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Jewish World Review March 10, 2000/ 3 Adar II, 5760

Suzanne Fields

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Campaign rhetoric of manhood -- HOW IS A PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN like a seduction? Well, in the primary candidates woo voters with promises of gifts (health care, education, tax breaks). On election day they pop the question and the voter must answer either "I do'' or "I don't.'' The wedding takes place on Inauguration Day when the new president promises to love, lead, honor and sometimes obey. That's why the first 100 days are called the honeymoon.

After that the bridegroom must stand and deliver. No starry-eyed bride ever expects to get all that she's promised, but the courtship can tell her a lot about what she can expect to live with.

In a recent poll conducted by Frank Lutz, George W. was the man among the candidates who most men would choose as best man and most women would choose to marry. Al Gore was considered the "brainiest;'' he was also the winner in another category: men and women who "would rather kill themselves than be stuck alone with him for a week.''

Of course, George W. wasn't a laugh-a-minute on David Letterman. "But I'm not running for `comedian-in-chief,' '' he said. "I'm going to be commander-in-chief.'' A good thing, too.

Political campaigners have always made appeals to masculine and feminine images. But just as "masculine'' and "feminine'' aren't as clearly defined as they used to be, neither are the political parties. It used to be that Republicans (as late as Ronald Reagan) reveled in belonging to the masculine party and the Democrats thrived in the feminization of their politics.

The macho award goes easily to Al Gore this time around. His pugilistic transformation gave him a new identity and distance from Bill Clinton. But macho in the post-modern vernacular smacks of caricature rather than authenticity. Although the vice president employs more combative verbs, he's still the guy who hides behind weasel talk about "no controlling legal authority.'' Nor was it so brave of him to meet Al Sharpton surreptitiously, and at his daughter's Park Avenue apartment, where he used a grandchild as his beard.

John McCain shows no such ambivalence in his masculinity. After Gov. John Engler of Michigan complained that the senator had merely "rented'' Democrats to win the Republican primary in Michigan, Mr. McCain told him to "be a man.'' Only a war hero could exploit such language to elevate himself.

But what does it mean today to "be a man?'' If we believe with the ancient Greeks that "man is the measure of all things,'' what exactly is the unit of measure? Does it relate to personal morality or public conduct? Policy or character? Ideally, all of the above.

We don't live in an ideal world. We mortals can merely listen closely. Republicans who once prided themselves on thinking with their heads rather than their hearts now have a candidate in George W. who talks of his heart and of "compassionate conservatism.'' That doesn't necessarily reduce his masculine appeal. When he campaigns with Elizabeth Dole or Christine Todd Whitman, he demonstrates how his party cares about women's issues.

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In a fascinating new book called "Campaign Talk: Why Elections are Good for Us,'' Roderick Hart, a professor at the University of Texas, uses a computer to analyze the language of candidates to see how their vocabularies work. Specifically, the professor shows how a candidate is -- or is not -- in touch with his times. Statistical examples of the different vocabularies of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole in their 1996 acceptance speeches tell him a lot:

Bill Clinton referred to people 21 times; Bob Dole only twice. Bill Clinton stressed neighborhoods, fellow, children, home, parents ; Bob Dole used inside-the-Beltway words such as administration, Congress, party, policy, compromise, unions . Clinton talked about jobs ; Dole talked about wealth ; Clinton refers to mother, peace, ; Dole refers to father, war. .

Professor Hart concludes: "Bill Clinton ran as an ideological, and rhetorical, New Democrat and Dole as a near-caricature of the Old Republican.'' Neither Clinton nor Dole referred to race, class, religion, region or gender and both emphasized their reverence for America, 45 times between them.

Language offers insight but not always illumination. Language can also deceive, which is one reason why Plato kept poets out of his ideal republic. But you don't have to be a poet to delude or seduce. Politicians are quite good at it, too.


03/06/00: The Amphetamine of the People
03/02/00: Elegy for Amadou
02/29/00: With only a million, what's a poor girl to do?
02/24/00: The changing politics of change
02/16/00: Tip from Hillary: 'Let 'em eat eggs'
02/10/00: No seances with Eleanor
02/07/00: Campaigning like our founding fathers
02/03/00: When neo-Nazis have short memories
01/31/00: George W. -- 'Ladies man' and 'man's man'
01/27/00: Dead white males and live white politicians
01/25/00: Smarting over presidential smarts
01/21/00: A post-modern song for `The Sopranos'
01/19/00: When personality is a long-distance plus
01/13/00: French lessons in amour --- and marriage
01/10/00: Reaching for the Big Golden Apple
01/07/00: Liddy Dole as the face of feminism
01/04/00: Hillary: From victim to victor
12/30/99: 'Dream catchers' for the millennium
12/27/99: In search of a candidate with strength and eloquence
12/21/99: The president as First Lady
12/16/99: Columbine with blurred hindsight
12/09/99: Homeless deserve discriminating attention
12/07/99: Casual censors and deadly know-nothings
12/02/99: Why mom didn't make general: A reality tale
11/30/99: Potholes on the road to the Promised Land
11/25/99: A feast for the spirit and the stomach
11/23/99: Fathers need to say 'I (can) do'
11/18/99: Adventures of a conservative pundit
11/15/99: Traveling with Jefferson on the information highway
11/11/99: Wanted: 'Foliage of forbiddinness' for the oval office
11/09/99: Eggs, art and rotten commerce
11/05/99: Al Gore, 'Alpha Male'. Bow wow.
11/01/99: Gay love
10/28/99: Lose one Dole, lose two
10/26/99: Rebels with a violent cause
10/21/99: Reforming parents, reforming schools
10/19/99: The male mystique -- he shops
10/13/99:The campaign of the Teletubbies
10/08/99: Money is in the eye of the art dealer
10/01/99: Lincoln's 'Almost Chosen People'
09/29/99: Introducing Bill and Hillary Bickerson
09/27/99: Must we wait for the next massacre?
09/24/99: Miss America meets Miss'd America
09/21/99: Princeton's 'professor death'
09/16/99: The Cisneros lesson
09/13/99: No clemency for personal politics
09/08/99: M-M-M is for manhood
08/30/99: Blocking the schoolhouse door
08/27/99: No kick from cocaine
08/23/99: Movies don't kill people
08/19/99: A rude awakening
08/16/99: Dubyah and that 'language' thing
08/09/99: Chauvinist sows -- oink oink

©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate