A friend of mine is voting for Hillary. My friend was born Dem, brought up Dem, lives in a Dem culture and will die Dem because (a) she doesn’t want to be shamed as a person who went Republican, which in her world is viewed as something like getting rich and joining a restricted country club, and (b) she doesn’t really care much about politics and finds all of it boring and off point somehow, with the exception of a woman’s right to choose. She has been watching the political scene in the distracted and impressionistic way most people do. That is, she has been watching the election unfold peripherally, from the corner of her eye, as she blow-dries her hair and talks on the phone. She called recently to share her impressions.
Both in New York and in the presidential race, she announced, we have been given a choice between a candidate who’s nice and not smart, and a candidate who’s bright but not nice.
I said yes, you get the impression it’s a battle between Dumb-Good and Evil-Smart. That’s exactly it, she said.
In a simplistic and therefore limited way—which I notice is more and more the way history is presented to our children because more and more it is taught by television, and television is pictures with thick-as-a-brick narration—”Nixon lost the debate because he tragically refused to wear makeup”—but in a cartoony way, consider:
Rick Lazio and George W. Bush are Dumb-Good. They aren’t followed by a thick cloud of scandal because they don’t make scandal; they appear to be good, honest men, normal men, maybe too normal. They seem more or less average in their interests, affections, gifts. No one hates them, because they’re not at all wicked. They’re not liars; they’re not thieves; they’re not power-mad, and no one will ever call their wives Evita. They’re good men. But they don’t have first-rate minds; they don’t inspire us with their insights or the brilliance of their understanding of the world. They would never say of an element of welfare reform that it is the biggest abrogation of governmental responsibility since the Corn Laws, as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said. They won’t be writing learned monographs any time soon.
Mr. Bush, as we all know, has a tendency to mispronounce words, like a bright and nervous boy trying to show the admissions director that he’s well-read. His syntax is highly individualistic. He’s bouncy and affectionate and funny in a joshy way as opposed to a witty way.
But he is, almost transparently, a good man. He cares about children; he wants government to be honest; he wants to protect his country from bad guys; he wants to stand up for those who protect us. He is a good governor, he has a natural sympathy for those—the hardware store owner and the woman who starts her own housecleaning company—who are taxed and regulated to death in America. He thinks this abusive. He wants to liberate them. If he becomes president—when, I believe, he becomes president—he will drive conservatives to distraction with his tendency to think with his heart, and not his brain.
* * *
Mr. Lazio, continuing the cartoon, is a big happy puppy of a man: Vote for me or I’ll lick you to death. People are trying to paint him as Jake LaMotta after he famously crossed the stage to get Mrs. Clinton to sign the paper. It had been done before—Pete du Pont did it to Bob Dole in debate and to great effect, and Al Gore did it to Bill Bradley. Now Mrs. Clinton and her supporters are trying to turn the moment around by claiming he wasn’t a courtly cavalier.
Really, how tired Hillary-as-victim has become. When she smacked down one of her husband’s erstwhile opponents in an ambush/debate back in Arkansas, Hillary and her friends derided him for treating her like a lady. How sexist, how patronizing. But now Mr. Lazio is bad because he forgot she’s just a girl. Hillary playing victim on this makes me imagine a tag line in a coming Schwarzenegger movie. He kills someone, looks down at the corpse and says, “You invayded my spaaace.”
But Mr. Lazio is a nice man who gets up in the morning and reads the comics with the kids as they all eat Cheerios together. And who enjoys reading the comics. He doesn’t have the occasionally furrowed brow, the air of distraction, the face clouded by thought. He’s like the guy down the block who watches “Everybody Loves Raymond,” a guy who sells insurance and you’d buy it from him because you know he’ll give you the best rates he can.
He’s a good man. But he too is derided in private and in the press as not bright enough, not well-spoken, lacking in heft and height.
* * *
Mr. Lazio’s opponent, Mrs. Clinton, has higher-than-average intelligence, has a tough and disciplined mind, is shrewd and if not canny or subtle at least . . . piercing.
But to no one does she seem a good woman, or rather to few, and to no one who’s been watching and pondering these past few years. This week there is more reason to doubt her: the revelation that the guest list for the Clintons’ formal state dinner for the prime minister of India was dominated by cronies, would-be’s, hangers-on, operatives and, of course, big donors who are helping Mrs. Clinton in New York. And the White House continues not to release the list of New York donors and operatives who have been staying over in the Lincoln bedroom and flying on U.S. Air Force jets. Your tax dollars at work. The high mindedness of the diplomacy you pay so much for revealed.
Gossip—mere gossip but all too believable—on the reason for the White House delay: They were going to issue the list Wednesday, the day of the final Ray report, knowing the Ray report would be bad and would submerge the overnights scandal. But the Ray report was “good,” and found insufficient evidence to prosecute; release of the list of overnight/Air Force guests might now be incendiary. Today is Friday. Perhaps at midnight tonight, as the weekend begins, we will get the list. Or maybe 5 p.m. Sunday, when we’re all enjoying the last golden light of early autumn.
* * *
As for Mr. Gore, he is obviously bright, with a tough and disciplined mind not unlike Mrs. Clinton’s. But he too this week gave us more reason to doubt what is inside him. I suspect people are starting no longer to be amused but actually concerned by Mr. Gore’s tendency to lie in speeches and interviews. In the past five days he unspooled a heartfelt story of how his mother-in-law and dog both take the same arthritis medicine, but the pooch’s meds are cheaper and this is a scandal. It certainly might be if it were true, but apparently not a word of it is.
Then at a speech to the Teamsters Union Mr. Gore claimed his mother sang a union song as a lullaby when he was a babe, and he sweetly sang the song:
Look for the union label
When you are buying a coat, dress or blouse
All very moving and nice until you realize, as reporters quickly did, that the song wasn’t written until Mr. Gore was 27 years old.
Two big whoppers in one big week. We all know about “Love Story” and Love Canal and I-invented-the-Internet and all the other whoppers, but . . . it’s getting weird. Mr. Gore knows his proclivity for confabulation is dangerous. He has been heavily criticized for it this year, and he received a memo from an aide in 1988 warning him that his tendency to “exaggerate” was a threat to his candidacy. He knows it’s a problem, and he knows it damages him. He knows the press, and his opponents, are subjecting everything he says to scrutiny. And yet he cannot seem to stop it.
His lying looks at this point not like a foible but a compulsion, a tendency that is ungovernable, like a tic. He doesn’t have to do it. He can always make his point without telling stories that aren’t true. Seeing Mr. Gore lie in speeches is like seeing a rich kleptomaniac stealing things he doesn’t need. He seems a verbal kleptomaniac, grabbing untruths from the rack, shoving them in his pocket and hoping to make it past the metal detectors. And then when he’s caught and the bells go off, his reaction is blasÈ. “It was only a lipstick.” It was only about a lullaby, a novel, a dog.
The disturbing question is this: If Mr. Gore cannot help but lie about lullabies and grandma’s medicine, will he lie about troop movements, and espionage, and what our intelligence is telling us about what Saddam is up to?
This is where his predilection goes from gaffe-a-minute campaign fun to serious campaign issue, and question.
* * *
Interestingly, I think, Mr. Gore, with his cast iron pecs and the superman hair and the steely cold eyes, actually looks like Evil-Smart. Mr. Bush in his shambling gray suit and every-which-way hair and sweet insecurity looks Dumb-Good.
You might wonder which my friend is going to vote for. In both cases she’s going for Evil-Smart. For the simple reason, she says, apart from a woman’s right to choose, that public servants should be smart. It makes her nervous when they’re dumb.
She has a point, of course. But two other points might follow. One is that high intelligence is less important than character in a public servant. The left and right tend to see this differently. The left often acts as if it thinks brilliance is virtue—Adlai Stevenson was good essentially because he was brilliant and witty. The right tends to think brilliance and goodness are different things and prefers goodness—that is, character. They think—we think—character more than trumps IQ, and we’d rather have old uneducated Aunt Bridget the cook making governmental decisions than a scheming and duplicitous Nobel Prize-winning genius. Aunt Bridget, being a good person, will do less harm. And goodness itself is a kind of wisdom.
My view: in the struggle between Dumb-Good and Evil-Smart, Bush and Lazio have the great advantage. For they really are good men—but they really are intelligent. So what they have to prove is the truth: that they are bright.
Mr. Gore and Mrs. Clinton—forgive me, but I am a columnist and therefore obliged to honestly share my views—have to prove they are not wicked, which means they have to . . . well, it will be an uphill task for both of them. Because it’s easier in general to demonstrate a truth than to consistently get away with that which is untrue. So, advantage Bush-Lazio.
* * *
Mr. Bush has promised he will no longer mispronounce words. This will make things more boring, and at any rate is probably not a promise he can keep.
But he doesn’t have to. Here is how he might demonstrate his intelligence. With three big serious speeches, one of which captures as no one in politics yet has the meaning of the past eight years, the trampling of the rule of law, the institutionalized disdain for common citizens. The second speech, a big and serious statement about what is wrong with how things work now, and what you will do to turn it around and create a newer, better world. Include everything from the school-liberation movement to a defense system to protect the United States from missile attack, which we do not have and will to a certainty need before our children are grown. Make this speech into one hard round ball that can be thrown and tossed, thrown and tossed to the American people, so that in time they each catch it. And third, talk about something no one has talked about since 1987: America’s meaning in the world, what we’re here for, what our reason for being and must be in the changing geopolitical universe.
Men who talk like that aren’t stupid; men who talk like that are big, and serious, and right. The perception trickles down. People notice, and suddenly Jay Leno can’t make the Bush-is-dumb joke in the monologue anymore because suddenly the audience isn’t laughing as hard because suddenly they don’t agree with the premise. Because Bush ain’t dumb.
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Since I’m writing this column weekly and I’ve decided we’re friends, I wanted to tell you about a wonderful thing I went to last night in Manhattan, the book party at Le Cirque for Liz Smith, whose memoir, “Natural Blond” was published this week. It was one of those sparkling New York evenings—I know that’s a clichÈ but it was, a dark cool autumn-breeze night. As I walked into the small, wood-paneled ballroom the sound of laughter and chatter and tinkling glasses made a great hum; everyone looked beautiful and they were all dressed up and I just stood there and thought: the whole busy world.
David Frost was over here against the wall talking to Gail Sheehy about interviewing Tony Blair this Sunday morning, Blair’s first live sit-down interview since his disastrous 21-point slide in the polls. Over there Matt Drudge was talking into the microphone of Jeannie Williams of USA Today as Mary Tyler Moore and Robert Levine walked by.
Henry Kissinger; Amy Gross, editor of O: The Oprah Magazine; an attractive young man who a friend said was a downtown hairdresser and who turned out to be Prince Edward of England made his way through the room; the murderer-finder Dominick Dunne, the agents Mort Janklow and Lynn Nesbit and Joni Evans, the director Joel Schumacher, tall and handsome as a movie star; Mitch Rosenthal of Phoenix House, than whom no one is more serious about helping kids in trouble with drugs, and the legendary editor and writer Henry Grunwald, with his civic-minded and glamorous wife, Louise.
Peter Jennings and Barbara Walters and Judy Miller and Geraldine Fabricant of the New York Times, and James Hoge of Foreign Affairs, and a nine-year-old boy in khakis and blue shirt who politely sipped a Coke as his mother, who works with Ms. Smith, politely introduced him to the great. It was glitteringly friendly.
Ms. Walters gave a short, funny speech in which she dryly announced that she was Ms. Smith’s lover, that in fact all the givers of the party, including Louise Grunwald and Joan Ganz Cooney of “Sesame Street,” were lovers, and got together as often as they could when their husbands were out of town. The roar of laughter that followed acknowledged the subtext: the attention given in many quarters to Smith’s references in the book to her energetic and colorful romantic life over the span of 60 years.
The book is full of good stories and gossip but the most striking thing about it is its air of sweet tolerance, as if Ms. Smith thinks we’re all damaged and full of excellence and sin and drama and fun and a rich, messy humanity. Which of course we are, at least on our livelier days.
Ms. Smith has mentioned me in her column a few times, in ways that were either mildly complimentary or mildly critical—I gather she finds my politics conservative—but she’s a very fine woman and it’s an honor to be lauded or knocked by her. The party they threw for her was blissfully free of politics and full of good feeling. What a relief from real life. What a great night.