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Jewish World Review Jan. 25, 2000 /18 Shevat, 5760

Chris Matthews

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This time, candidates get 'authenticity' check


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- EVERY PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION is a search for the cure.

In 1960, the malady was age. Voters still liked Ike, but the great World War II general was 70 and slowing down. The Soviet launch of Sputnik and Castro's takeover in Cuba said the country was, too. Jack Kennedy, 43, loomed as the perfect elixir.

In 1976, it was the rot of Watergate. So we picked a guy who taught Sunday school, whose mantra was he'd hardly even been to Washington.

In 1992, it was the economy that was bedridden. So we took a risk on a guy who couldn't remember getting drafted, but knew for a fact that people were going to vote their pocketbooks.

So here we are in 2000. The economy is gonzo. People who never had a job are catching the bus in the morning. Kids are graduating from college with dreams of e-commerce dancing in their heads. The troops are safe. Each day the Cold War fades further from the national memory.

Our only ailment is the presence in the White House of a president so incorrigibly dishonest on the personal stuff that he can't turn in an honest golf card, so incorrigibly lucky on the political stuff the booming economy that he leaves his partisan rivals little to complain about.

This explains the focus in both parties on "authenticity." It's not Clinton's performance but his character that makes the Republicans hopeful and the Democrats, including Vice President Al Gore, keep their distance from him. The majority of voters want a president as lucky as Clinton, as smart as Clinton, but requiring less far less moral maintenance.

This explains the appeal of John McCain, Republican, and Bill Bradley, Democrat. Both have the look of what the old-time, back-room, cigar-chomping political kingmakers called "the genuine article."

A new Washington Post-ABC poll this week shows three-fourths of likely Republican voters in the Feb. 1 New Hampshire primary find McCain an "inspiring candidate." They believe he has the strength to "bring needed change to Washington," the guts to tell the American people "even if it's not politically popular."

Bradley gets the same kind of response from Democratic voters in the first-in-the-nation primary state.

The reasons can be found in McCain's comments on "Meet the Press" Sunday. He mocked a Cuban government official for saying that people flee his country, risking their lives on small boats and rafts to cross 90 miles of dangerous seas, because the U.S. government has conspired to "confuse and manipulate" them.

"You took me on a trip down memory lane. It's been a long time since I've listened to that kind of Communist rhetoric, where wrong is right, black is white, and up is down."

McCain's years as a POW of the Communists in Hanoi, a period when he and other American prisoners were used as showcases for visiting Communist officials from Havana, gave his words an unusual authenticity.

The same was true in what Bradley had to say on Martin Luther King Day, about how as an NBA star he taught younger white players on the Knicks to treat black players with respect.

The best speech writers and the best money can't buy that kind of experience or the authenticity that comes with it.



JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of Hardball. and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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12/08/99: Taking Buchananism to the streets
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08/09/99: With warm regards, Richard Nixon
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