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Jewish World Review Sept. 18, 2000/ 17 Elul, 5760

Suzanne Fields

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Consumer Reports

Surviving the stereotypes
and debates -- HOW DO YOU CHANGE a stereotype? George W. the Affable has morphed into George W. the Insecure. Al Gore the Stiff has become Al the Energized. George W. the Resistant Debater lost that argument. Al Gore, the morally challenged fund-raiser, had managed to overcome that image. That was before the money-for-veto disclosures last week.

Curious things happen on the high and low roads of a campaign. Unforeseen enemies emerge like rats in an animated movie cartoon. George W. proves not to be the Pied Piper. A Hollywood kiss turns Al Gore into Tom Selleck.

What's going on here?

Robert Bartley, editor of the Wall Street Journal, dates the detour into decline for George W. from the moment he described the Christian Messiah as his favorite philosopher. The honeymoon he enjoyed with the reporters and pundits on his campaign plane began to look like big-fault divorce.

By contrast, Al Gore triumphed over the rhetorical moral issues that were so finely tuned at the Republican convention in Philadelphia. The moment he chose Joe Liebermann of "the chosen people'' for his running mate, the senator on the side of the politically correct G-d, Al Gore got a little Jewish gilt (CQ) by association.

But how is it that Al Gore, the peace and prosperity vice president, has not opened a long lead against the newcomer from Texas?

The reason, of course, lies in the way he successfully manipulates his image for short-range benefit. His over-the-top description of Bill Clinton as "one of our greatest presidents,'' his euphemisms of "community outreach'' and "donor maintenance'' to describe his fund-raising at a Buddhist temple, his chameleon-like changes in wardrobe and his need to "practice authenticity,'' all add up to a very clever but nevertheless hollow man.

He is tepidly, if typically, defended by Maria Hsia, who is probably on her way to prison for organizing the Buddhist temple caper: He did nothing wrong. "All politicians are cowards,'' she tells the New Yorker. "But they could be better cowards.''

So he manages the moment, but his future remains in doubt. What it will be may depend on how George W. debates.

Although George W. is perceived as afraid of debate, he really has nothing to lose and has lots to gain. No matter how you look at the debates, the advantage belongs to the underdog who must dispel the notion that he's vulnerable. As the "underpuppy,'' George W. can play to his strengths, not those of Al Gore.

The Reagan debates are instructive for looking at what works and what doesn't. No one has done quite as badly in any presidential debate as Ronald Reagan in his first one against Walter Mondale in 1984. So distracted, meandering and fuzzy were his words that, in retrospect, some of his critics cite this as the public moment that the first hints of Alzheimer's disease emerged.

But he snapped back in the second debate with the verve of an actor determined that the show must go on. Diffusing the age (not to say senility) issue, he began with the now famous lines: "I want you to know that I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience.''

Walter Mondale thinks today that he was perceived to have lost the second debate because everyone had lowered the bar for the Gipper: "All (Reagan) had to do was stay on his feet the second time around.''

Mr. Reagan, on the other hand, credits relaxed preparation for the second debate. He did not allow his handlers to stuff him with lots of facts and figures, but left his mind "flexible'' enough to be imaginative. (Take note, George W.)

In a wonderful new book called "Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV,'' Alan Schroeder dissects the process with a sharp scalpel to expose every nerve and sinew of the candidates as they struggle to look relaxed and aggressive, smart and funny, congenial and cutthroat, to be a leader who is lovable without looking soft.

"After forty years' experience,'' he writes, "the electorate has learned to decode the incongruities of live TV debates, watching with a combination of skepticism, amusement, and respect.''

A lot like watching "Survivor.''


09/14/00: Gloria Steinem runs cheerfully into captivity
09/12/00: Sex in the eye of the partisan
09/07/00: 'Sex and death' on the college campus
09/05/00: Joe Lieberman as a 'Menorah Man'
08/31/00: Rising suns of the conventions
08/17/00: Changing icons: From Loretta Young to Hillary Clinton
08/14/00: The Creator returns to the public square
08/10/00: Bursting with pride, but caution too
08/07/00: Brains, beauty and beastly politics
08/03/00: A candidate with a superego
07/31/00: The sizzling Lynne Cheney
07/27/00: The party of the aging Playboys
07/24/00 Hillary drives the Jewish wagon into a ditch
07/20/00 Conservatives gone fishin'
07/17/00: Snoop Doggy Dogg was a founding father, wasn't he?
07/13/00: When a teenager doesn't need a prime minister
07/10/00: Abortion as cruel and unusual punishment
07/06/00: Surviving 'survivor' TV
07/03/00: Independence Day with Norman Rockwell
06/29/00: Here comes 'something old'
06/26/00: Waiting too long for the baby
06/22/00: Good teachers, curious students and oxymorons
06/19/00: Wanted: Some ants for Gore's pants
06/15/00: Like father, like daughter
06/12/00: Culture wars and conservative warriors
06/08/00: Return of the housewife
06/05/00: Hillary and Al -- playing against type
05/31/00: The sexual revolution confronts the SUV
05/25/00: Waiting for the movie
05/22/00: Pistol packin' mamas
05/18/00: Journalists and the 'new time' religion
05/15/00: There's nothing like a (military) dame
05/11/00: 'The Human Stain' on campus
05/09/00: We've come a long way, Betty Friedan
05/04/00: From George Washington to Mansa Masu
05/01/00: Gore's ruthless doublespeak
04/28/00: Doing it Castro's way
04/24/00: Women's studies beget narrow minds
04/17/00: The slippery slope of anti-Semitism
04/13/00: A villain larger than life
04/10/00: When mourning becomes an economic tragedy
04/03/00: The last permissible bigotry
03/30/00: Seeking the political Oscar
03/23/00: The gaying of America
03/20/00: Pointy-eared quadrupeds on campus
03/16/00: The shocking art of the establishment
03/13/00: Sawdust on the campaign trail
03/10/00: Campaign rhetoric of manhood
03/06/00: The Amphetamine of the People
03/02/00: Elegy for Amadou
02/29/00: With only a million, what's a poor girl to do?
02/24/00: The changing politics of change
02/16/00: Tip from Hillary: 'Let 'em eat eggs'
02/10/00: No seances with Eleanor
02/07/00: Campaigning like our founding fathers
02/03/00: When neo-Nazis have short memories
01/31/00: George W. -- 'Ladies man' and 'man's man'
01/27/00: Dead white males and live white politicians
01/25/00: Smarting over presidential smarts
01/21/00: A post-modern song for `The Sopranos'
01/19/00: When personality is a long-distance plus
01/13/00: French lessons in amour --- and marriage
01/10/00: Reaching for the Big Golden Apple
01/07/00: Liddy Dole as the face of feminism
01/04/00: Hillary: From victim to victor
12/30/99: 'Dream catchers' for the millennium
12/27/99: In search of a candidate with strength and eloquence
12/21/99: The president as First Lady
12/16/99: Columbine with blurred hindsight
12/09/99: Homeless deserve discriminating attention
12/07/99: Casual censors and deadly know-nothings
12/02/99: Why mom didn't make general: A reality tale
11/30/99: Potholes on the road to the Promised Land
11/25/99: A feast for the spirit and the stomach
11/23/99: Fathers need to say 'I (can) do'
11/18/99: Adventures of a conservative pundit
11/15/99: Traveling with Jefferson on the information highway
11/11/99: Wanted: 'Foliage of forbiddinness' for the oval office
11/09/99: Eggs, art and rotten commerce
11/05/99: Al Gore, 'Alpha Male'. Bow wow.
11/01/99: Gay love
10/28/99: Lose one Dole, lose two
10/26/99: Rebels with a violent cause
10/21/99: Reforming parents, reforming schools
10/19/99: The male mystique -- he shops
10/13/99:The campaign of the Teletubbies
10/08/99: Money is in the eye of the art dealer
10/01/99: Lincoln's 'Almost Chosen People'
09/29/99: Introducing Bill and Hillary Bickerson
09/27/99: Must we wait for the next massacre?
09/24/99: Miss America meets Miss'd America
09/21/99: Princeton's 'professor death'
09/16/99: The Cisneros lesson
09/13/99: No clemency for personal politics
09/08/99: M-M-M is for manhood
08/30/99: Blocking the schoolhouse door
08/27/99: No kick from cocaine
08/23/99: Movies don't kill people
08/19/99: A rude awakening
08/16/99: Dubyah and that 'language' thing
08/09/99: Chauvinist sows -- oink oink

©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate