Jewish World Review Nov. 13, 2002 / 8 Kislev 5763

Paul Greenberg

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Scattered returns: Election night as a test of character | Every election night is different, every election night is the same. It is ritual as it should be -- always suspenseful, never rote. That's why it's such a satisfying and uplifting, terrifying and depressing, experience. You never know election night whether you want to cheer the bright shining moment or jump off the nearest bridge.

Such is democracy: It may be riveting, it may be boring, but it is always revealing, even of traits one would rather not reveal. It is a great test of character, at least for the defeated.

So how was this election night different from all other election nights?

To begin with, history wound up in the loser's column. Or at least precedent did, which is quite different from history. Who was the last Republican president to see his party gain seats in a midterm election? Dwight Eisenhower? Teddy Roosevelt? Abe Lincoln? Anyway, it's been a long time. Usually the president's party drops seats.

George W. Bush is to be congratulated; it's clear he not only makes waves but creates a powerful undertow. Just ask Walter Mondale in Minnesota or Roy Barnes in Georgia, two once irresistible Democrats who were swept under. But while the president's political performance in this election was impressive, I'm not sure it wholly explains the results last Tuesday, as popular as that theory is among the talking heads.

If this election has to have a theme, I nominate: the power of personalities. It wasn't so much George W. Bush the president who carried the day -- though he had some powerful issues to present as he barnstormed, and a record as commander-in-chief that inspired confidence -- but George W. Bush the man. He dominated the election, which means he dominated the television screens, not because of his office or his issues, and certainly not because of any rhetorical skills, but because of who he is. His personality.

Ever so slowly, the country seems to have grasped that Dubya is a man to tie to. It's taken a while for a lot of Americans to get used to his Texas ways, and not see a smile as a smirk, or a walk as swagger. Slowly the country has come to like what it sees, and, more important, trust what it feels about him.

And it is trust that was the key to the election returns. See the results in Arkansas' race for the U.S. Senate, which bucked the national trend. Voters clearly, decisively put their trust in a familiar Arkansas name - Pryor.

Voters here trusted Mark Pryor's ways, his charm, his family name. It didn't matter so much where this son of a former and very popular senator stood on the issues, if anywhere, so much as what he stood for. In his case, it's general good feelings. He makes people comfortable. Seldom has an airy nothingness come in a nicer package. If Mark Pryor ever casts an unpopular vote as a senator, I suspect it will be by mistake.

Politics in this country and certainly in this state isn't just local, it's personal. Tuesday was a personal triumph for Mark Pryor in Arkansas, just as it was for George W. Bush in the country.

My favorite part of election night, and then the long morning after, remained the concessions. They say the most about character. It's not an easy thing to pull off in the heat and hurt of the moment, a concession speech. Some would say it hasn't been done superlatively since Adlai Stevenson in 1952.

The quality of the concessions this year didn't hold up -- a sign of the less than gracious times -- but there were some shining exceptions to the mediocre rule. Jean Carnahan, in Missouri, for example, was her gracious self.

It's no coincidence that the best concession of the campaign came from a 74-year-old candidate, Walter Mondale. By now, he knows how it's done. And he did it beautifully.

Senator/Vice President/Presidential Candidate Mondale is never more assuring than in defeat. If those in charge of getting out his vote had conducted themselves on the same high plane, instead of turning a funeral into a partisan rally, he might be Senator-elect Mondale today.

Let us take the outcome in Minnesota as a victory for that rarest of qualities in an American election, good taste. It was H.L. Mencken who made the sage observation that nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public. But now and then, when the good taste of the public unexpectedly surfaces, it's refreshing.

Great victory speeches, or even tasteful ones, are harder to come by than memorable concessions. The winner usually makes the mistake of just repeating a laundry list of campaign issues. Missouri's Jim Talent, however, rose to the occasion.

Arkansas' Mike Huckabee, who should have walked over his opponent for another term as governor, had to fight for re-election, and his victory speech showed no understanding of why the election was so close. Or why his high-handedness offends so many voters. He might as well have been speaking, and living, in a bubble.

Revealing things, elections, especially right after they're over and candidates show their true colors.

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