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Jewish World Review August 30, 2000 /29 Menachem-Av, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

THE KISS: Love, videotape and politics -- IT WASN'T EXACTLY a high point in American taste (if that concept has not become an oxymoron by now) when The Candidate planted a soulful one on his surprised missus. It was supposed to be deeply revealing. It was more like an invasion of privacy, if that concept exists any more.

Some of us would really rather V-POTUS had kept his love life to himself, though that may not be possible now that an American presidential campaign has become another episode of "As the World Turns.''

The Kiss was supposed to give one a new, sexier picture of Al Gore, who has been out to shed his dorky image of late. Instead, it was one of those moments when you want to turn away, but can't. You watch and don't watch. The way an innocent passerby might walk past a couple on a park bench, not trying to look but unable to avoid the scene. Did we blunder into this, or did they? One wanted to say Excuse Me, though the indiscretion was not ours. Even Al Gore's hourlong speech came as a relief after that.

Mainly, we just wanted the moment to end. It wasn't painful, just mildly embarrassing -- another moment of mild depravity in American life. They seem to be on every channel these days.

Later I didn't want to think about it, but couldn't help thinking about it, and what it says about us, Homo americanus, Model 2000. Not for the first time, I missed Bess Truman and Grace Coolidge. Heck, I miss Pat Nixon and Jackie Kennedy.

What I miss about them is a certain distance -- a distance that lent them grace, or at least formality. The great thing about rules everyone accepts without having to discuss them is that all can be at ease. It's a kind of democracy of manners. Up-end the old rules and nobody knows quite what to do, or say. We just try to avert our eyes.

What we were supposed to do -- applaud? Many in the convention hall did, as if they were witnessing a performance. ("Attaway, Al!'') They love least who let men know their love, Shakespeare wrote, but then he was not running for president of the United States.

Were we supposed to be amused, and think better of the vice president of the United States when his old college roommate assured us that V-POTUS and the wife still smooch like kids when they visit him? Or were we supposed to feign interest? ("That's nice.'') Should it make any difference that we're told all this by a well-known and appealing actor, instead of a sweet old lady over tea? How is one supposed to react? And do we have to?

That made-for-TV moment at the Democratic convention perfectly encapsulates how the public sphere continues to intrude on, and even annex, the private in American life. Once it takes over completely, what will be left to do alone -- shake hands? Discuss philosophy? Will a game of croquet become something to be conducted behind drawn curtains? Because the species will have to find some bonding ritual to conduct beyond prying eyes in order to remain human, civilized, and capable of intimacy, which by its very definition implies a life off-screen. We have to save something for ourselves. Something just between us, Dear. For if there is no line between public and private, both are made smaller, cheated of their significance.

Edmund Burke knew it would come to this. "All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off,'' he warned when it was the French Revolution that was repealing modesty. "All the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded. ...''

It is hard now even to understand what the gentleman was talking about, so accustomed have we become to watching and being watched, till we cannot tell the difference between acting and being. Where does Big Brother end and Survivor begin? And which is this campaign?

It was a small thing, The Kiss. Ah, but there was a time when it was a great thing, when a kiss was not just a kiss. When it was so important, it was relegated to the private sphere of things that mattered. When a kiss might mean trouble or bliss or both, but it meant something . It was not just a prelim, an intro to the stellar attraction of the evening, which in this case turned out to be ... a political speech. Now that's obscene.

There was a time when the sight of the loved might inspire obvious delight or a very private despair ("Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine!''), but not applause from a stadium, indeed a whole national television audience, of unwitting voyeurs. Who asked to be included? There was a time. ...

That time will come again. Young people will go searching for it, discovering and demanding their right to formality and dignity. They will march to a different drummer -- in step. The banners they'll hold will be spelled correctly, the grammar of their slogans will be impeccable, their calling cards engraved. They will demand civility, politely. They will insist on privacy, quietly. Come the revolution, we'll dress for dinner.

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©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate