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Jewish World Review Oct. 25, 2000 / 26 Tishrei, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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Round three: a matter of trust -- GEORGE W. BUSH may have won the third and final presidential debate Tuesday night at one particular moment. If he didn't, that moment showed why he may yet win something more important than a debate or even a presidential election: the trust of the American people.

That moment of truth came when both candidates were asked the stock question about why young people seem so turned off on politics, so cynical. I've forgotten Al Gore's forgettable answer. The tales the vice president has told over the years, and occasionally under investigation, speak louder than any platitudes he could utter. What struck me, between the eyes, was the relevance of George W. Bush's answer in these fat and happy and uncaring times.

"I don't think it's the issues that turn kids off,'' he said, "it's the tone. ...'' The tone of politics. Yes, that's it. That's what has turned so many of us off, not just our young people. It's a cynical tone ("They all do it.'') that turns all political discourse into a high school debate, a purely rhetorical game of Gotcha.

It's a tone that makes now-dim heroes like Adlai Stevenson and Robert A. Taft seem like figures not of the 20th, but the 19th Century, so far back, it is hard to remember just why they attracted the allegiance and, more important, the admiration and emulation of so many idealistic Americans in their time.

What can we do to improve the tone of American politics, George W. Bush asked, and he answered: "Tell the truth.'' It seems like such a simple thing, but it is far from simple, given all the pressures on a national leader to win, to posture, to promote himself and trash others.

The most interesting and sometimes awful spectacle of any political campaign has always been just how much of his dignity, how much of his truth, a candidate can emerge with at the end. How much of his character will he surrender under the constant pressure to flatter his listeners and promise them bread and circuses? How far will he go to appeal to them on the basis of their race, class or just general sense of entitlement and resentment?

Politics can be a demagogue's art, and while Al Gore is no master of it compared to the great ones, he can do a workmanlike job at the art when he excites envy of the rich, pits the Top One Percent against all the rest of Us, and wars against everything Big -- Oil, Drugs, Business -- except of course what he represents: big government.

It is quite effective, the pundits and pros and pollsters say. It is certainly effective at turning people off of politics after the flush of anger fades, and it becomes clear, looking back, that promoting one's own interests is not as satisfying or lasting as promoting the general welfare.

It is simple to tell the truth only in theory. It is not so simple given the equivocal nature of political debate, which must often be about fleeting power, changing circumstances, and material interests -- all transient things. Perhaps the closest a politician can come to truth is to win the trust of his fellow citizens, which is what George W. Bush set out to do in this campaign.

He has become so good at it that it's a little scary. Bill Clinton won the trust of a lot of people, too. W.'s performance in these debates seems to have improved so much that one wonders if he was that good all along, or if it just took us that long to realize it.

How has George W. Bush come so far in winning the country's trust? Certainly not by his language skills. By now most of us have installed a kind of simultaneous translation in our heads when we listen to him in debate or on the stump; we fill in the gaps in his sentences, and come to understand his incomplete, and sometimes reverse, shorthand. It's not that his language has changed, but that we no longer notice it. We understand what he means. The way Americans in a different age came to understand or at least trust Ike's circumlocutions.

In contrast, Al Gore speaks in complete, if not orotund, sentences. It is so much easier to follow his meaning than the man. What's missing is not a subject or verb, but trust.

One way to win the people's trust, and to raise the tone of American politics, is indeed simple: Follow the rules. But whether he's raising campaign funds in the White House or concluding his own private treaty with a Russian bigwig or scoring points in a presidential debate, Al Gore can't seem to do it. The temptation to make that extra point or buck or impression is too much for him, and he gets carried away. Just as he did Tuesday night.

What's more, Al Gore seems to think it a small thing, a joking matter, to break a rule -- something to be shrugged off, or dismissed with a smile. "Evidently rules don't mean anything,'' as George W. Bush commented in one telling aside during the evening, one of many.

W.'s asides were more eloquent, and more affecting, than any of his prepared pieces. His opponent's asides, alas, all sounded like prepared pieces. It was as if Al Gore had prepared for this debate by going over and over his debate manual ("I will fight for you ...middle-class tax cuts ... top 1 percent. ...''), while George Bush had just watched a lot of John Wayne movies. There is a Western cut to the man and his walk and talk that, if Al Gore ever had, he long since has left at St. Albans or on Air Force Two.

W. is immediately identifiable with Texas. If you didn't know it, would you ever guess that Al Gore is from Tennessee, or any place with a clear, strong, local identity? There is a generically Southern tone to some of his vowels and political stagecraft, but by now it has been so overlaid by what he's felt he had to do, that it is largely lost, like trust. He has been encased in V-POTUS.

And while the vice president may impress as clever or articulate or knowledgeable, he does not satisfy the almost subterranean yearning in America for a leader who can be trusted.

George W. Bush came across Tuesday night as worthy of trust not just in general, but on a number of issues that were once considered Democratic monopolies: Social Security, health insurance and education. Especially education.

In general, the governor seemed only bemused by his opponent's oratorical criticisms of his stands, records and state. His one flash of anger, of real undiluted passion, came just when it needed to come: on the subject of kids trapped in failing schools with no way out, and whose families are told to trust the very system that has trapped them there. That is not good enough for America's children. And some of us have been angry about it for some time.

That's why charter schools and voucher programs for poor kids and year-by-year accountability have become irresistible to a lot of Americans, despite their early reservations, and why so many of us -- like George W. Bush -- are not going to put up with the same old excuses and same interests in education that care more about the system than the children.

There is one other way George W. Bush earns our trust: He responds to the questions he is asked -- the way he did the question about the Middle East. Al Gore spoke well Tuesday night, but often enough in response to a question he had not been asked. Once people begin looking back on this exchange with a few days' perspective, that old debater's trick won't inspire trust, either.

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