Jewish World Review Nov. 6, 2000/ 8 Mar-Cheshvan 5761
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THE LAST TIME we had an "amiable dunce" for president--Clark Clifford's contemptuous characterization of Ronald Reagan--he went on to (1) win the Cold War, and (2) launch the longest economic boom in American history.
Official Washington--the permanent establishment (like Clifford) and the mainstream media--finds it hard not to condescend to successful conservative politicians who do not quite share its vast learning. Not just because the "wise men" find none of their brilliance and erudition in the conservative pol, but also because they fail to understand how a person can hold beliefs so contrary to theirs and still retain any mental acuity.
Gerald Ford was considered thick. Eisenhower, whose syntax was so fractured it made George W. Bush sound like Clarence Darrow, was equally disdained by egghead Stevensonians. Why, even Franklin Roosevelt, before he became a liberal icon, was famously described by Oliver Wendell Holmes as a "second-rate intellect, but a first-rate temperament."
Temperament matters. Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Reagan, together with Harry Truman, were the greatest presidents of the century. And Truman, too, the only president of the century with no college education, was disdained for unbearable lightness when he first acceded to the presidency.
The three presidents with the greatest reputation for braininess--Wilson, Carter and Clinton--are among the century's worst: Wilson was a disaster, Carter a mere failure and Clinton, probably the cleverest of them all, leaves scandal and impeachment as his most significant legacy.
In the last desperate days of the campaign, Al Gore's main theme is that Bush is unfit to be president. On what grounds? A president's main job is to make choices. The choices Bush has made thus far--running mate, campaign strategy, advisers, even convention theme ("inclusiveness")--have all been very astute.
Moreover, his policy proposals--partially privatizing Social Security, reforming Medicare, introducing parental choice for schools, decoupling America's nuclear policy from Russia's--have been bold and innovative.
You may not agree with them. But it is hard to deny that they represent an agenda far more reformist, far more progressive, than the reactionary liberalism Gore is running on. Gore's promise to "fight" to protect America from these risky schemes (a phrase he has been shamed from using since Bush's deft convention speech) is a transparent promise to his party's entrenched constituencies (pensioners, teachers, government workers) to resist serious changes in the status quo.
But the presidency is not just about making choices and presenting policies. It is about temperament. Gore was desperately eager to get into the debate arena with Bush in order to demonstrate his superiority in the purest side-by-side comparison. The irony is that Gore was saved by the fact that the last debate was three weeks before the election, long enough for the memory of his aggressive obnoxiousness to have somewhat worn off. Had the debates been scheduled closer to the election, the contest would already be over.
The overriding theme of this campaign year has been not so much personality as authenticity. The improbable success of John McCain was due precisely to his genuineness. And what so damaged Gore was not just scandal, the Clinton shadow or even his public eye-rolling unpleasantness, but inauthenticity: his many wardrobes, his many personalities, his new "populist" ideology (for a lifelong centrist)--all contrived to please. Most damaging of all was his pleasant demeanor in the second debate. It was so transparent an artifice that it made people wonder not which Al Gore was showing up but whether there was any Al Gore at all.
In a country with no inflation, no unemployment, record growth, a huge surplus and unparalleled dominance in the world, the incumbent party should win by 30 points. Given all these advantages, Gore might yet win. But Bush long ago covered the point spread. The race is already remarkable for its closeness.
To be sure, Bush has benefited from ideological serendipity: the self-destruction of Pat Buchanan and the reactionary right. When Buchanan walked out of the party and into oblivion, he took with him that poisonous strain of conservatism that had sunk the Republicans in '92 and '96. What remained--you could see it in Philadelphia--was "compassionate conservatism."
With the right united as it has not been since Reagan and the left fractured by Nader's Green insurgency, the gods have lined things up rather evenly. Gore has peace and prosperity. Bush has a congenial personality, a reformist agenda and ideological cohesion.
Bush 50, Gore 47, Nader 2. Bush by 10 electoral votes:
10/30/00: Realities of war