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Jewish World Review Oct. 6, 1999 /26 Tishrei 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Land of the free and marketplace of the brave --
CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. As you cross over into Tennessee from Kentucky, there is a small but colorful sign by the side of the road:

"Home State of Vice President Al Gore."

The sign, inoffensive and innocuous as it is, seemed just slightly off-key even before Gore's announcement last week that he would be moving his presidential campaign headquarters from Washington to Nashville. The out-of-tune feeling of the sign has little to do with Gore in particular, and much to do with the times in which we find ourselves living.

For starters, we are more than a century past the Abe Lincoln of Illinois days of American politics, in which government leaders towered over the national landscape and manifested the country's image of itself. Back then, Americans never saw a national politician, unless they happened to gaze upon him in person; there was no television, no newsreels, the politician's name was the biggest thing about him. And because of the lack of national media as we know the phrase today, the politicians had little competition for coast-to-coast fame. If you were president or vice president, people couldn't change the channel to be diverted by someone or something else. You weren't only famous: You were fame. You defined it.

Sort of. Because fame, before the rules changed, was a rudimentary concept. Abe Lincoln of Illinois was famous to people who had never seen his face, had never heard his voice, had never, for that matter, seen Illinois, even a picture of it. The very words -- Abe Lincoln of Illinois -- had majesty mainly because the power was in the imagining.

Fast-forward to Home State of Vice President Al Gore. A vice president -- any vice president -- is no better known to people even in his own state, never mind the whole country, than the host of a television talk show, or the star of a movie comedy, or the lead singer for a top-selling rock band. It's not that those people are better known than a vice president -- it's just that they each have close to 100 percent public recognition. There are a lot of people who have that -- a national politician is not competing only with other politicians for the public's attention, he or she is competing with every face on every channel.

It has all descended into marketing -- not just marketing one candidate against another, or one brand of computer against another; the competition now is much fiercer than that. Even to say that all the various products -- both human and inanimate -- are competing for the public's time is not precise enough, because time itself has been redefined. Unless you count as "time" the eighth-of-a-second it takes to click through a TV channel whose flash of light does not instantly interest and stop you, then time means something different than it ever did before.

Time is an altered commodity; place is without question an altered commodity. Cities, more and more, are being referred to as "markets" -- "He has the No. 1 radio show in his market"; "We don't want to book our act into that market, because we have another concert the week before just half an hour away." The market is vast and overstocked; a vice president is just one more package on a shelf crammed front to back, side to side with packages offering every kind of purported happiness.

"Home State of Vice President Al Gore," the sign by the road says, and the vice president is packing up his campaign and taking it to Tennessee because. . . .

Well, because why? It's a good question -- why, really, is he doing it?

To "get closer to the American people, closer to the grassroots and out of the Beltway and into the heartland," the vice president says.

The lexicon of marketing, from first word to last. That's no reflection on Gore personally; every other candidate is trying to do the same thing, is trying to position -- another word with new meaning -- his or her campaign for maximum reach.

Will the vice president -- or any candidate -- be any different a person, any better or any worse, because the campaign is headquartered in one part of the country instead of another?

No. But the question itself is all but meaningless. "Country?" Abe Lincoln of Illinois lived in a country. We, his descendants, are citizens of a 24-hour-a-day marketplace, open all night. The ultimate democracy: Anyone or anything may fight to distract us. We never close.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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