Someone once asked Johnny Depp about the secret of good acting, and he replied: “I pretty much try and stay in a constant state of confusion just because of the expression it leaves on my face.”
Okay, maybe Depp’s not someone to hold up as a sage on the human condition. But I think we can at least agree that he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to projecting the sort of halfway engaging befuddlement that earned him a reported $90 million as Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.
I mention all this only in so far as it applies to seventy-one-year-old Patty Murray, Democrat from Washington state. Murray won her primary election on Tuesday ahead of what could be a sixth consecutive term in the US Senate. Judging from her habitual expression, she, too, appears to exist in a state of pervasive mental fog. The problem is that while Depp may be quite good at projecting a faux-naif charm to audiences, in the senator’s case, there’s nothing artificial about it. Murray may be just a few fries short of a Happy Meal. She cannot cope, some say. Taken as a whole, her career demonstrates the impossibility of being simultaneously grown-up and an opponent of term limits.
The proud holder of a physical education degree from Washington State University, Murray started out teaching a “parenting class” at a Seattle-area community college before deciding to run for public office amid the Bill Clinton sweep of 1992. She likes to remind people she was prompted to stand after an unnamed (male) work colleague told her she was unelectable because she was “just a mom in tennis shoes.” The exact provenance of the quote still remains fuzzy, but Murray has used it in every one of her campaigns over the last thirty years. In her mind, she’s forever the plucky outsider battling the cruel misogynist establishment, all alone in the world with just her staff, free travel, subsidized healthcare, and $174,000 annual salary.
Unsurprisingly, Murray was woke even before the word entered our public discourse as an adjective. She’s for a woman’s unfettered access to abortion, the full spectrum of LGBQT rights, more government fiscal regulation, and “clean power”; and against Republican-backed overseas wars, big business, and anyone so much as tainted by association to our 45th president. In one of those through-the-looking-glass moments that so enliven our nation’s public affairs, the functionally innumerate Murray was at one time appointed co-chair of the Senate’s dog-and-pony “deficit reduction” commission, which would be akin to asking Henri Toulouse-Lautrec to complete an Olympic decathlon. The whole thing predictably ended in tears. Murray and her GOP counterpart issued statements blaming one another for the failure. It was a perfect illustration that the consensus view of Washington — as a place where nothing can be accomplished even when the consequences of inaction are so visible — is absolutely on point.
But perhaps Murray’s real moment to shine came some years earlier, when, in the confusion following the 9/11 attacks, she was somehow allowed out to share her views with a group of impressionable high school students. One of them had the good sense to ask exactly why Osama bin Laden was apparently so popular throughout the Muslim world. Murray replied that it was because the genocidal maniac had helped to pay for schools, roads, and even daycare centers. “We haven’t done that,” she said. “How would they look at us today if we had been there helping them with some of that, rather than just being the people who are going to attack Iraq and invade Afghanistan? What would bin Laden and his followers have done then?” (“Still bombed the crap out of us” would suggest itself.)
Murray later insisted she was misquoted. Or maybe taken out of context. Or set up by one of those perfidious teenagers clearly in the pay of Don Rumsfeld. It’s true that bin Laden ventured a portion of his inherited $5 billion in wealth to cultivate a reputation as a philanthropist. You could also describe Hitler as a decent watercolorist and Mussolini as a better than average newspaper editor.
Many people around Seattle, where I live, tell me that at one time they found Murray rather endearing. She and her tennis shoes brought a welcome comic touch to politics. One thought of her alongside Eddie Murphy as a star of The Distinguished Gentleman, released in the year she first went to Washington, or as the suitably po-faced foil to Sacha Baron Cohen. Someone once remarked that Bernie Sanders needed only a little milk spilled at his feet to be mistaken for a bowl of Froot Loops. Murray looks incomplete without a custard pie.
But over time the joke thinned as she helped steer the federal budget towards collapse while mouthing platitudes about “trusting the science.” It faded completely when she recently made the inevitable distraught speech about Republicans “dragging the country backwards by half a century” and “wanting to jail women who get abortions.”
Murray’s likely GOP opponent in November’s election is a thirty-nine-year-old self-described farm girl with the striking name Tiffany Smiley. She’s a political outsider who actually seems interested in people other than herself. Of course, this is Washington State, meaning Murray will almost certainly be re-elected. In which case Murray reminds me of a senatorial version of Tony Curtis reflecting on his dazzling early breakthrough in Hollywood: “Everyone was crazy about me. I was nuts about me.”