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The Presidential Tennis Match

The last 48 hours of the Australian Open have seen some terrific matches, champions eliminated, champions pushed to the brink of elimination, marvelous players battling for almost five hours, winning and losing by inches here or there. These great athletes, trained for years to deal with the exhausting ups and down of tennis matches (there are always "faults" and lost points, almost always lost games and lost sets) deal with victory and defeat with the gallant, professional decorum of Arthurian knights.

Meanwhile, the country is overrun by other professionals who are battling day after day, night after night, their physical exertions every bit as intense and even more protracted than those of the tennis professionals. They are older, their physical gifts seem ordinary, and yet their ability to talk for hours and hours, to smile and smile and smile, to answer questions of every sort, to fly hundreds of miles every day, to guard with fanatic care every word that comes out of their mouths and every gesture they make, and to do this for week after week, month after month convinces you that they have extra supplies of whatever humans need to endure things like five set tennis matches under hot suns.

Though these political athletes confront each other directly only in rare and supervised "debates," they are clearly in the battle of their lives for rewards of power and historical celebrity that have tempted the human species as long as it has been human.

Which class of human beings gives us more pleasure? For me, the answer is easy. Even though most of the political athletes are knowledgable, agreeable people of more than average intellectual power, they become for me some of the most boring human beings I’ve ever encountered whereas the tennis athletes engage in matches which often see me almost as absorbed and sometimes as tense as they are. Both sorts of athletes are performing a small variety of actions, repeating them over and over with but the smallest variation, yet such is the nature of their respective professions, that the brevity and small space of the tennis athletes build toward climax as works of time art do whereas the scale of the presidential campaign, despite the individual contests which punctuate it, disperses and adulterates one’s interest. The context of low grade, repetitive punditry which envelopes the political doings (and non-doings) blunts and even destroys most of the intellectual interest in what happens. Unless one is an impassioned partisan, one’s interest not only flags but turns one away from what one knows are significant contests.

Clinton, Edwards, Thompson, Giuliani, McCain, Obama, Romney, Huckabee, Biden, Dodd and Perl are distinct individuals whom one recognizes and whose backgrounds and views one knows. Why is it that after months of differentiating them, they blend into two barely distinctive potions of tedium who serve to lower the importance of the worldly difficulties whose solutions they offer?

And how one sickens of the pronoun "I" and the recital of the steadiness, prescience, legislative and executive accomplishment of which even the most modest ‘I’ cannot stop trumpeting? A tennis fan compares interviews with tennis players and imagines what he’d think of them if they spoke of themselves as the politicians do. It might be said, "They’re not running for office," but they too want to be liked and admired. Can’t the politicians learn from them about modesty, praise for one’s opponents, temperate assessments of the problems ahead, humorous, self- deprecating accounts of old battles?

Even so devoted a tennis fan as I can tire of the game (I did back in 1992 when I "covered" Wimbledon for the Chicago Tribune), but this fatigue isn’t permanent and though I often turn off a match which is too one-sided, I’m far from renouncing the game and believe that I will watch matches with pleasure on my deathbed.

Whereas the campaign and the campaigners who are engaged in what will surely affect my income, my fears, my feelings about my country and the world tend to estrange me from them as, in the grooves of their ambition, they seem to estrange themselves from those noble elements which launched their political lives.

 --Richard Stern