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Jewish World Review August 25, 2000 /24 Menachem-Av, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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After the conventions -- IT WAS an affair to forget. The morning after had begun the night before with Al Gore's acceptance speech. Hearing it from inside a great, domed sports stadium was like being trapped inside a gigantic boom box. The madding crowd broke all decibel levels cheering The Candidate's every sentence, phrase and preposition. And there were an awful lot of them.

Days later, just what The Candidate said may be muffled in memory, but the sound of the Crowd still reverberates. It wasn't like the sound of fans at a sporting event, which is set off by the plays on the field. It was more like the sound of a rock concert -- a continuous swelling and ebbing. Like an oil spill on the ocean.

It is a mass sound, a kind of mindless roar. It is the sound of Nuremberg Rallies and Party Congresses, and it has been an American sound ever since political speeches ceased to be compositions with a theme and structure. Instead, they've deteriorated into a series of sound bites -- a long string of lures designed to attract every species of bright, hungry, wide-mouthed prey.

Compare Al Gore's acceptance speech to that given by his father's hero, William Jennings Bryan, in 1896. That speech soon acquired a name taken from its peroration: "The Cross of Gold.'' It was quoted and repeated, printed and distributed like the gospel. Schoolchildren and would-be orators memorized it, imitated its cadences and delighted in its soaring flights. Would anybody memorize Al Gore Jr.'s acceptance speech, or think of giving it a name? Why?

The Crowd jammed into a stadium now plays the role of sounding board, amplifying the speaker's every point. It waits for the mention of its favorite cause, hate, hobbyhorse or special interest. When the Candidate reaches it, he sets off a rolling roar that goes around the arena. Can there be any challenge to writing or delivering such a speech? Did Dr. Pavlov find it a challenge to ring his bell?

The crowd cheers loudest for Campaign Finance Reform! It does not matter that the speaker's own fund-raising may be the best illustration of why campaign finance reform is needed.

Like any monster rally, this one remains deaf to any but the most heavy-handed ironies, which The Candidate spoonfeeds it. He aims his agitprop at the lowest common denominator, hits his target, waits for the applause, then repeats same. For a hundred times that seem like a thousand.

It is a typical performance by V-POTUS, a micro-manager with an unfortunate tendency to exaggerate. This time he gets his numbers wrong while talking taxes, but nobody notices at the time. Like the rest of the speech, the slip is swallowed up by the applause. Nobody is really supposed to follow his logic, just cheer at the right places.

Talk sense to the American people, and they might not agree with you. Why take the chance? Adlai Stevenson lost, didn't he? Twice. And Bill Bradley conceded. That's where quiet reason will get you.

The Algore knows better. He moves, swivels, gestures, then repeats the cycle like the tireless robo-candidate he is, and each time he is rewarded with the same deafening response at the end of every cycle. It's like cheering a washing machine.

The automated candidate knows no appeal is too simple to set the Crowd off. He seems to be deliberately aiming for mediocrity, and connects every time. It's an impressive performance in a terrible kind of way, this capacity for inspiring sheer, methodical boredom without seeming bored oneself. V-POTUS has been turned on, and will not turn himself off till the end of the speech, the convention, the campaign.

Al Gore is the pre-set candidate. He is always explaining something that has caught his fancy, like an exuberant schoolboy onto something new and, to him, exciting -- like those dubious tax figures. He would make an excellent administrative assistant. This is not to derogate administrative assistants, who perform valuable work, but should a society as dynamic as this one be taking its direction from an assistant executive director?

To his credit, Al Gore doesn't pretend to be a dynamic leader -- a Reagan or Roosevelt, either Teddy or Franklin. Bill Clinton was always shifting presidential models, like an ever malleable actor in search of a role. Al Gore has always been the adm. asst. out of Dilbert.

Each party is stultifying in its own way. The Republicans' hypnotized and timed-to-the-split-second convention in Philadelphia could have been a remake of "The Manchurian Candidate.'' The Democrats' sloppy, steamy, besieged show in Los Angeles could have been modeled after "Brazil.'' After four days of ceaseless drumbeat, what's called the Convention Boost is inevitable. Feed the great beast called public opinion an unvarying diet, and it will respond with unvarying applause. Those who do not think en masse will not be reflected in the polls, or want to be. It occurs that, back in the Thirties, the English used to call their big public opinion poll Mass Observations.

Now the hapless spectator trapped inside the great coliseum with Al Gore's image graven on every television monitor is left to wonder at what an 18th-century republic designed by men of letters has become. One after another, the orators at both conventions answer: It has become The Greatest Nation That Ever Was. As if governance were some sort of Olympic event and We're Number One!

On the last night of this convention, when all has been said and nothing done, only the echo of the Psalmist in the evening's closing prayer gives hope of surcease -- but by then the onlooker half expects the benediction to end in wild applause and cheers. Let's hear it for G-d!

The prisoner inside the boom box seems to have wandered into a story by Franz Kafka. And there's no way out. At the end, all he wants is the sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of politics. But he knows that the campaign has just begun. An even greater Crowd lies in wait outside the hall, from sea to shining sea.

This talking America, the poet called it, but Walt Whitman could not have foreseen that his country would become one ceaseless, internetted talk show electronically amplified and re-amplified beyond bearing. Or surely, even Whitman, that most talkative and therefore most American of poets, would have shut up, fled for his sanity and never uttered another word. For power, which is what politics is all about, is the natural enemy of poetry, the ultimate act of individual treason.

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©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate