Jewish World Review August 2, 2000 / 29 Tamuz, 5760
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
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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