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Jewish World Review Nov. 7, 2000 / 9 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Philip Terzian

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Consumer Reports

The November surprise -- IT IS DIFFICULT to say, at this juncture, how the November Surprise will play out in the presidential election. It could turn "soft voters" against George W. Bush, or it could "energize his base" and impress independents as another example of the kind of dirty politics they would like to see defeated.

In either case, it represents a gamble for both sides.

Governor Bush chose to guard his family's privacy, and talk in generalities about sowing his wild oats. But now, on the eve of the election, he is faced with the question of why he would have risked a media firestorm, reviving old stories about his personal history. The Governor is correct to wonder about the timing of this November Surprise; but he can only blame himself for the damage it might cause.

For Vice President Gore, the choice of tactics was clearly born of desperation. In the last few weeks he and his surrogates have resorted to name-calling, rumor and innuendo in place of argument. Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., was dispatched to the television studios to cast aspersions on Bush's military record. And faced with a challenge on Gore's leftward flank, partisans are talking about Ralph Nader's sex life, and digging up writings from 40 years ago. These tactics could work, and snatch the election from the grasp of Governor Bush. They could also serve to crystallize what people don't like about Vice President Gore.

In the meantime, it is useful to recount what we know. To begin with, the circumstances under which the TV reporter in Portland, Maine obtained her story are not just suspicious; they are painfully obvious. The lawyer who happened to deliver the information into her hands, Tom Connolly, is a longtime Democratic activist and delegate to the 2000 Democratic Cnvention in Los Angeles. Of course, it is possible that Mr. Connolly stumbled upon the information earlier in the day, by accident, and chose to share it with a malleable journalist. It is also possible that the information was delivered to him from somewhere deep within the Gore campaign, with instructions to release it at the optimum moment.

Given all that we have learned in the past eight years about the way the Clinton-Gore apparatus works, which scenario seems more plausible?

It is also useful to recall the Bush perspective. The Governor has never hidden the fact that he is not perfect, or that when he was "young and irresponsible [he] he was young and irresponsible." When allegations about drug use were swirling about in the primaries, Bush took what seemed to be a risky position: He acknowledged that he "did a lot of foolish things" in his younger days, but declined to be specific. And with some reason. Had he opened the floodgate in one direction, he would have been deluged from all sides, and spent the balance of his campaign responding to inquiries about when he stopped beating his wife.

It is worth noting that this decision not only failed to harm Governor Bush with the electorate, but might well have proved a source of strength: Americans tends to respect a zone of privacy, and unlike Al Gore, Bush has never boasted about things he never did. His saga of sin and redemption tends to resonate in turn-of-the-century America.

There is a further point which speaks to the question of character. In 1976, when the 30-year-old, unmarried Bush was stopped by a traffic cop near Kennebunkport, Maine, he did not pull rank or drop his father's name, who was not only a local worthy but a national figure as well. The policeman in question says that Bush "was a picture of integrity" that night: He admitted that he had been drinking, he acknowledged wrongdoing, he paid his fine, he resolved to do better.

As we have learned, perhaps too often in this campaign, that was the beginnin of Bush's late maturity. Getting married to the estimable Laura Welch, fathering twin daughters and giving up drinking were steps he took in an upward succession. Bush appears to have learned from his errors, rather than repeated them, and transformed himself, with experience, into a better human being. There is no evidence that he is anything other than the exemplary citizen he appears to be, or the honest, diligent public official who seeks to restore "dignity and honor to the White House."

It is those qualities, among others. that have attracted voters to him in this unconventional year. Those qualities, and the contrast they offer to the Clinton-Gore environment, where mistakes have been compounded in the absence of character. The electorate is looking for someone to settle, not exacerbate, the partisan ugliness that grips the capital city, and is happy to admit that he once ran afoul of a traffic cop in Maine, and learned his lesson.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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10/16/00: I like (fill in the blank)
10/12/00: Now comes the hard part
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10/02/00: It's a wonderful life?
09/28/00: Driving on America's Main Street
09/22/00: Preparing for a new administration
09/20/00: They've got a secret
09/18/00: Today, Dr. Laura. Tomorrow ...
09/12/00: What passes for knowledge
09/05/00: The catcher gets caught
08/31/00: A Golden Age that never was
08/28/00: Blame communism, not Russia
08/24/00: Social progress on one front, regression on the other
08/21/00: The beat goes awry
08/17/00: The unwelcome democrat

© 2000, Philip Terzian