Bashing, slashing and knocking is what makes politics the favorite sport of Americans, even in an Olympics year. Viewing with alarm is more satisfying than pointing with pride, and we expect successful pols to cultivate the gentle delicacy of linebackers.
John McCain knocks Barack Obama for a resume as thin as he is, the reigning American idol who thinks it might be fun to be the president of all 57 states. The idol from Olympus has turned the presidential campaign into something almost as much fun to watch as the beach volleyball finals, the star with pencil-thin legs but (fortunately) no bikini.
This "citizen of the world" derides John McCain as an old geezer who can't remember where he put his teeth. But the geezer is the last obstacle between Mr. Obama and his TelePrompTer and an endless round of coronation ceremonies and it's hard to be humble when you're Mr. Wonderful.
Now they're locked in a fight over who's the richest, who has the most and biggest houses, who's the modest, typical American and who's not. On the eve of the opening of the Democratic National Convention, this is getting interesting. Only the terminally naive think two U.S. senators who stand out in a club of zillionaires would have too much shame to engage such an argument.
It's not clear who fired the first shot in this skirmish. John McCain opened himself to the attack when he stumbled for an answer to a question that shouldn't have been unexpected: "How many houses do you own?" Mr. McCain replied: "I think - I'll have my staff get back to you." Not good; most of us would know the answer to that question without turning to our staffs. "If you're like me," Mr. Obama said, going negative, "you have one house ... and you might have a different perspective."
But he could soon regret going there. It's true that his wife Michelle is not a beer heiress, and maybe it's unfair to view with alarm the shadowy figure who helped him acquire his million-dollar digs, and why. Neither can you blame the McCain campaign for exhuming bodies to find evidence of his close association with fixers, thugs and other South Side low-lifes.
"Does a guy who made more than $4 million last year, just got back from vacation on a private beach in Hawaii and bought his own million-dollar mansion with the help of a convicted felon really want to get into a debate about houses?" asked a McCain campaign flack. "Does a guy who worries about the price of arugula and thinks regular people 'cling' to guns and religion in the face of economic hardship really want to have a debate about who's in touch with regular Americans?"
The contretemps may (or may not be) irrelevant to the consideration of presidential qualifications, but it brings to the fore the figure of Tony Rezko, the Chicago fixer who has loomed large in Mr. Obama's life, and who the campaign has worked mightily to keep in the shadows.
Rezko was convicted in June of wire and mail fraud, money laundering and aiding and abetting bribery, nothing in particular to blemish a Chicago pol's reputation, but a reputation-killer everywhere else (excluding New Jersey, Louisiana and Bill Clinton's Hot Springs). Mr. Obama himself has so far not been fingered as accomplice or unindicted anything, but his long association with Rezko and others threatens the story line that he was born in a stable in Bethlehem.
When questions were raised in the past about what he and Rezko did together, and when did they do it, Mr. Obama retreated to bromides about all the good things he has done for little children, cute kittens and adorable puppies. "I've always held myself to the highest ethical standards," he told the Chicago Sun-Times on one occasion when reality seemed to be closing in. "I know what people expect of me." That's enough for his glassy-eyed cult, but it's a story line likely to wilt in the heat and glare of a presidential campaign.
How did he get his house for $300,000 less than the asking price on the same day that Rezko's wife paid the full price to the same seller for a vacant lot next door? Why did he later pay Rezko $104,500 for a 10-foot wide strip of that vacant lot that appraisers had said was worth $40,000?
These are happy coincidences in the Chicago world of Barack Obama, but in the place where the rest of us live who could sell such cheerful explanations?