With the Bush presidency coming to an end and the Obama-McCain campaigns ready to kick into overdrive, American political satire is in no danger of dying out. Although two new releases — Michael Moore's Mike's Election Guide 2008 and Nathaniel Whitten's The Do-It-Yourself Constitutional Amendment Kit — have different aims, they share a trait not always seen in political humor. Both start off as straightforward lampoons. Both conclude, not necessarily successfully, with equally straightforward attempts to educate and advocate.
Mike's Election Guide 2008 is clearly the most partisan. Still, it will undoubtedly be the more popular and best selling, thanks in part to Moore's name recognition and print and documentary successes. Issued in trade paperback just weeks after Moore wrote the introduction and in time for the fall elections, the book slides gradually from Moore's responses to "man in the street" questions to the book's longest chapter – a "handy candidate guide" to 42 Senate and House races he believes the Democrats can win. As such, the book is both humor as advocacy and outright advocacy. And therein may lie the problem.
As usual, Moore's humor can quickly go from somewhat nuanced to in-your-face, all with his goal of also getting serious points across. Thus, those who look for his take on the Bush presidency, the current presidential campaign, and the state of American politics as a whole will find characteristic Michael Moore. Moore is even accommodating to those who abhor him. Just as he has a candidate guide, the appendix is an "easy guide for lifting lines out of context for this book." Yet does the average reader really want 70+ pages on the candidates Moore supports in 42 Congressional races? While informative, does a reader in another state really want to know about the races in, say, a couple of New York or Ohio Congressional districts?
Granted, Mike's Election Guide 2008 can't be tailored to the multitude of readers or Congressional districts. Likewise, no one can claim the title is misleading or that this is not quintessential Moore. Still, the structure of the book leaves the sense that getting Moore's take on those races is part of the price of admission. Perhaps that has become a more effective way of educating the American public today. And perhaps that is why the book is in the "Current Events" section of the local book chain store.
Rather than urging a partisan line, The Do-It-Yourself Constitutional Amendment Kit is predicated on urging the citizenry to take back control of the government. Whitten's first foray into political humor uses the vehicle of suggesting various constitutional amendments to prompt discussion, debate, and inspiration of ways to "right our lilting ship."
For example, one amendment would make the president's role as commander in chief literal. Under the amendment, any president who takes us to war because they believe it's in our national interest "will be required to physically lead the charge into battle." To encourage voter participation, another amendment would require proof the person voted in order to get or renew their driver's license. To encourage civil decency, anyone using cell phones on public transportation where two or more commuters are present shall have their phone crushed. Furthermore, "Slapping the person in the face with a glove is also allowed (one slap per minute of usage)."
Yet the kit falls truly short in connection with the final amendment, which would require each American 16 years old or older to read and be tested on the Constitution. That is followed by the full text of the Constitution and the amendments to it, along with six blank lined pages for readers to jot down their own suggested amendments. I would be among the first to encourage people to read and learn about the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the other amendments. At the same time, it is somewhat off-putting when more than 40 percent of an already slim volume consists of essentially blank pages and material in the public domain. Again, perhaps this is what is required to educate the American public today. Many readers, though, may feel more like they've been taken advantage of rather than thankful they have the Constitution in their hands and available for future reference.
Ultimately, closing The Do-It-Yourself Constitutional Amendment Kit with a significant number of pages focused on the kit approach and educational goal undercuts both its power and its merit as political humor.