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Jewish World Review Nov. 27, 2000/ 29 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Suzanne Fields

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Consumer Reports

Measuring against history -- TIRED OF pregnant chads, political low-ball and the blabber of instant analysis? Take a trip to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington and the new permanent exhibition called "The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden.'' It may revive your faith.

This exhibition, which opened after election 2000, doesn't contain any artifacts about the 43rd president, since we still don't know who he is. It does offer a perspective on whoever he is and provokes questions as to what we should expect of our two embattled candidates.

Will his weaknesses or strengths dominate? Will the stereotype -- ruthless Gore, lightweight Bush -- forever haunt him and us? Was Willie Brown, the mayor of San Francisco, right when he called the contest between Gore and Bush a choice between "the insufferable and the incompetent''? Has either man the reserves of character to put country before politics?

This exhibition of the American president looks at each chief executive with an eye to history, politics and culture and shows how the total man who becomes president is shaped by the kind of country he governs.

James Monroe was thought by many to be dull, stupid and indecisive, suffering from comparisons to Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison, but he was re-elected with every electoral vote but one. He was the "ordinary'' man the public wanted at the time. Abraham Lincoln, as commander-in-chief, exceeded his authority as president far more than any of his predecessors. Franklin Roosevelt engaged in social experimentation to end unemployment and failed, barely, to pack the Supreme Court with obedient hacks when many of his programs were declared unconstitutional.

Historians debate whether the times determine the man or the man determines the times. It's a chicken-and-egg question. The president and those he governs are engaged in a continuous give-and-take. Lyndon Johnson, who worried over whether he could get the necessary public support to enact his "War on Poverty,'' understood the power and limits of the office: "The presidency has made every man who occupied it, no matter how small, bigger than he was; and no matter how big, not big enough for its demands.''

Abraham Lincoln put it another way: "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.''

In the television age, we're inclined to blame media simpletons for trivializing our politicians -- overstating the importance of dramatic visuals, a husband-wife kiss, a hug on a rope line, a change of fashion, a multisyllabic flub. But as the Smithsonian exhibition emphasizes, images and personality, both "incomparably grand and irreducibly human,'' are windows into the nature of the man who occupies the office as we watch how he manipulates his power both publicly and privately.

No matter what we think of Al or George W., there's a lot of miles between George Washington who said, "I have no lust for power,'' and Al Gore who said, "I'll do anything to win.''

No matter how we depend on political parties, abundantly visible in Florida today, it's difficult not to nod appreciatively, if naively, on reading Washington's expressed wish that a candidate should be above partisanship. The first president called political parties "potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.''

There's speculation over whether the losing candidate this year would even attend the inauguration of the victor. If not, it wouldn't be the first time. John Adams boycotted his successor's inaugural and his son John Quincy Adams declined to attend the inaugural of Andrew Jackson.

History simplifies how we remember our presidents, reductively defining them by certain events -- a war, a depression, a New Deal, a step forward in civil rights. As important as these events are, historians, like dress designers, play to contemporary fashions in interpreting past deeds. But character is always enjoined with good judgment. We want our presidents to know when to work the levers of power and when to leave them alone. This time, maybe more than ever.


11/23/00: Memories of Thanksgiving past
11/17/00: In defense of the Electoral College
11/16/00: More than one way to win an election
11/13/00: Sexual politics squared
11/09/00: A Middle East legacy
11/06/00: Filling in the dots at campaign's end
11/02/00: His own man in full
10/30/00: The Oval Office, through a glass brightly
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