Jewish World Review June 17, 1999 /3 Tamuz, 5759
This could be his first big mistake. George W. might have cinched the nomination if he'd called a special session of the Texas legislature and kept himself too busy to campaign. But, no, the governor has decided to go on the road. And just when he was doing so well at home.
But there's hope yet. Just because W. is campaigning out of state doesn't mean he has to address any issues. Case in point: Dwight Eisenhower was a natural master of the noncommittal, having been a highly successful staff officer. He would go on to perfect the art of saying nothing as supreme allied commander in Europe. What with both Monty and Patton to coordinate, the one thing Ike didn't need was more drama.
Ike's syntax was such that, even if he had slipped and actually taken a stand on any issue, it wouldn't have been easy to spot in all the entangled verbiage. Only later did it dawn on the punditry that the general's mysteriously convoluted statements were that way deliberately. The man was inarticulate like a fox.
By 1952, having served as president of another confused theater of war (an Ivy League university) Ike was ready to run for president, or rather To Respond to the Call of the People. That was the humble style in those now olden days. Adlai Stevenson, too, was nominally drafted by his party that year. But he never had a chance against Ike's smile.
The general, who only appeared naive, took an early lead by avoiding anything so mundane, if germane, as a discussion of political issues. And he pretty much stuck with that winning strategy right through election day. Some would say right through two highly successful administrations.
Nothing succeeds in American politics like no politics. It certainly drove Ike's critics crazy, or at least those who were not already around the bend to begin with.
Poor Bob Taft, the best (19th-century) mind in the U.S. Senate, a man who nwver met`an issue he couldn't take the unpopular side of, tried to rally the party loyalists, but by that time, the attractions of defeat`were beginning to wane for tle GOP, just as they are`now. Ike beamed his way to the nom}nation, then the presidency. For all his eloquence, Adlai Stevenson never laid a simioe on him.
It's a tradition by now. Politicians have been getting away with issueless campaigns in American elections at least since Washington. It's called character. The Republicans lost a bet by not drafting Colin Powell in '96; he might have out-nonissued them all.
But even civilians have been known to employ this strategy with great success. William McKinley stayed on his front porch in '96 -- that's 1896 -- and strolled to victory over one of the greatest stump speakers in American history, William Jennings Bryan, the Boy Orator from the River Platte. Bryan's oratory, like the river itself, was broad and shallow, brimming over with fool ideas, mainly Free Silver and a general discontent with industrialism.
Bryan roused the whole country that summer and well into the fall, half in hope and half in fear, but in the end, he couldn't prevail against William McKinley's placid platitudes and, even more formidable, the Republican candidate's campaign chest.
Marc Hanna, the first modern campaign chief, made sure the Republican nominee had plenty to spend and nothing to say. It proved a winning combination that George W. seems well qualified to emulate. For the most effective orator may be the one who convinces us he's no orator.
Now if George W. can just noncommit his way through the primaries, he'll have the nomination sewn up. He'll just have to remember not to say anything memorable. That was another George W.'s fatal error -- George W. Romney, who confessed to having been brainwashed about Vietnam. It was a fatal admission. To be brainwashed, one has to have a brain -- an immediate disqualification for the presidency in a country naturally and rightly suspicious of intellectuals. The Romney campaign fell apart almost immediately.
Anyway, after eight years of clinton clauses and general waffling, would We the People recognize an idea if we heard it? It might only frighten us.
In 1896, William Jennings Bryan stumped the whole country, covering more than 13,000 miles in 14 weeks, delivering 600 flamboyant speeches in 29 states in that pre-jet America. He scarcely left a county seat unscathed. And what good did it do him?
His opponent, William McKinley, stayed home on his front porch in Canton, Ohio, mouthed respectable niceties, neither impressed nor frightened anyone, and was elected. Bryan's campaign had been an older, rural America's last, boisterous hurrah, though no one would realize it for some time.
So if Bush the Younger is looking for a model, he might do worse than study the watershed campaign of '96. In some ways, it was the beginning of the modern, issueless campaign and the end of ideology in American politics. With an occasional exception, the ideologues -- the Goldwaters and McGoverns -- have been losing ever since. One of the exceptions was Ronald Reagan, an anti-intellectual who was pro-ideas and never wavered from his own. Paradoxes happen.
But if American politics has its paradoxes, something tells me George W. isn't one of them. He's been doing so well without issues and ideas, why should he risk them?
A prudent presidential candidate will avoid anything that smacks of ideology. And the surest
way to avoid ideology is to avoid ideas. His father's son, George W. should have no difficulty
06/08/99: Hail to the chief?