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Jewish World Review August 31, 2000 / 30 Menachem-Av, 5760

Philip Terzian

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A Golden Age that never was


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- WRITING in the fall of 1932, Walter Lippmann described the Democratic presidential candidate, Franklin D. Roosevelt, as "an amiable man . . . who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be president."

In the annals of journalistic condescension, Lippmann's initial judgment of his fellow Harvard graduate has an honored place. And, of course, as Lippmann himself would later concede, initial judgments are often deceptive. Still, it is difficult to look at FDR at age 50 (as he was that year) and not draw some comparable conclusions. He had entered politics more or less as a lark, and his principal assets were wealth, great personal charm and his surname, which he shared with a popular ex-president. When he ran for president in 1932, he had been a sub-cabinet officer, an unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. Senate and vice president, and governor of New York for three years.

Some promise, perhaps, but not a lot of substance. And that is how Roosevelt pursued the presidency. Chosen by the Democrats in Chicago, he broke precedent by flying in an airplane to accept his nomination, in person, at the convention: a theatrical gesture with no particular significance. He criss-crossed the country vowing to restore "confidence" in Depression-ridden America, and balance the federal budget. A paraplegic, he was always photographed upright and smiling, or waving gaily from the back seat of a touring car. He was, as we might lament today, notably short on specifics, except to say that "these unhappy times call for plans . . . that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man." What those "plans" might be nobody knew, least of all FDR himself.

I was reminded of all this while reading a hostile review in The New York Times of David Gergen's new memoir, .Eyewitness to Power. Mr. Gergen, the famous publicist, is an easy person to dislike:

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He has been employed by a wide variety of presidents, from Nixon to Ford to Reagan to Clinton, largely with an eye to serving David Gergen. But it is Mr. Gergen's specialty, the modern practice of political PR, which sets the Times reviewer's teeth on edge: "[He] is one of the people," she declares, "who helped create this sorry state of affairs . . . helping to orchestrate the aura of the great and the powerful." His success, she argues, "underscores the pragmatic -- some would say mercenary -- ethos of a political era that increasingly values expertise over conviction, style over substance."

Even Gergen, in his characteristic way, agrees with his critic: The 1980 presidential campaign, he writes, "was the last truly good one the country has had because all three candidates . . . provided clear choices for the electorate. They said exactly what courses they intended to pursue if elected, didn't blur the differences, held down the mudslinging, and didn't sell their souls to their pollsters and handlers."

This is what might be called the Golden Age theory of politics, which holds that, up until recently, American presidential elections were fought by honorable men of deep experience, taking unpopular stands on pertinent issues. To which one can only say: Dream on.

As early as 1828, voters were encouraged to choose between "John Quincy Adams, who can write/And Andrew Jackson, who can fight." You don't have to be too old to remember that 1980 election, when opponents of Ronald Reagan never stopped talking about his background as a movie actor, deploying the artificial techniques of the silver screen to seduce the electorate. Candidates who found themselves in Harry Truman's crosshairs would be amused to learn that "mudslinging" is a recent invention. John Kennedy ran in 1960 on the principle of getting the country "moving again" -- supply your own definition -- and scoring points on a nonexistent "missile gap." And as any presidential biographer will tell you, handlers have been part of the process since the days of Jackson (Amos Kendall), William McKinley (Mark Hanna), FDR (Louis Howe) and Truman (Clark Clifford). What we now take to be the aura of greatness surrounding these statesmen seemed like politics to their contemporaries.

Which is to say that this year's contest is in the great tradition. At the moment, it is George W. Bush -- the two-term governor of America's second largest state -- who is suffering from the media accusation that he is an amiable man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be president. But that could change, as the campaign progresses. For as we know from history, it is not "specifics" that win elections, or the promise of a discount at the drug store, but consistent themes and perceptions of character -- even style, which did Franklin Roosevelt no harm.



JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.

Up

08/28/00: Blame communism, not Russia
08/24/00: Social progress on one front, regression on the other
08/21/00: The beat goes awry
08/17/00: The unwelcome democrat

© 2000, Philip Terzian