Imagine him running around the huge circular Olympic track, jumping hurdle after hurdle. And at each one the crowd makes a noise as if they are exhaling, which they are, because they’ve been holding their breath. He’s a good runner but he’s not really known as a guy who makes it over hurdles with ease; they’re never sure he’ll make it.
The first hurdle is the creation of a campaign team; the second, raising money. After that comes meeting America and the press and making a good impression; then winning the primaries. He falls at New Hampshire but picks himself up, wipes the gravel from his shins, resumes running and makes it over the hurdle called South Carolina. Then winning the nomination, then a successful postnomination period, with long speeches laying down a paper trail of seriousness. Then a successful convention, a breakthrough convention—he’s soaring now, gets a second wind; then a successful speech.
And at the end of this lap there’s applause, and the people in the crowd start to turn to each other and say, “That boy can jump.”
Now for the first time the crowd has expectations. And bombastic Bushkin knows it. Ahead is the postconvention-campaign hurdle, and the Labor Day-kick-off hurdle, and the handling-of-the-first-charges-of-serious-scandal hurdle, and the debate hurdles, two or three of them, and the first-rate-television-commercials hurdle, and the strong-finish hurdle . . . and then, if he wins the race, a new race begins the next morning. For to be president is to live every day on the big track.
George W. Bush won big last week, and now he’s winded and walking off, the adrenaline still pumping through his blood. And we turn to the other athlete, the other fortunate son, the senator’s son who has won his share of contests. What happens with him now, how does he run? Or does he not run, but instead put on gloves and box?
* * *
Last week in Philadelphia the Republicans gave the Democrats, in the eloquent words of Jeb Bush, a wedgie. Next week in Los Angeles Al Gore must untwist his knickers and produce a successful convention and a strong speech.
The Philadelphia convention was marked, from beginning to end, by good feeling. There was idealism and hopefulness and hunger on that floor, and it shone through on the television cameras whenever the cameras were showing the action to the American people. There was no slash-and-bash oratory, no wild statement from an inebriated Christian in the back of the delegation (and don’t think the media weren’t looking; I certainly was). The Republicans gave the Democrats nothing bad and dark to react to. So the Democrats are now free to produce a happy, hopeful, serious convention, featuring a generous and summoning speech from a newly expansive and enlivened Al Gore.
But people do what they know how to do. They do what they do well. Al Gore doesn’t know how to be sweet, he doesn’t do kindness and joy. Al Gore does attack politics and Al Gore is surrounded by people with a keen sense of . . . well, the nice way to say it is that they remember with fondness the pugilistic politics of another era and seek, almost as if in tribute to the professionals before them, to emulate the burly big-shouldered style of the political battles of yore. Another way to say it is that Al Gore is surrounded by tough, mean operatives whose sole political instinct is to rip out the other guy’s guts and dance in the blood.
Can Al Gore and his men and women not be what they are? Should they attempt to show a big-hearted optimism in their speeches and presentations? Or would it be better to do what they like to do, and do well: play a new and updated game of Class Warfare, with rich Republican lobbyists secretly controlling the bumpkin from Texas as they conspire to steal the very crumbs from the tables of the poor? Do the Democrats fear that the professional chatterers who comment on conventions will knock them if they’re hard and mock them if they’re soft?
We will meet the new and final Al Gore next week in Los Angeles. We know the Gore of the vice presidency and the Gore of the primaries, but we are now about to meet the Gore of the 2000 presidential campaign, and we’re about to find out if he’s a runner or a boxer. If he’s a runner he’ll be Optimistic Al, the man who puts forth Goreism to help our country. He will enter the campaign speaking of our problems and his solutions. If he’s a boxer he’ll come out swinging and try to put Mr. Bush down for the count. This Mr. Gore won’t wear earth colors but the colors of a fighter—bright white, rich scarlet, deep blue. Like a working man at a wedding.
Who will make judgments about the way Mr. Gore puts himself forward at his convention? All of us, and the men in the glass booths. High above the convention floor, overseeing all, they look down on the delegates and speakers with thoughtful expressions; they turn to the camera and characterize the speeches and the action on the floor.
Twenty years ago, when I helped cover conventions for CBS Radio, I used to walk on the floor and look up at the men in the booths and wonder what they were thinking. They looked so beautiful and pensive up there in the lights in their shiny boxes with the crisp network logos. I wondered if they were thinking things like, “Democracy in action at events like this has an inevitable look of silliness, and yet there is something truly moving in the joy of that delegate over there in the elephant hat, whom I’ve interviewed and who is a librarian in Lincoln, Neb., and who, when I asked her why she does this, said with unpracticed simplicity, ‘I just love my country.’”
But, God bless them, that is not what the anchors are thinking. They are thinking, and saying to each other, “Balloons are Republican sex.” They are intelligent and hard-working people, but they have forgotten they are lucky. (The delegate from Lincoln has not; she can’t stop calling her friends from the floor and putting them on with Jack Kemp.) They have been to too many conventions; sophistication can make you sour. One doesn’t know whether to hope they will be bipartisan, and bring their bad mood to both sides, or that they’ll cheer up and give everyone, including the Democrats, a break.
One senses that we will learn a great deal about the shape of the coming campaign from what we see at the Democratic convention, and what tone is established. The Al Gore we will see will be the final Al Gore, because he can only remake himself so many times, and if he adopts any more personas, by the fall he’s going to look not supple but like Sybil, the famous schizophrenic.
Will the campaign be rough-and-tough, vs. slyly large-spirited? We’ll find out next week, but here’s a hunch: When people who are by nature angry and tough go into a bad patch and start to fear they’ll lose everything, it doesn’t make them nicer.
* * *
For now the two athletes are separately engaged. One is headed for the shower, the other suiting up. At some point they will meet, and you can’t help but hope that they will end their contest as runners do, winded and euphoric or gutsy and exhausted. But one senses that the runner will be dragged, against his will, into the ring. And when it’s over there will be swollen faces and bloody eyes. Which would be too bad, because when national contests get violent it’s never only the guys in the ring that get hurt.