It's come to this.
I've spent a lot of time talking this week with some top Republican pros, in person and on the phone. It's fear and loathing times in America, and especially for Republican Americans.
Virtually all of these Republican pros think Barack Obama has it won, most even before Obama won his second debate with John McCain. None of them dislike McCain, or have any bone to pick with Steve Schmidt or Rick Davis. (That's how you know I didn't talk to John Weaver, McCain's former chief strategist who said yesterday that McCain's events are encouraging "an angry mob mentality.") At least one of them has voted for Obama absentee. One or two said, wistfully, "What about the Whitey tape, maybe that would change it?"
Of course, there is no Whitey tape. The whole thing was almost certainly lifted from a financial thriller, "The Power Broker,' by Stephen Frey. Which I read when this nonsense about a purported tape of Michelle Obama ranting about "whitey" surfaced in June.
When you're waiting for "Whitey," you're in much worse shape than when you're waiting for Godot. I'll return to the "Whitey" episode in a moment. It's instructive.
All agreed that McCain's campaign executed a series of deft, rapid improvisations after Schmidt largely took over in July, putting McCain back into a game that any other Republican would have been out of all along this year.
Ironically, when Schmidt, who I profiled here on Huffington Post, managed Arnold Schwarzenegger's landslide re-election as California's governor in 2006, the style of the campaign was totally different. Even when behind, as Schwarzenegger was for several months, that campaign had an inexorable quality to it, perhaps reflecting Schwarzenegger's hyper-confident personality.
This campaign has a "zany" quality to it, as one longtime Republican strategist put it. Perhaps reflecting McCain's more impulsive personality.
All agreed the economy was always going to be a huge problem for McCain, because he is tied to the deregulationist policies of this era of Republicanism at the national level. If the economy got worse, as it did, with a vengeance, he would have trouble playing in the economic stimulus game.
But all agreed, even those few who still like her, that the selection of Sarah Palin as McCain's running mate may have proved a death knell to the McCain campaign even before the epic financial crisis.
"She hasn't stepped up to the big stage," was the most positive assessment. Most were more scathing, calling her totally unqualified, embarrassingly uninformed even for someone in her current office. Two cited this morning's David Brooks column in the New York Times, in which the conservative writer bemoans how the Republican preference for "culture war" -- which is essentially an ongoing political gambit in which guys who are elites pretend not to be by attacking education and expertise in favor of "authenticity" -- has managed to drive knowledge workers (even including bankers!) away from the party.
Sarah Palin, a bridge to nowhere? Certainly a bridge too far. As stunts go. Of course, she wasn't McCain's real first choice. But she was his final choice.
Most worry about an Obama presidency, but see that there would have to be big changes in the country anyway given the nature of our crises.
And yet, maybe that "Whitey" tape might save the day after all.
The Whitey tape, for those who've forgotten, is something that set my friends over on the right all atwitter this past June when a wacky anti-Obama/supposedly pro-Hillary web site -- and you know you're in fringe territory when the proprietor refers to "Barky" -- announced that a tape of Michelle Obama ranting about "whitey" was about to be released. Or maybe it was a dvd. Or maybe it was going to be held for awhile. Till, say, October.
When and where did this Michelle outburst purportedly occur? Well, it was definitely in Chicago. A few years ago. Definitely. Michelle Obama was there with Louis Farrakhan at Jeremiah Wright's church. Or, actually, she was there with Mrs. Farrakhan at Jeremiah Wright's church. Okay, she was there with Mrs. Farrakhan across town. And so on.
The tape, or dvd, or cave painting, or whatever format this thing was supposedly in, of course never surfaced.
But not before former Walter Mondale campaign manager Bob Beckel was on Fox News saying he heard something big was probably going to come out the next day. Which got the far right all atwitter about how Beckel had supposedly said the tape was coming out the next day. Which was not exactly what he said.
As it happened, nothing happened the next day, no whitey tape, no nothing.
Then it turned out that the whole scenario was suspiciously similar to the major plot point of a 2006 novel, Stephen Frey's "The Power Broker."
I've enjoyed more than a few such financial thrillers on long plane rides. Well, at least before we had laptops. The best was one of the first I know of, Paul Erdman's "The Crash of '79," which is about a global financial collapse and war in the Middle East. Uh-oh.
"The Power Broker" is nowhere near as fun. In it, the first African American candidate with a real shot at the presidency, a former tennis star-turned-US senator named Jesse Wood, secretly has a big bone to pick with white people.
Not that he lets it on in public, where he is invariably elegant, articulate, and charming. Behind the scenes, he is secretly backed and bankrolled by a cabal of former Black Panthers, one of whom pulls his strings. A close associate of Senator Obama, er. Senator Wood, is an angry black preacher.
In one of his conversations with Reverend Wright, er, Reverend Roundtree, the candidate reveals his true feelings: "You know, I had to put up with so much crap from Whitey when I was playing tennis back in the day, it was ridiculous. Tennis racquets busted while I was in the shower, no towels, the worst locker, called nigger all the time, even by the help. ... If I get elected president, I'm gonna act the way I'm supposed to act in front of the camera. Smile and dance like a good black man, do what I'm expected to do like a good boy. But behind the scenes, I'll fuck Whitey, and I'll fuck him good, I really will."
Naturally, he is secretly filmed while saying this. Because he, like Michelle Obama, is a brilliant pol.
Later in the novel comes the scenario for release of the whitey tape. Determined by a big oil man named Hewitt, no relation to far right radio show host and blogger Hugh.
Hewitt thought for a second. "I'm going to let Jesse win the nomination and let the public get used to him as the Democratic candidate. Give the country some time to get to know Jesse Wood, to start to like him. And they will because he's a very likeable guy. Then I'm going to drop the bomb, after everyone's started to like him. That way the clip will have maximum effect and people will be as angry as they can be. Whites and blacks. Whites for the obvious reason, blacks because they'll feel like he let 'em down."
Unfortunately, in the real world, there is no such tape. While it is obviously tempting for those grasping at straws to imagine that this Jeremiah Wright type stuff was actually said by one of the Obamas themselves, the Obamas' opponents can't have it both ways.
Either they have been brilliantly plotting to win the White House for a great many years -- or, even more nefariously, are a "Manchurian candidate" set-up, with sophisticated string pullers guiding every move (there's a whole column in that crazy fantasy) -- or they have not.
There's no whitey tape, and the resigned attitude of these top Republican pros seems not inappropriate.
Oh, and as for this "Manchurian candidate" stuff? Obviously it's said by people who don't know either the Frank Sinatra movie (directed by Robert F. Kennedy's great friend John Frankenheimer) or the Richard Condon novel.
Because "The Manchurian Candidate" is really a Medal of Honor war hero and former prisoner of war programmed by American's enemies during his captivity to bring them to power.
Oh, and by the way ... In the sequel to "The Power Broker," the secretly "whitey"-hating black presidential candidate ends up winning. And he's the hero's friend, too.