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Jewish World Review Dec. 20, 1999 /11 Teves, 5760

Don Feder

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How pundits would have rated the rail-splitter -- ANALYSES OF THE RACE for the Republican presidential nomination generally range from the simplistic to the superficial.

Increasingly, what passes for coverage of the contest is a People magazine quality. The focus is on weighty matters like facial features and peculiarities of speech -- not logic, but looks; not what's said, but how it's said.

The chattering craniums of the brotherhood of punditry are offering the following assessment of the GOP field.

George W. Bush (intellectual lightweight, thinks the islets of Langerhans are located in the Indian Ocean, smirks at opponents), Sen. John McCain (hair-trigger temper, possibly unhinged by years as a POW), Steve Forbes (looks like he was embalmed, his feeble attempts at humor invariably fall flat), Gary Bauer (bug-eyed, never held elective office), Alan Keyes (an unbending ideologue), and Sen. Orrin Hatch (not even he knows what he's doing in the race).

In 1980, other commentators said Ronald Reagan was too old -- not to mention too far right -- to be elected president. Eight years later, the cognoscenti initially decided that George W's dad was a colorless character who could never be elected in his own right.

By early 1992, President Bush was deemed unstoppable. No womanizing, draft-dodging border-state governor who sounded like Deputy Dog was going to defeat the man who led America through the Gulf War, they confidently declared.

I wonder how the pundits would have assessed the chances of a gentleman who ran for the Republican presidential nomination a few years back.

Pathetic resume, they would have complained. Served eight years in a state legislature and a solitary term in the U.S. House of Representatives. Lost a Senate bid in what should have been a safe state for Republicans.

He bounced from one job to another -- farmer, merchant (went bankrupt), postmaster, lawyer. No Ivy League diploma. No real military record (served three months, never saw combat). And, let's be honest, a really strange wife.

They would have called him geeky -- a skeletal figure with a big nose and facial moles -- totally untelegenic.

In fact, a contemporary described the candidate's appearance at one speaking engagement this way: "The long, ungainly figure, upon which hung clothes that ... were evidently the work of an unskilled tailor; the large feet, of which ... the orator seemed to be unduly conscious; the long, gaunt head capped by a shock of hair that seemed not to have been thoroughly brushed out made a picture which did not fit in with New York's conception of a finished statesman."

Doubtless, they would also have remarked on his high, piercing voice -- like nails scraped across a blackboard. He's addicted to cornball jokes and rambling, seemingly pointless anecdotes, they would have scoffed. This may impress the hicks in the sticks but does nothing for sophisticated audiences.

When they finally got around to his platform, the experts would have been equally dismissive.

Rigidly doctrinaire, would have been the general appraisal. Unbending, inflexible, not a consensus builder. Talks in the metaphors of a culture war. ("A house divided against itself cannot stand.") What support he has seems to be coming from evangelical churches that are trying to force their (abolitionist) morality on the rest of us.

In short, they would have charged, here is a man who could get us into a whole heap of trouble.

They might have noted that two years earlier, the candidate confessed in a letter to the editor, "I must, in all candor, say I do not think myself fit for the presidency." Since entering politics, that's the smartest thing he's said, they would have chortled.

On the whole, pundits would have found the candidate poor stuff, especially compared to the heavyweights in the race, popular and charismatic Republican senators from New York and Ohio.

When it comes to preserving the union and resolving the most contentious issue to confront the republic since its founding, you would be hard-pressed to find a worse man for the job than Abraham Lincoln, they would have concluded.

Pundits are paid to be sure of themselves, to be glib while sounding plausible. Besides, most of them have an aversion to anyone to the right of Al Gore.

If it were up to them, the last Republican president would have been elected in 1860.

JWR contributing columnist Don Feder's latest book is Who's Afraid of the Religious Right. Comment on his column by clicking here.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate