Eric Cantor was no Tip O’Neill

(Speaker Tip O’Neill with President Reagan. Public Domain)

British Prime Minister under Queen Victoria, Benjamin Disraeli, quipped a full century before cable news talking heads cited ubiquitous polling data: “There are three types of lies; lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

The Washington, DC beltway was dumbfounded by the primary defeat of House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor. The rout was completely unexpected. It was an outlier. The pattern of a delusion of expected inevitable victory followed by definitive defeat, is reminiscent Mitt Romney’s presidential defeat in 2012.

I was in Belmont, MA, hometown of Mitt Romney, on that election night. The illusion of triumph was so complete that Romney only prepared a victory speech and had to drum up a concession after Ohio’s results were affirmed. That night, after the election results were in, Boston’s Logan International airport suffered a unique type of traffic jam, an endless idling line of private corporate jets stuck on the tarmac, Gulfstreams, Bombardiers and Boeings, all in a frustrated hurry to exit in the wake of cancelled festivities.

Eric Cantor’s fall wasn’t so aero-centric. It was just a stunned thud. He had held a fundraiser in a Capitol Hill Starbucks that morning, and planned to make his pseudo-royal appearance in Virginia toward the end of the ballot to offer praise and thanks. He was, after all, the fourth most powerful man in Washington.

It's tough to win if your own supporters don't even like you. (Wikipedia)
It’s tough to win if your own supporters don’t even like you. (Wikipedia)

As House Majority Leader, he had to attend to national Republican politics. He had to fly around the country to attend to various districts. He had to visit countless countries in case he someday became a presidential candidate.

But he didn’t visit his district. He didn’t go to New Kent County. New Kent County is rock bed traditional. I have only visited a few times (not unlike Eric Cantor). When I visited St. Peter’s Church, where George Washington and Martha Dandridge were married, to see the graves of my ancestors, a man walking his dogs asked my name. I replied, Douglas Christian. He replied, Your father is John.

The county knew me more than I knew it. The same was true with Eric Cantor. In his case, he was not an descendent of Bartholomew Dandridge Christian (“Bat” Christian, they called him), but a transparent and fraudulent demagogue playing off his house seat to seek every higher power.

And Cantor wasn’t as smart as Underwood. He attempted appear populist, but he was elitist through to the core. Philip Van Cleave of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun rights group, “We were tired of being treated like mushrooms.”

He felt more presidential than the President. He attended to his looks with his bespoke suits, his glasses and his crisp image. In Francis Underwood style, he frustrated President Obama, stonewalling on a host of issues, while publically announcing his goal of looking after the middle class. Huey Long could be a successful demagogue, for while his political maneuvering and demagoguery had Machiavellian overtones, he not a faker like Cantor.

Speaker Tip O'Neill 1977-1987), perhaps the best speaker the nation has ever seen.
Speaker Tip O’Neill 1977-1987), perhaps the best speaker the nation has ever seen. (Wikipedia)

Cantor was as close to the middle class as Romney was to the 47 percent. In order to solidify his seat, he headed up gerrymandering and remapping of Virginia’s 7th House District, to be sure he would only garner conservative votes. And conservative votes he got! Gerrymandered districts are formulaic demarcations designed for lazy politicians who don’t want to work their seats and districts.

In the 1984, I lived in Cambridge, MA across from the Inman Square firehouse. Tip O’Neill was the representative, and even though he spent most of his time in Washington, he was adored. His picture was on the firehouse wall.

In December of 2012, the JFK Library hosted a seriously moving tribute to Tip O’Neil. Mike Barnicle spoke:

“I realize that times have changed and we live in a different world than we did when we saw that piece from 1984 But I saw the Majority Leader of the House, Eric Cantor, about ten days ago surrounded by a phalanx of bodyguards and security people. I just saw the Speaker of the House [Tip O’Neill], arguably the greatest Speaker of the House that we’ve ever had, standing by himself. And that’s who he was.”

“There was a woman who was a teller at the old Cambridge Trust office in Harvard Square. And she was approaching her sixties. She lived not far from 26 Russell Street, which was Tip O’Neill’s home. One Saturday morning at the Star Market on Mass Ave, where the old man would go shopping occasionally, he bumped into the woman, asked her how she was, “Darlin’, how you doin’?”

And she told him, “Just OK.”

And he said, “What’s the matter?”

And she said, “Oh, Tom, Tom, I’ve been a teller down at the Harvard Square branch for 31 years and they told me yesterday, Friday, that they were relieving me from the teller’s post. They’re not going to find a position for me because they want to bring in some younger people. They think it’s better for business.”

He says, “Oh, geez, darling, that’s awful. I’ll see what I can find out about it.””

Tip O'Neill knew his supporters by name. (Wikipedia)
Tip O’Neill knew his supporters by name. (Wikipedia)

“As luck would have it, about a week-and-a-half later, the family that then owned Cambridge Trust was in Washington seeking redress on something or another. And they dropped by to see the Speaker of the House, who was their member of Congress. He asked the chairman of the board of Cambridge Trust about Helen. And of course, “Helen?” — the guy didn’t know Helen.

So Tip explained to the guy who Helen was, and that she was about to be removed from her post as teller, a position she had held for 31 years, which she valued, that meant something to her, that defined her.

And the chairman said, “I’ll look into it to see what we can do.”

And Tip, in his inimitable way, he said, “Geez, that’d be good. I’ve got to tell you, every Saturday I walk from 26 Russell Street, I walk down Mass Avenue and sometimes I go all the way to Harvard Square. I would bet you that if I started talking about what has happened to poor Helen, I bet you’d lose yourself three dozen accounts.” [laughter]

“That’s who he was.”

Journalists reflexively cited statistics to explain Eric Cantor’s defeat. Cantor’s overthrow wasn’t against immigration reform. (Virginia isn’t on the border with Mexico.) Nor was it about Obamacare. The truth is it wasn’t about Cantor’s policies or politics or liberal vs. conservative. (Had it been, it would have been senseless for a few conservative voters to rid of a one the nation’s most powerful Republicans, unless Cantor wasn’t perceived as one of them.)

Some of it was about an Inside-the-Beltway mentality vs. Outside-the-Beltway. But it would be a lie to attribute any of this to statistics or margins, for it was indeed about Cantor imperious “phalanx of bodyguards and security people”, and his obvious disdain for those who voted for him. Mushrooms. The result wasn’t a vote for little known David Brat, but against broadly despised Eric Cantor.

Liked is what he wasn’t.