Something to Prove

We approach Labor Day, the traditional kickoff of the American political season. Labor Day of course used to be a holiday with parades and picnics at which politicians celebrated the virtues of the working man who for once was getting a day off.

There are still parades, but Labor Day now is mostly a matter of the last day of summer vacation; Americans are at the beach or packing up the lake house or taking the kids to Target and Staples for school supplies. Most Americans this Monday will be preoccupied with coming or going, with planning the packing or navigating their way through traffic jams. But their cars have radios, and radios have news reports, and there’s no news on Labor Day but what politicians are charging and asserting, and so Labor Day is still Labor Day, and it still counts.

Politicians will have to try harder from here on in, and think smarter. Now they’re competing not with summer’s distractions but with autumn’s realities—school, and work, and the new TV season, which isn’t important everywhere but is in America. Also, they’re running out of time. Monday is Sept. 4; Election Day is Nov. 7. Sixty-four days. From now on there is no long-range planning in campaigns, just planning.

The two most fascinating and compelling races remain the presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore and the New York Senate race between Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio. The polls say both races are neck-and-neck, which may in fact be true.

Mr. Bush’s presidential bid continues in the Perils of Pauline tone that has marked it since the beginning. He is always the strong, probably unconquerable frontrunner being surprised by the unexpected strength of the opponent. In the winter he couldn’t be beaten—until he got beat, by John McCain in New Hampshire. Then he came back in South Carolina and couldn’t be beaten—until he got beat, by John McCain in Michigan. Then a good convention and a good speech and he couldn’t be beaten—until Mr. Gore bounced out of Los Angeles and beat him in the polls.

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Mr. Bush always seems hurt, jarred when he falls. His syntax, normally frail, collapses; thick tongue sets in, “hostage” becomes “hostile,” thoughts collide. His father was like this; when pressed about the closeness of his friendship with president Reagan he tried to say they have “excellent discussions” and wound up saying, “We’ve had sex.” It is not the sound of dumb, it is the sound of quick thoughts crashing into each other and producing verbal accidents.

Still, the Democrats and many in the media have been in a new round of the attempted Quayle-ization of Gov. Bush, and to some degree it has taken hold. Part of it is inevitable: clips of candidates fumbling are irresistible, and fun to see; they brighten every news and chat show, and so are repeated. But part of it is the way Democrats have learned to operate in the Clinton era. Rush Limbaugh isn’t wrong, he’s a big fat idiot. The Democratic operative Paul Begala has a book called “Is Our Children Learning?” that offers not a serious case for Gore or against Bush, or even a passionate one, but that simply asserts that Mr. Bush is a dullard. Democrats have learned the past eight years that you don’t have to make a serious case for or against; all you have to do is change the focus of the argument and heighten it. (When I went on call-in shows to talk about my book “The Case Against Hillary Clinton,” none of her supporters ever made the case for Hillary; instead they would say, “Mary Bono didn’t deserve her husband’s congressional seat either.”)

And part of the attempt to Quayle-ize Bush is simply tradition, and in a way an understandable one. Dwight Eisenhower was spoofed by Eastern eggheads as barely coherent, Gerald Ford as a fumbling idiot, Ronald Reagan as retarded, George Bush pére as a ninny. Bright Democrats do this because they don’t really understand how Republicans think, or why they think what they think; their answer, by now a tradition, has become: Because they’re stupid.

Democrats and media folk have been equally quick and keen to laud the intelligence of Democratic presidents. Jimmy Carter was brilliant, a nuclear engineer, probably the highest-IQ president ever to live in the White House. Or that at least is what they were saying in 1976 and ‘79. The same is said of Bill Clinton today, in almost the same words—”He’s probably the most brilliant man we’ve ever had as president,” a close friend, a doctor and no fool, told me recently. I pointed out that it was therefore a real accomplishment that he has never, in eight years, said anything intellectually interesting. My friend the doctor blinked, and thought, and did not dissent. We did however agree that Clinton has said interesting things in depositions.

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Anyway, I don’t think any of this matters much. Voters don’t expect Republicans to be intellectuals, don’t seem to admire intellectuals greatly, and seem to have the sense that an extremely high IQ can be an encumbrance in the presidency, as in many other great leadership positions. Intellectuals are always tying themselves in knots, missing the obvious, discovering new things to believe in. Presidents have to have good heads, good hearts, solid beliefs, courage; they can hire brilliance and cleverness.

The Dan Quayle problem isn’t Mr. Bush’s great challenge. He doesn’t have to prove his intelligence. He’s obviously bright, he has had two successful terms as governor. But he needs to show solidity. He needs to show that he’s got a strong and even keel, that he is serious about policy because it grows from philosophy that grows from experience.

Mr. Bush doesn’t talk enough about his philosophy. I don’t believe he ever has, in any extended way. Most conservatives and libertarians, for instance, believe in general that that government governs best that governs least. They also know why they think this. Assuming Mr, Bush thinks it, I’d certainly like to know why. Why is it better that your federal government not take more power from people? Should it give some back? How?

When you explain the predicate to the American people they listen, and understand; and they work your positions into the predicate for you, as long as the positions make sense.

That’s what they did with Ronald Reagan. They understood what his conservatism was, what it was about, where it came from. And so they could fit his tax cutting logically under his philosophical umbrella. Thus Mr. Reagan cohered.

I am not sure Mr. Bush coheres. I don’t think he does, fully.

Mr. Gore is getting at this when he presses Bush to be specific. The vice president is trying to say of the Texas governor, “There is no there there.” But Mr. Bush is specific, and comes followed by a paper trail of dense issue papers, as Mr. Gore well knows. What Mr. Bush isn’t is abstract and thought-filled. But Mr. Gore can’t challenge Bush to be more philosophical and thought-filled because .Ý.Ý. well, he might do it, which would help him beat Mr. Gore.

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Mr. Gore is like Mr. Bush in that he seems affected, perhaps unduly, by what the press is saying, by whether or not he’s thought to be on a roll or in a dive. (Politicians are amazingly frail, or at least frail for tough guys. They really care what’s being said about them. You’d think by the time a man is running for president he’d be less impressed by what’s in Tuesday’s paper.) Right now Mr. Gore is on a roll, enjoying the Lieberman bounce, which sounds like a new dance. The vice president is, as Maureen Dowd points out, newly moussed, his hair thicker, his chest broad and his buns steely. He looks energetic and attractive, like a model in a boomer khaki catalogue, stepping forward as he looks at his wristwatch in a peaked-pecs pose.

I keep wondering why, since Al Gore first became vice president eight years ago, Tipper has made it a point to talk about how sexy he is, how virile. What have their focus groups been telling them that she has to keep telling people how hot he is? Haven’t we had enough of hot? One of the funniest moments of the political year was on David Letterman’s show the other night, when two of his stagehands read an “Oprah” transcript of Tipper telling Oprah how passionate Al is. The Clintons used to flaunt their passion in order to prove they have a marriage and not an arrangement. But why do the Gores do it?

Since I appear to be on a rant, why does Bill Clinton keep holding Chelsea’s hand and giving her little smiles? Did you see them in Africa? They even get off Air Force One now holding hands. Chelsea is a grown woman now, and it’s kind of creepy.

But to be fair, all this hand holding started at least as far back as the Reagans, who just liked to hold hands. Some political operative found out people liked it, so when George and Barbara Bush came in they had to do it too. It looked absurd. Every presidential couple has had to do it since. Could we just allow future presidents and their wives not to hold hands in public? Thank you.

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Mr. Gore’s people say, and he himself said in his acceptance speech, that this election is not a personality contest. This has led some observers to state that Mr. Gore’s people know Mr. Bush’s personality is better. But Mr. Bush doesn’t have a glittering personality—he doesn’t dazzle us with his good humor or his homespun ways or his self-deprecating charm. I think when Mr. Gore talks about personality he really means character. And Mr. Bush’s character does seem to work for him—he seems transparently a good person, a genuine fellow who isn’t hidden or crafty or sneaky or mean, a person of appropriate modesty. He seems like a normal man, imperfect but normal, and rather nice.

Mr. Gore’s character, on the other hand, is a question mark. In part because of whom he’s been close to the past eight years and how well he fit in with them. In part because of the constant swirl of changes he’s shown us, both in terms of style (the alpha man) and of substance (where he stands on free trade, where he once stood on abortion). A man well into his 50s who changes so much seems odd. And not very solid.

I suppose some of the presidential campaign will come down to which candidate voters feel they can trust personally. And so I have been wondering which candidate would be most likely to lie to me. My impression of Mr. Bush is that he doesn’t lie because if he did he’d feel so guilty and so insecure in his ability to pull it off that his face would redden and his eyes shift and he’d break out in sweat. But Mr. Gore seems to me capable of telling a lie, of spinning just about any fiction, and with utmost conviction, too. This is a talent, but not a good one.

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So where do I think the presidential race stands now, as Labor Day approaches?

I think where it stood last spring. Mr. Bush has to prove that he’s solid. People I know whom I trust with good reason have long told me he is. He has a record, which might illustrate his solidity. Maybe he ought to talk about it more. Maybe he should explain how Texas is a triumph, and not a squalid environmental disaster where barefoot children beg for pencils on the way to dilapidated schools. Maybe he could tell us how his philosophy yielded his positions, which have helped his state.

And Mr. Gore, I think, has to show he is good. That’s a tall order, too.

They both have a lot to prove to us. So I guess I think Labor Day really is the final beginning, the real kickoff.