WASHINGTON — "Only in America!" exclaimed Joseph Lieberman to the Democratic convention, 132 years after Britain's Conservative Party, not then a deep lagoon of advanced thinking, produced a Jewish prime minister, and 44 years after Catholic Dublin elected a Jewish mayor. The presidential campaign is off to a promising start — promising, that is, hilarity.
At his convention Al Gore the Alpha Male made a cameo appearance, and for a while, at least, The Kiss will refer to more than Rodin's sculpture. Gore is famously bookish, but Tipper Gore will not tease him, as Juliet did Romeo, "You kiss by th' book." However, a few days later, during his river trip, a more familiar Gore was inflicting Washington repartee on some Midwesterners who boasted about their girls' volleyball team. Gore's response was: "You all support Title IX?"
But the central jest of the Gore campaign is in offering the country a heaping bowl of sauerkraut ice cream. Sauerkraut is fine in its place, and as Flaubert said of ice cream, the only way it could be better would be if it were a sin. However, two good things need not be good when blended. So it is with the flapdoodle that is the Gore campaign's current confection, a mixture of triumphalism and victim-mongering masquerading as populism.
Gore argues that because of the masterful economic management of the Clinton-Gore administration, Americans now live on the sunlit uplands of happiness — where they are being ground into the dust beneath the jackboots of the "powerful," who only a Gore-Lieberman administration can cage. Lieberman has signaled ardent, not to say invertebrate eagerness to help defend "the people" against "the powerful." That is, "the people," such as the teachers' unions that had 457 of the 727 public employee union delegates at the convention, against "the powerful," such as inner city children and their parents, mostly minorities, seeking school choice.
Going out of his way to confirm the axiom that everything changes but the avant-garde, Gore, holding aloft progressivism's tattered banner, promises a rapacious benevolence. In vowing that no need (defined, in contemporary America, as a 48-hour-old want) shall go unmet, he is answering an eight-year old plea made in Richmond, Va., during the second Bush-Clinton debate eight years ago.
It was made by that fellow who wore his hair in a ponytail and his heart on his sleeve. Speaking from the audience, his cri de coeur was for the candidates to "make a commitment to the citizens of the U.S. to meet our needs, and we have many." Americans, says Gore today, are unprecedentedly prosperous and tremendously needy.
In his convention appearance Gore recalled how hardships demanded self-reliance from his parents and made them an inspiration to him. Gore wowed his convention by vowing to banish forever all the sorts of challenging conditions that made his parents so inspiring.
Gore's use of his convention to hammer home this message, like a nail driven flush to a plank, demonstrates why the complaint that the conventions nowadays are "scripted" and therefore not newsworthy is a crashing non sequitur. The very fact that they are tightly controlled to clearly express the political priorities of the controllers makes them especially newsworthy, just as the fact that every aspect of the Soviet press reflected government calculation made that press particularly fascinating to Kremlinologists.
The rollicking incoherence of Gore's prosperity-meets-populism campaign forces him to portray George W. Bush as a reactionary, even though Bush wants the campaign to be essentially a compassion competition. However, to be pitilessly fair to Bush, he also has an aesthetic aspiration, that of making Washington sweeter. This he signaled by naming his first foray after his convention the "Change the Tone Tour." Change the tone of Washington, that is, by ending what he, like his father, calls "bickering."
This particular faith of his father should be jettisoned. George Herbert Walker Bush's presidency began to rocket downhill midway through his Inaugural Address, when he said, "The American people . . . didn't send us here to bicker." Oh, but they did, and will do so again this year. The American people send particular representatives rather than others to Washington so they will bicker (both Bushes use a word calculated to make political differences seem petty and ill-mannered), argue, obstruct, denounce and generally engage in — pardon the lurid word — partisanship. That is why there are two parties.
Or are there? Last weekend Bush, in Dallas, denounced Gore for favoring "big government," then flew to New Mexico, which Bill Clinton carried twice, to promise $928 million to improve American Indian schools.
Washington Post Writers Group