Left of Center: The Dog Days of Politics

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Sirius rises late in the dark, liquid sky

On summer nights, star of stars,

Orion’s Dog they call it, brightest

Of all, but an evil portent, bringing heat

And fevers to suffering humanity.

— Homer, The Iliad

It’s commonly known that the dog days of summer arrive during the hottest time of the year—which in ancient times had nothing to do with dogs going mad in the noonday sun but with the ascendance of the constellation known as Canis Major (the great dog), with the star Sirius designated as the dog’s nose.

Ever since, poets and others have used the term “dog days” metaphorically to call out a particularly heated moment in time. As Homer writes in the Iliad, Sirius is associated with forthcoming “heat, fevers and evil.”

Given the taint of brimstone attending our current election cycle, from Trump-media-mania to Newport Beach City Councilman Scott Peotter’s attack-dog style, “dog days” seems a fitting metaphor.

Other writers have thought along similar lines. Of all the opinion polls assaulting our consciousness these days, my favorite is Gary Jacobs’ satirical “survey” of Republican household pets. In “Cats prefer Cruz” (Los Angeles Times, April 13, 2016), Jacobs writes, “…dogs broke heavily for Trump…. [His] anti-immigration message resonated strongly. His oft-repeated claim that Chihuahuas are ‘untrainable, bite children and carry rabies’ consistently drew approving barks and tail wags.” By contrast, Jacobs reports that “Cruz does very well with snakes…. 95% of snakes said Ted Cruz ‘understands the problems of creatures like me.’”

So it has come to this. Must we look to the animal world for the wisdom to make sense of our politics as currently waged? Perhaps so, given that so elected officials seem to have gone mad in the noonday sun, not only nationally but also here in Newport Beach.

Witness Scott Peotter. I say this because I knew Peotter prior to his election to the council. He wrote a right-of-center column for this paper, and we met up at the periodic staff meetings chaired by our then-editor Roger Bloom and subsequently by current editor Chris Trela. Both editors commanded an atmosphere of collegiality, despite the writers’ and photographers’ disparate points of view.

Peotter and I pretty much stuck to baseball, where we could congenially discuss the attributes of his team, the St. Louis Cardinals, and mine, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. We tended to avoid politics, though on the occasion of Barack Obama’s re-election, Peotter couldn’t resist.

As I joined the meeting, Peotter announced that he was moving to Australia. I remember thinking how odd that was, given his dearly held right-wing convictions: anti-GLBT rights, Second Amendment rights. Did he not know that Australia has openly gay judges and gun-control laws?

Often our meetings were held on the patio outside Atrium Court in Fashion Island or at a dog-friendly venue, like Wild Strawberry Café in Newport Center, where Peotter’s red tri-color Australian Shepard Cheyenne and my recently adopted Lhasa Apso-terrier mix Angel sat at our feet in companionable peace.

Whatever rhetoric we humans engaged in (baseball, politics, editorial policy) flowed past their dog ears.

Those meetings illustrate one of the pleasures of living as a dog owner in Newport Beach: the dog walks around town where you meet and socialize with others on the same mission. On the whole the residents and their canines are well-mannered, though periodically you run into a dog with an attitude – all woof and bark and bravado.

It was just this sort of attitude that Peotter demonstrated when he joined the council. Despite being a rookie, Peotter moved to assert his agenda quickly, revealing his disdain for such disparate issues as GLBTs to the rabbit sculptures on the grounds at the Civic Center.

He also went after his colleague on the Council, Keith Curry, immediately over the cost of building the Civic Center.

In an email headlined “Scott Peotter City Council” along with an image of the American flag and the Newport Beach city seal, and entitled the “The Menendez Syndrome,” Peotter wrote:

“Do you remember the Menendez brothers and their sensational trial? Let me remind you. Lyle and Erik Menendez were convicted of killing their parents back in 1989, to get the family fortune. Then during the penalty phase of the trial, the Menendez brothers asked for mercy because they were orphans. They caused the problem and then they blame someone else for the problem. Likewise, Keith Curry spent $143M on City Hall and now $40M on Marina Park and he borrowed $128M on behalf of the taxpayers, in non-callable bonds, to pay for the excesses. Then Curry blames me, because I want to discuss possible ways to pay down debt early.”

In case his readers missed his point, Peotter included an image of Menendez brothers. The fact that it was not Curry alone but the entire City Council that voted on these expenditures aside, what kind of mind would seek to connect murderers to a man – a fellow person of faith, by the way – with whom one disagrees, however passionately, on fiscal policy? Curry recalls no apologies, though he says Peotter “made some lame justification about what he was trying to say.”

So here we are, stuck in the midst of the dog days of the 2016 election campaign, where too many of our politicians are proving the accuracy of Mark Twain’s observations, “Man is the only animal who blushes. Or needs to.”

Peotter’s continued criticisms of Curry are an orchestrated endeavor, geared to preparing the voters of Newport Beach to vote for those running for city council who support his agenda. But consider this: a great city is made up of much more than business interests and fiscal policy. It calls for councilmembers who have the long-term vision to support the arts (for gosh sakes, people, read some poetry!) and to support a civic center that will stand through time as a gathering place for its people.

It also calls for councilmembers who conduct themselves with integrity and courtesy. To this end, I offer this prayer, passed along by a dog-loving friend, to Scott Peotter and others of his breed: “Lord, help me to be the person my dog thinks I am.”

Jean Hastings Ardell is the past president of the Newport Beach Women’s Democratic Club.

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