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Jewish World Review Oct. 30, 2000/ 1 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Suzanne Fields

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Consumer Reports

The Oval Office, through a glass brightly -- YOU COULD call this campaign the belittling of the presidency. With omniscient coverage in the media, with the spread of opinion-makers on the Internet, the political process may be more democratic than ever. But that's only part of the story.

We've come a long way from the time when only our landed male gentry could vote. That worked well enough for the starter nation, but as the leaven worked in the baking of the dough, we moved from white bread to a loaf of enriched multigrain.

Despite dire predictions, the process of choosing a leader changed only a little when blacks and women got the vote. But as we cross the bridge into the new millennium, we face ever more radical changes.

Instead of looking for the traditional leadership qualities in our candidates -- a man who frames goals and sets the directions we want to follow -- we've become instead fascinated with the candidate who reminds us mostly of ourselves.

Public dignity becomes less important than public empathy. Formal ceremonies are less important than spontaneity, however undignified. We once enjoyed watching a president playing with his children (think John F. Kennedy) or admiring his wife (think Jackie Kennedy) because it was such a contrast to how we had seen presidents in the past. Harry Truman, for all his rough-hewn public bluntness, revealed little of the private man that we saw in his letters to his daughter Margaret and to his beloved wife Bess.

Private remoteness at its worst could become paranoia, as with Richard Nixon. By contrast, Ronald Reagan gave privacy a sunny personality. He revealed nothing of his personal emotions (his hand-picked biographer couldn't find them, and resorted to making up a fictional role for himself in Reagan's life), but the sunny Californian could masterfully diffuse a tense situation with a joke or a story, suggesting an informal conversational intimacy between himself and the rest of us.

Beginning with Bill Clinton, informal images preceded professional ones. He encouraged such encounters from the moment he and Hillary talked about troubles in their marriage on "60 Minutes.'' When he played the sax on a late night talk show, he was a natural. A student saw nothing wrong with asking him what kind of underwear he wore.

The current campaign is awash in appeals to soft pop cultural moments for the candidates that comes as much from the candidates as the media that covers them. Whether a candidate kisses his wife on the mouth, or kisses Oprah on her cheek, is strategy plotted with a dozen spinners at a planning session at 3 o'clock in the morning. How he puffs out his chest and struts across the stage in a debate becomes as important as the issues he espouses -- maybe more important -- because it tells us how he wants us to see him.

We presume an intimacy, through a glass brightly.

"Presidents were once distant, mediated figures, visible only in carefully staged circumstances, but the new leadership seeks to display itself directly, constantly, and seemingly candidly,'' writes Charles Paul Freund in Reason magazine. "Presidents, even when they assumed a 'Jes Plain Folks' appearance, nevertheless maintained a hierarchical relationship with the public.'' Not anymore.

While there are many reasons for the changes, Freund argues persuasively that the domination of pop images in presidential campaigns is as much the result of the changing world order as it is the growth of the new media. Since the end of the Cold War and with it any identifiable foreign threat, voters worry less about electing a president to be commander-in-chief than about electing a pal-in-chief.

Once the voters learned that Bill Clinton had evaded the Vietnam war draft and elected him president anyway, he was never measured against qualifications for military leadership. In fact, he was even excused for soiling the Oval Office because he wasn't (begin ital) that (end ital) important. Or as Freund put it, "Because he mattered less, Clinton could get away with more.'' (You could ask Gary Hart.)

When Matt Drudge broke the Monica Lewinsky scandal, lots of journalists (who didn't have the story) blamed the messenger and even the Internet, but Drudge was only reporting the facts before anyone else got to them. The belittling of the president came from inside the White House. The next man who inhabits the White House has to find a way to make the presidency matter more, not less.


10/23/00: There'll always be an England. Maybe.
10/19/00: The celebrity candidate
10/16/00: 'Ladies night' at the second debate
10/12/00: Gore vs. Bush: Volvo vs. Maserati
10/10/00: We weep for Rami for he is dead
10/05/00: Looking at Lieberman from inside the 'ghetto'
10/02/00: Campaigns, candidates, and kissy-face
09/28/00: Laughing and crying over Joe Lieberman
09/21/00: Targeting teenagers for money
09/21/00: Sexual politics in New York
09/18/00: Surviving the stereotypes and debates
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