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Jewish World Review Nov. 5, 2002 / 30 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

Roger Simon

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Making sense of American politics: A lesson for Jerry Lewis lovers | WASHINGTON The man on the phone said he was from French TV and HE wanted to come in with a crew and interview me about the election.

Impossible, I said. I don't speak French.

"That's OK," he said, "We speak English."

So I had to come up another excuse.

American politics have become so complicated that it is hard for Americans to understand them. So how was I supposed to explain them to French people, the same people who consider Jerry Lewis America's greatest genius?

OK, you can come over, I told the French TV guy. But promise you won't ask me anything about "Cinderfella."

"Ah, 'Cinderfella!'" the French guy said. "His greatest film next to 'The Nutty Professor'!"

So the French TV crew came in and set up in my office. The interviewer was actually pretty good.

"The last presidential election was virtually a draw," the interviewer said. "The House is controlled by one party, and the Senate is controlled by another. So my question is: Why is America so divided?"

I had to think for a second before I answered.

America is actually the opposite of divided, I said. Most Americans are not divided by the "hot button" issues that divided them in the past, like civil rights, abortion, gun control, etc.

Sure, those issues still exist, but most Americans recognize that civil rights are here to stay, and that abortion and gun control, while contentious, affect mainly the lives of activists who are devoted to arguing about them, and not the lives of most Americans.

But there is a more important reason for the last election results: Most Americans don't see much difference between the two parties (largely because there isn't much difference) and also because Americans don't care much whether an idea or candidate or initiative is Democratic or Republican.

The power of the two parties has been on the decline for decades, and all over this nation you can see political billboards, banners and leaflets that never mention the party the candidate belongs to.

I gave an example from a story I recently did on Dick Gephardt, Democratic leader of the House: When Gephardt ran for president in 1988, his glossy leaflet said: "Meet Dick Gephardt, Democrat for President." In the biography section of the leaflet, the word "Democrat" or "Democratic" was used eight times. Today, the leaflets that Gephardt distributes in his home district make no mention whatsoever of his political party, nor does the home page of his official re-election website.

When I asked him why, Gephardt replied: "To put it in a word, I think the country has changed, people have changed. Voters are much more independent, moderate, alike and less party loyal."

Candidates also campaign in almost exactly the same way these days. Eight years of Bill Clinton taught candidates that "connecting" to the voters on a personal level is of paramount importance.

So in the last presidential campaign, we saw both Al Gore and George Bush go on "Oprah," and be warm and fuzzy.

Also, as they ran for president, they relentlessly downplayed their ideologies in a mad dash to the center of the American political spectrum. They did that for the same reason that Willie Sutton robbed banks: That's where the payoff is.

Most Americans are not ideologues. Most Americans are not extremists. Most Americans work, live and try to get along with their fellow Americans in the political center.

And that is where the politicians head these days.

So, if voters don't see much difference between Democrats and Republicans, and don't care too much about either party, if campaigners campaign using the same strategies in an attempt to reach the political center, why shouldn't people pick pretty much equally between the two parties?

After all, does either party really have a monopoly on brilliance?

"Which brings up my last question," the TV guy said. "What do you really think of Jerry Lewis?"

A genius, I said with a sigh. The finest mind of our times.

"Bon," he said. "C'est bon."

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© 2002, Creators Syndicate