The Charm Offensive

Have you been watching Joe Lieberman? Did you see him on Conan last night, singing “My Way”? Did you see him on Imus this morning talking about religion and culture and Hollywood? He was masterly—interesting and funny and solid. He has the authenticity and self-command of the secure, mature adult, of a man who has nothing to fear from himself.

He is winning the charm offensive, the personality offensive. So is Al Gore; did you see his hip and witty self on Letterman last night? The other afternoon I was home surfing the Net and a friend instant-messaged me: “Are you watching Oprah? Gore is winning the election.” My friend told me later that Oprah’s debut show, on which Gore was the only guest for an hour, had an estimated nine million viewers, the vast majority middle-class women of all ages. From what I saw he must have impressed them all.

This is the problem for Bush-Cheney. I remember the days when the Republicans were the charming ones, when the Democrats were Jimmy Carter or Walter Mondale and the Republicans had the wit and self-possession of Ronald Reagan. Although it’s interesting to me that I can’t think of another charming Republican except Nelson Rockefeller, who was in many ways a regional taste, and John McCain, the flyboy, who has charm to spare.

George W. Bush was of course once famous for his charm. And Dick Cheney didn’t need charm, so full of heft, seriousness, experience and wisdom was he. But now .Ý.Ý. now both seem relatively charm-free zones, and to their detriment.

One of the problems is the obvious and famous one: the media tend to like the Dem and not the Rep, and the Dem feels it and blossoms and the Rep feels it and contracts. This is how an Al Gore—Al Gore!—becomes warm and funny. When Oprah loves you, you know it; when Oprah doesn’t you know that too. Ditto Imus, ditto everyone else. And of course when Mr. Lieberman is whimsical and funny on Conan it winds up being replayed over and over everywhere else, as you will soon find. If a Republican lapsed into charm it would go down the memory hole, straight into nowhere.

People always say, “But Reagan didn’t let them stop him!” That is both true and not true. Mr. Reagan didn’t care if Johnny Carson or Merv Griffin liked him. But Mr. Reagan wasn’t charming in an obvious television way, or rather in the modern television way, by which I mean he wasn’t particularly good at showing up on talk shows and doing witty or endearing badinage with the likes of Phil Donahue. Mr. Reagan was charming on the stump, where his speeches and comments were big and serious and marked by humor and modesty. (Much more important, of course: Mr. Reagan had Mr. Carter, and Leonid Brezhnev, and the Ayatollah Khomeini; Mr. Reagan had patriotism and America’s hunger to stop the long slide.)

Republicans are still capable of seriousness and substance leavened by sweetness and charm on the stump of course, but they’re no match on Oprah and Conan and Dave and Jay.

It would be hard to overestimate the extent to which this is a disadvantage for Republicans and a boon for Democrats. Presidents, as we all know, now live in our living rooms; they are never gone, are always in our face, will not leave. When I was a child the president was Dwight Eisenhower, and you could happily live in America and actually not know that. Presidents were like popes; they made their pronouncements from the balcony of a big white building and left. Now choosing a president is like picking a friend, or a tenant who’ll live downstairs with a four-year lease. You want this person to be pleasant and interesting and bright. It’s understandable that you’d want this.

Poor Republicans. They don’t, in their hearts, think any of this is worthy of them. They think to focus on humor and hipness is cheap, secondary, merely manipulative. They’re right, of course. We are entertaining ourselves to death in America, and one of the signs and expressions of this is the fact that we don’t want to pick a president who doesn’t entertain us. We don’t even want a head of the Joint Chiefs whom we don’t find attractive. As if it mattered. When of course it doesn’t.

And yet of course it does.

I am depressing myself, and may be depressing you. I will share yesterday’s thought, discussed at length with a friend. In 1992 the Democratic nominee for president, Mr. Clinton, won with 43% of the vote. The other 57% went to nominees more conservative than the Democrat, George Bush and Ross Perot. In 1994 the House and Senate went Republican for the first time since the 1950s. In 1996 the Democratic nominee for president won with 49% of the vote. In an era of extraordinary prosperity and almost unbroken peace, the incumbent couldn’t manage a majority. This is still a more-conservative than more-liberal country. It is not by any means over for Mr. Bush.

There, I feel better. But Gov. Bush: Please, please, get some Hollywood writers to send you wonderful funny lines and jokes. That’s what Al Gore does. His wit comes from Hollywood and New York. He isn’t sitting around wisecracking and then asking Bob Shrum, “Is that funny? Should I use that?” Hire humor. First-class humor. Now.