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Jewish World Review Feb. 9, 2000 /3 Adar I, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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John McCain's hour -- or just his 15 minutes? -- DIXVILLE NOTCH. Any American newspaper worth its well-trained reflexes has got to carry a story datelined DIXVILLE NOTCH every four years, the same way we serve up a Groundhog story once a year and a Great African Pygmy War about every seven. It's tradition. And tradition can be useful. It provides continuity, stability, legitimacy. So does the New Hampshire primary, which remains the country's first real presidential election -- unlike the hoked-up Iowa caucuses, which are more of a fund-raising event and general irrelevance.

So a hamlet like Dixville Notch, where the town's voters gather a minute after midnight election day to count and open the ballots, becomes an election-year touchstone, while Des Moines is forgotten. It's another instance of the ramshackle, apparently accidental American political process that, for all its illogic, forges a common-sense consensus. Most of the providential time

The bellwether New Hampshire primary ain't so bellwether, as evidenced by the list of winning candidates now gone with the snows of yesteryear. The voters in all those Dixville Notches may be able to sink a president by giving him an insufficient victory (see Lyndon Johnson) but they don't exactly anoint the next president. See Pat Buchanan or Lamar Alexander. Or maybe it was Lamar! that year. We forget. So does the country. Today's fashion fad has a way of becoming just another T-shirt in the growing pile you should have given away long ago.

Just who wins the vote in Dixville Notch, or in New Hampshire, for that matter, is less important than the assurance that the voting has begun, that the electoral wheels are grinding again, and the Presidential Express is pulling out on its quadrennial journey that, after a year of puffing and pulling, will seem more like a millennium. The process may produce a giant or a pygmy, but it will produce.

It's all assuring, like the North Country sound of Dixville Notch or Lands' End, even if by now both have become industries, whether of the cottage or e-mail variety. It's the sound of the names, the touch of the past that gives the whole system a sense of history. This primary even gives the system a kind of rationality in its patchwork, New England way.

Not every patch has to be just like the whole, star-spangled quilt. New Hampshire's electorate is anything but representative of the country's. Rather, it's a cross-section of a particularly influential branch of the American tree: the white-as-Ivory-soap, college-educated, prosperous, darned independent, politically conscious and slightly precious branch of public opinion. Mavericks may find all this cold air particularly hospitable. New Hampshire has always been able to afford a little rarefied eccentricity, maybe a lot. See Gene McCarthy.

New Hampshire's choice may hold up about as poorly as the first pancake off the griddle, but it does remain the first. And there's no denying that John McCain now has what George the First (Bush) used to call, in that admixture of Connecticut and Texas he spoke, The Big Mo -- as in momentum. And as in momentary.

The senator from Arizona, the Hanoi Hilton and campaign reform now has struck the first clear note in this discordant election year. As usual, his virtues are a mirror image of the era's vices. He offers candor and some very welcome signs of character. The pendulum of public taste seems to be swinging back. Having been assured four years ago that character wasn't all that important, a post-impeachment electorate may now see it as all-important.

Imagine: Character, of all things, is coming into style, which will probably be its ruination, for the essence of character is the unstylish. The more it's talked about, the less it may be demonstrated. Once assumed in presidential candidates (rightly or wrongly), character used to be considered, let's face it, boring. Now its absence has become boring.

A country can take only so many scandals, so much falsity, so much War Room spin, before it begins to yearn for the kind of simplicity it once thought much too little to settle for in a president. As a mental patient once told us, "It gets boring not having peace of mind all the time.''

John McCain's public persona, which may actually not be different from his private one, comes like a refreshment -- like a glass of water after a steady diet of too many assorted fizzy drinks served with little umbrellas. As the clintonesque pales, here comes a politician who seems to have a self.

John McCain is still the treetop pilot winging it, and while that may be unnerving to the organization men and big givers, or even to those of us who prefer our politics a tad more cogent, he has given this campaign a certain verve, and now an early spike in New Hampshire. It'll take another month to see if he's a trend or only a bleep on the screen.

One can almost hear the big guns, the ack-ack, being wheeled into place as John McCain comes into view. But there is something about the lone pilot, however eccentric, that has appealed to Americans since Lindbergh landed at Paris. What happened to the Lone Eagle afterward, Americans may not understand. Or even remember.

As for W., he still looms with an Eisenhowerean inevitability. Bush the second has got the money, the name, the temperament, the organization and the moderation, the advisers and endorsers and Texas, too -- everything but the votes. Those have yet to materialize. A petty detail, no doubt. But if George W. Bush still looms like a mountain on the horizon, the mountain is a bit more distant. Small, niggling doubts appear here and there: Was that a mountain or a mirage?

Paul Greenberg Archives


©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate