difference between politics and the other major sports is that baseball, basketball, football, hockey, and soccer all take what is basically trivial—a ritualized physical competition—and inflate it to   almost cosmic significance; whereas politics takes what is of huge importance—the destiny of nations where human life and welfare are at stake—and trivializes it into a game essentially without rules. In politics, there is no one with the power of the baseball commissioner. There is no one even with the power of a high school referee. The power in politics belongs to the players and their handlers. 
Another difference is that, in the other major sports winning is everything, and when the game is over it's over. But in politics, what you do after you win counts as everything—and if you can't do it, everybody loses. 

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