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Jewish World Review August 2, 2000 / 29 Tamuz, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Consumer Reports

Convention aside, you
might want to tune in -- IT HAS BEEN fashionable in recent weeks for news analysts to say that this is the most boring political year in memory -- and that the television networks have cut down their coverage of the conventions in recognition of that tedium.

Usually I'm in the front of the line to agree how drowse-inducing national political campaigns can be. But I believe this year may turn out to be the most exciting presidential campaign in decades -- and, as a spectator sport, the most fun to watch.

Why? Because these two men, George W. Bush and Al Gore, couldn't be more different. In style, and substance, and core beliefs, Bush and Gore present the American people with the opportunity to make a genuine choice -- and the fact that, beneath the surface politeness, there is the sense that they're always just an inch or two away from despising each other can't hurt the show.

And each man has everything to lose. When an incumbent is running -- Richard Nixon in 1972, Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980, Ronald Reagan in 1984, George Bush in 1992, Bill Clinton in 1996 -- there is a different kind of drama. There is undeniable potential humiliation when a sitting president faces the possibility of being asked to leave the White House by the voters. But when a person who has never served as president is running against another person who has never served . . . this is all or nothing. When an incumbent runs, even if he loses, he's in the history books forever. When two non-incumbents run, the winner will be History; the loser will be history.

And just as much as George Bush the elder, the former president, will be a shadow candidate in this election, Bill Clinton will be an unlikely father figure on the Democratic side. I happen to believe that the Bush family's loathing for Clinton dates back to two specific moments in the 1992 campaign -- the moment when Clinton referred publicly to President Bush as "old Bush," and the moment when Clinton, during one of the debates, used the memory of President Bush's father, Prescott Bush, in an effort to demean President Bush and make Clinton himself look good.

The first -- the "old Bush" line -- was used as a throwaway by Clinton, not so much as a reference to President Bush's age as a belittling rhetorical gesture. But George Bush deeply believed that any president is due the respect that comes with the office -- and to, in a public campaign forum, refer to any sitting president as "old [anything]" struck President Bush as deeply disrespectful. (I'm not guessing about this; I spoke with Bush about this after he left office, and he remembered the slight vividly). And to use President Bush's late father in an attempt to demean Bush himself . . . in that family, such a moment is not forgotten, or forgiven.

As to Clinton, this election gives him the opportunity to assume the role of seasoned statesman -- and de facto chief adviser to President Gore -- for the next four years, or to begin a very different kind of legacy next January, a legacy over which he does not have even a semblance of control. So as much as George W. Bush and Vice President Gore would love the men who got them here to fade into the background, voters are going to see the hazy outlines of the faces of Bush the elder and of Clinton every time the real candidates step before the TV cameras.

In most presidential campaigns, analysts can say that, whatever the philosophical differences between the candidates, they are at base level serious people -- two of a kind in the way they have approached the world. But this time around, Gore's supporters will challenge even that supposition -- they will try to convince the electorate that there is only one serious man running for the White House. Which is what will make this fall's debates as riveting as any prime-time "reality" show -- Gore and his supporters will be counting on Bush, with no advisers at his side, to make the essential slipups that help the nation decide that regardless of how personable he is, the keys to the White House can't be turned over to him. And Bush's supporters will be angling to pull off the surprise in the debates -- will be hoping to make Gore, against all odds, appear lost about the facts and the details. It will be a true-life survival show.

If you aren't planning to watch the conventions this summer -- assuming you can find a channel that's covering them -- this is understandable. The conventions -- especially with the vice presidential choices now being announced beforehand -- have been changed from purported contests into unapologetic product launches.

This time, though, it might be worth your while to observe the products being launched. Because by the time the snow falls, one is going to be as obsolete as the Edsel.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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