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Jewish World Review August 14, 2000/ 13 Menachem-Av, 5760

Charles Krauthammer

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... Back to the Future -- FOR MONTHS, George W. Bush and Al Gore have been traversing the country touting their boundless capacity for leadership. For months, it sounded hollow, almost comical. After all, neither man's job lends itself to great leadership. The governorship of Texas is one of the weaker executive positions in the country. And the main function of the vice presidency, the most hapless job this side of Prince of Wales, is cheerleading.

That is what makes the last political week so extraordinary. Within a few days, both men have offered demonstrations of genuine political leadership.

Gore did it with his choice of Sen. Joseph Lieberman to be his running mate, the first Jew to be nominated for a national ticket.

True, there are the political angles. Lieberman's well-deserved reputation for probity is insulation against the Clinton scandals. His presence on the ticket will ensure high Jewish turnout in such key swing states as Florida.

Nonetheless, the choice carries risk. "I don't think anyone can calculate the effect of having a Jew on the ticket," said Democratic Party Chairman Ed Rendell. "If Joe Lieberman were Episcopalian, it would be a slam dunk."

Picking Lieberman was a turn-around jumper from the corner. There are, of course, many Jews in high positions in the country. But they tend generally to be secular Jews--Jewish by birth, by ethnicity, but not by religious practice.

Lieberman is something entirely different: an observant Jew who takes religious practice seriously. So seriously that he had told the Gore campaign during the vetting process that for nine days in October he would be unable to campaign. Sandy Koufax once sat out a World Series game on Yom Kippur. But nine? Nine days is not mere symbolism. It is real commitment. Americans may have gotten used to accepting nominal Jews sporting bagels and lox and a few Yiddishisms. But accepting a committed Jew is a bridge further still. Gore crossed it.

Gore's show of leadership came just a few days after his opponent had done the same in Philadelphia. Bush's convention was at first ridiculed for being so over-the-top in its displays of cheerfulness, its professions of inclusiveness, its parade of minorities and the less fortunate as to approach parody. Then Bush took the podium.

His acceptance speech made clear that what had gone before was both serious and intentional. He was addressing an assembly of delegates, a sea of white, from a stage that for the previous three days had been peopled largely by minorities. He then told that sea of white that the Republican Party of the stage was where the Republican Party of the floor had to go--and, under his leadership, would go. The message to the assembled, slightly bewildered by the parade of inclusiveness they had been treated to, was, in essence: This is where the country is and this is where I will take you. Like it or not.

The most significant passage of the speech was largely overlooked. "My generation tested limits, and our country in some ways is better for it. Women are now treated more equally. Racial progress has been steady; it's still too slow. We're learning to protect the natural world around us. We will continue this progress, and we will not turn back."

Bush's generation is the boomer generation, the '60s generation. He was, in effect, ratifying the social revolution it had brought about. He was pronouncing dead the Gingrich counterrevolution of 1994. Bush's Republican Party would no longer be engaged in trying to repeal the '60s. Like Eisenhower in '52 who consolidated the New Deal by accepting Social Security and the rest of the safety net, like Clinton in '92 who consolidated the Reagan Revolution by accepting deregulation and lower taxes, Bush's New Republicanism would ratify and even advance the most profound social changes of the last generation.

It is both easy and mistaken to dismiss this as mere campaign rhetoric. Bush is acutely aware how binding are the commitments made in such speeches. His father lost the presidency in large part because he violated his "no new taxes" pledge of the '88 convention. George W.'s pledge reached far, seeking not just a political reorientation of his party, but a realignment of the American electorate. That is leadership.

Those who have been lamenting the sorry choice we have in November should reconsider. Two men have come out of the shadow of their own biographies.

For each, the first independent step he took on the political stage was historic. Not bad for Week One.

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