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Jewish World Review Nov. 2, 2004 / 18 Mar-Cheshvan 5765

Roger Simon

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The Risk We Take | They are tired. They are very tired. The candidates for president are so tired that they scarcely make sense sometimes. (You may have noticed this.)

They barely know where they are. And where are they? Lambert Field?

They are fighting colds and coughs. The rear deck of their limousines are usually cluttered with cold remedies, nasal sprays, cough drops and tissues. They give three, four or even five speeches a day and the media insist that they show "fire in the belly" each time, which means they have to shout.

So as one of the longest presidential campaigns in history reaches its closing hours, are the two leading candidates asking themselves, "Is this what we spent $1.2 billion on?"

You bet they aren't!

By now they have drunk their own Kool-Aid. More than anything, more than in mom or in apple pie, candidates for president must believe in themselves. A sliver of self-doubt, a smidgen of human weakness, can derail a campaign.

So each candidate has convinced himself that his election is critical - - vital! - - to the survival of the Republic as we know it. How can they actually believe this? Easy: the crowds tell them so.

Like Antaeus who drew his strength from the ground, candidates draw their strength from the crowds. No matter that the crowds are almost always partisan, carefully assembled, and rigidly screened. It is the roar that counts. Not even presidents are immune.

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"I don't pay that much attention to the polls," says George W. Bush. "I feed off the crowds and our crowds are very big and very enthusiastic."

To believe more in the applause than in the polls, that is a sign of self-assurance. Or self-delusion. Only time will tell.

Where the candidates now go and what they now say is no longer up to them (if it ever was.) They both have "strategy groups" who, using the most sophisticated of polling data and media market information, plan every trip and every speech for maximum impact. (The time and energy it takes to put together a presidential campaign speech is incredible. It must be a perfect TV show. But often that time and energy can be put to better use, like going door to door and asking people if they intend to vote.)

Does the candidate speak to the base today or to the undecideds? Which group will determine the outcome? And who are these undecided voters anyway? And why are they still undecided? Where have they been living for the last year? Under a rock?

Is there anything left to ask these candidates? No, but they are asked anyway. Bush is asked by a reporter if, in his mind, both Christians and non-Christians go to heaven, surely one of the more pivotal issues of campaign 2004.

"Yes they do," the president replies. "We have different routes of getting there.

But I want you to understand, I want your listeners to understand, I don't get to decide who goes to Heaven. The Almighty G-d decides who goes to Heaven."

Is that clear? Is anybody still confused about that?

John Kerry does in the final days what all tired politicians do: He screws up a punchline. For months, Kerry has been criticizing those "politicians who talk about family values but don't value families!" But in Green Bay, Wisc., Kerry says, "Are you ready for mainstream values where politicians don't just talk about valuing families, but they value families, and do the things we need to do for mainstream values in the White House?"

Uh, right, we get it.

Perhaps because this campaign has been going on for so long, and both candidates are by now so familiar to the public (i.e. old news) both have turned to celebrity surrogates to excite the crowds.

The ultimate marquis names have been wheeled out: Bruce Springsteen for the Democrats and Arnold Schwarzenegger for the Republicans.

Do these surrogates actually change votes? Would someone opposed to George Bush or John Kerry change his mind because Arnold Schwarzenegger or Bruce Springsteen told him to?

Maybe the talking heads will tell us. They tell us everything else.

Among the media, everything has been said, but not everyone has said it. And so they drone on, forgetting Edward R. Murrow's admonition: "Just because your voice reaches halfway around the world, doesn't mean you are wiser than when it reached only to the end of the bar."

It is said this election will be over some day. Hope springs eternal. Or perhaps it will be too close to call. Or go to the Electoral College. Or to the House of Representatives. Or be tied up in the courts. Name your poison.

Of the polls, the less said the better. Since we have never been polled and we don't know anybody who has ever been polled, we assume they are all made up. But one poll result is too delicious to pass up.

In a recently released Gallup Poll, respondents were asked whether George W. Bush was a uniter or divider. The result: 48 percent said he was a uniter and 48 percent said he was a divider. Think about it.

It is time to wrestle with the better angels of your nature. It is time to examine the candidates, their issues, their pasts, their promises. Give it thought. Make an informed choice.

And take comfort in the immortal words of Adlai Stevenson, who said, "In America, anyone can become president. It's one of the risks you take."

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