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Jewish World Review Jan. 28, 2000 /21 Shevat, 5760

Tony Snow

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Bush-McCain battle is a pillow fight, not a war

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- DES MOINES, Iowa -- John McCain, a candidate much loved for his candor -- i.e., his gift for telling reporters what they want to hear -- had to phone journalists last Wednesday to inform them that he had misspoken when he told them what he would do if his 15-year-old daughter, Meghan, were to conceive a child.

Here is his original answer: "I would discuss this issue with Cindy (his wife) and Meghan; and this would be a private discussion that we would share within our own family and not with anyone else. Obviously, I would encourage her to know that the baby would be brought up in a warm and loving family. But the final decision would be made by Meghan with our advice and counsel."

He later informed the press corps that he meant the girl would have the child, who, in turn, would enjoy the love and support of the McCain clan. He had not meant to imply that his teenager would have final say. In fact, McCain got snared by a moment of actual candor, and not the hale-fellow banter that his scribes often mistake for self-revelation. He fielded a tough question, and tried to punt it to safety, only to discover that he had made everybody mad.

Such imbecilities flourish when politicians are more interested in finding an acceptable answer than a good one. Even though politics always requires a certain amount of fudgery, McCain and George W. Bush seem especially stricken by the desire to offend no one.

Voters aren't exactly ga-ga about the milquetoast approach. Entrance polls conducted before the Iowa caucuses showed that politically active Iowa Republicans considered Steve Forbes more of a mensch than Bush. Forbes outpaced the front-runner on the two most important personal qualities for Iowa voters -- that the candidate stand up for his beliefs, and hold conservative principles. He also waxed Bush on the issues of abortion and taxes. For those who considered electability the supreme virtue, on the other hand, Bush whacked Forbes 99 percent to 1 percent -- which raises the question: If Bush is so much more electable, why did he win by only 11 points?

In truth, the Bush-McCain battle is a pillow fight, not a war. Bush has vowed primly not to speak ill of anyone, and McCain has taken to whining that every attack on his record or politics constitutes an outbreak of negativism. This stratagem has inspired Andrew Ferguson of The Weekly Standard to dub the GOP contest as The Wussy Campaign.

Contrast this with the Democratic race, which Al Gore has won through the swift and ruthless use of force -- supported by massive doses of unrebutted falsehood. While Bill Bradley has sad-sacked his way through the wintry climes of Iowa and New Hampshire, Gore has behaved like the Happy Patton, laying siege to everything but his opponent's basketball statistics. As a consequence, Gore won the "stand up" category in Iowa, and 76 percent of caucus-goers who valued strong leadership thought Gore fit that bill. Only 20 percent gave the nod to Bradley.

Bradley, like some of his Republican colleagues, seems to consider politics and ucky thing, and acts as if he can transcend the ugliness by sitting, Buddha-like, while his foe hacks at him with chainsaws. But he is not running for Joe Cool. He is running for president.

For good or ill, we want our would-be presidents to show a certain passion for the job. We want candidates not merely to have the stamina to survive an insane primary campaign. We want them to desire the office and its duties with every atom of their being. We cannot afford the luxury of bored commanders in chief. If a candidate can't even defend his honor, why should we expect him to fend off larger challenges?

Indeed, presidents must have the capacity to put up with unimaginable amounts of dreck. They must withstand demagogic attacks from all quarters, and handle such assaults with appropriate measures of defiance, toughness and good humor. They also must put up with a long stream of hacks, hypocrites, charlatans, thugs and sociopaths, many of whom serve as committee chairmen and heads of state.

The presidency has a lot in common with the business of garbage hauling, and to be "above" the fray is to be too light for the office. Bradley has learned this lesson the hard way. Now, Republicans have to make their choices. If the GOP nominee lacks the wisdom to understand the grimy nature of the profession and the starch to define and defend his positions, the outcome will best be described by the likely victor's name: Gore.

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