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Jewish World Review Oct. 24, 2000 / 25 Tishrei, 5761

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Mutual disdain leads to bloodless debates


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- AFTER THEIR FIRST DEBATE, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon shared a sleeper back to Washington. Boarding the Capitol Limited at midnight, Jack took the top berth, Dick the bottom.

It wasn't 1960, the date of their historic "Great Debate," but 13 years earlier. The U.S. congressman from McKeesport, Pa., had picked the best Democratic and Republican prospects from the class of '46 to come and show their stuff before a downtown civic group.

"He won that one," JFK laughed during a presidential re-visit to McKeesport in 1962, "and then we went on to other things."

This is an example of how wide the gap is between the Bush-Gore rivalry of 2000 and the very personal rivalry of JFK and Nixon four decades ago to which it is so often compared.

The fact is, Kennedy and Nixon knew each other quite well before going head to head.

The two Navy officers from World War II had come to Congress together the same year and served on the same committee: Education and Labor. Both became committed Cold Warriors. Groomed in wildly different worlds, they formed one of those odd Capitol Hill friendships that would make their later contest for the presidency all the more bitter.

"I was always convinced that you would move ahead to the top," Jack wrote Nixon after his '52 nomination for vice president, "but I never thought it would come this quickly."

"While the hand of fate made Jack and me political opponents," Nixon wrote Jack's widow that sad November night 11 years later, "I always cherished the fact that we were personal friends from the time we came to Congress together in 1947."

Historians will never dig up such notes between Al Gore and George Bush. No. Theirs is a combat between strangers, men who share neither a common personal history nor a similar professional path, only a mutual contempt for everything the other man stands for.

"I have not spent the last quarter century in pursuit of personal wealth," Gore said in Wednesday's final debate after reviewing his own resume of perennial public service.

Bush, who takes obvious pride in his past exploits as oil man and baseball team owner, holds to an equally dim view of Gore's career. Why would anyone spend his adulthood pandering to the Democratic Party's myriad of pressure groups?

Their differing careers obviously reflect a deep divide in their attitudes. Gore told us Wednesday night that public service is the most noble of all possible vocations. That includes public school teachers. "Most schools," he assured us, "are excellent."

Bush offered a far different manifesto. "I don't trust the federal government," he told the country.

Gore says "we" in speaking of the federal government. When his topic is better-off taxpayers, he is not referring to himself.

Bush, who says "Washington" when he is on the attack against big government, is clearly on defense when the talk shifts to the prime targets of Gore tax doctrine.

Unlike Kennedy and Nixon, who spent 13 years bumping into each other in Capitol hallways, this pair has shared but a handful of hours confronting each other in primetime. They eye each other, not with the mixed respect of veterans, but as symbols of what each detests. After three nights of debate, their only shared experience is playing the other guy's villain.

This may explain why we've found this Bush-Gore contest so bloodless, their three-act drama so vacant. Imagine how good these debates might have been if the governor and the vice president had been old pals — even shared a sleeper way back when?



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.

Up

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