Why Gore Should Concede

Al Gore should hang it up. And then he should hang his head in shame. In a great irony of which he may someday become aware, Gore proved at the end of his presidential campaign what he had spent most of that campaign trying to disprove. In words and deeds, in photo ops and tactical decisions, he kept trying to demonstrate that he was not Bill Clinton. And now at the end, by putting the country through a terrible trauma to serve his own needs and retain personal power, he shows that if he is not a complete Clinton clone, he is at the very least a man who has absorbed and accepted the central ethos of Clintonism: “We’ll just have to win, then.” No matter what.

To briskly review: there was a presidential election, and it was close. It came down to the state of Florida. They counted the votes. Mr. Bush won. But it was very close, so they had a recount. They counted the votes again—from the top of Florida to the bottom, from the east, where former Queens Democratic precinct captains paper the condos with Gore flyers, to the west, to the Panhandle, where Republicans stayed home after being told by the networks that it was over, Gore had won. (If Jesse Jackson liked these people, he’d call them “those who were cruelly disenfranchised by the media.”) And even the recount showed Mr. Bush the winner.

You know what followed. Democratic operatives file suits claiming badly designed ballots; the Republicans go to court to stop the suits; three counties begin hand counts; the Florida secretary of state certifies the election based on the recount, pending the overseas absentee ballots. Those ballots are counted: again Bush wins.

A Democratic state supreme court misreads the law to declare the election can’t be certified until the hand counts are in. The horrifying stories come out about what is happening in the hand-counting rooms: the changing standards, the interpretations of dimples and dents, the cheating; the ballots misplaced, used as fans, taped up, dropped; the throwing out of military absentee ballots. Newly assertive Republicans begin to protest, to march on Palm Beach in suits and ties. It goes to the U.S. Supreme Court.

And that is where we are. And we are here because Mr. Gore couldn’t do what Richard Nixon did: announce, the morning after the election, that he would accept the official outcome. Great harm has been done by Gore’s decision, and more is no doubt coming. If he manages to finagle his way to the presidency, his Administration is likely to prove true a dark saying: When you want it bad, you get it bad.

I know a number of people who are sitting back in fat chairs saying they find all of this quite comic. “It’s a farce, and I don’t care who wins.” Really? We have reason to believe a presidential election is being stolen and we don’t care? It must be hard to achieve that level of equanimity; maybe it’s God’s way of telling you that you have too much and have grown soft, and the softness has made you cynical. They’ve caught some of this Above-It-All virus on TV, on the news. On cable they obsess on the story, but shallowly. Television has both inflamed demonstrators and ignored what is behind their demonstrations. They inflame by showing hot pictures in constant rotation; they ignore by not letting the demonstrators speak their views at length. It’s as if TV reporters have cameras but no microphones.

And who are those people with the placards? “Partisans.” That’s how the people who care about what is happening in Florida are labeled on TV: they are partisans, which is to say narrow little people who desire not what is best for the country but what is best for their party. The media derision for the protesters, most of whom are Republicans, reached comic heights when a generic CNN anchorman became testy on the air because protesters were making too much noise. Who are these people to be getting in the way of my narration?

Well, they’re Americans. And they don’t think this is all a joke. And they don’t think they are being irresponsible in taking part in this story. They think they are being responsible. And in spite of their anger, and in spite of their real fear at what is happening in our country, they are protesting in the only right and helpful way, peacefully and lawfully. They not only care, but they’re caring in a responsible and constructive manner.

Mr. Gore is showing history who he is, and what he is showing is really, truly sad. The comfortable Americans who look down on the activists from a great height are showing history who they are, and that’s sad too. But there’s one group that seems to me to have distinguished itself with its protests, and that is the old silent majority that in its latest incarnation has refound its voice. And they’re not partisans. They’re patriots. They’re acting out their protectiveness toward a great Republic. Too bad Gore couldn’t.

The Case for Bush

A change is in order. In the past eight years the American people have built and fueled a miracle: the greatest economic engine in the history of the world. Income up, standard of living up, investment up. The deficit has become a surplus. We are fat and almost happy. Once Rabbit was rich; now Rabbit is rolling, with a Rolex, with a Beemer and a Benz.

It happened once before in our time: the years 1983 to 1989 marked the greatest peacetime economic expansion to that point in all of U.S. history. President Reagan took steps that encouraged growth, and while the American people produced it, he directed the rollback of communism, the fall of the Wall. By the end, an amazing thing: a more just and peaceful world, with America known not as a bully but as a friend to freedom in the world.

What have Clinton-Gore done in eight years? Have they inspired us, made us proud, done the brave, tough things that needed doing, shown commitment and vision?

Sadly, no. They’ve dithered and ducked, coasted and claimed. They squandered their opportunities to create a coherent American agenda in the world. They failed to make us safer from nuclear, chemical or biological attack. Domestically their attitude came down to this: Reform the entitlements? We’d rather go to a fund raiser. Bring new life to dead schools? Rather go to Hollywood. Our children are poisoned by a sour, searing culture? Let them eat something else. Let them eat cake. Clinton and Gore have been unserious in their stewardship. What most characterized their two terms was summed up by the Vice President in famous words: “No controlling legal authority.”

The scandals have been as humiliating for our great republic as they have been historic in scope and size. Filegate, Travelgate, hidden e-mails, lying under oath, hell to pay, abuse of the FBI, of the personnel system; a health-care task force that violated federal law; grand juries, billing records; Lincoln bedroom, troopers, bimbos, coffees, lies. Most terribly, foreign agents carrying cash meet with our President in the Oval Office; they stand in their shiny shoes on the great seal of the United States and later receive what they want: military technology. As a result, China now has weaponry that one day, perhaps, may be used against your children and mine. If there were a word in English that stood for “the shame we feel for others who should feel shame and don’t,” that word would be their legacy, the big vivid thing that they gave us.

A change is in order. We have Gore, whose victory would represent an endorsement of the Clintonian ethos. And we have Bush, who asks, “Where’s the wisdom in America? I believe it’s with the people. I trust the people.” Those are the simple words of a common man who has been lucky in life—who made the most of his chances, made his mistakes, corrected them, became serious, began to love God, came to trust him. The trust spread within him and became a habit; in time it gave shape to his policies.

George Bush is a compassionate conservative. He sees the needs other, older conservatives did not always see, or did not always think they must or could address. But he applies conservative solutions to these needs: more freedom, more choice, the inclusion in the public sphere of faith-based approaches. All the money in the world, he knows, cannot and will not turn around a troubled child’s heart. But God can, and his workers are eager. Bush does not fear faith as an opposing power center to the state. He likes it as an opposing power center to the state. After all, faith freed Poland; perhaps it can free a tough 16-year-old in inner-city Detroit too.

Bush is sunny, ingenuous; he assumes good faith. His assumption of good feeling has a way of spreading it. That has been his history, in Texas, and in baseball, and in business. Gore, on the other hand, is a rather strange individual. He has seemed in the campaign like a rapper on MTV, all strut and no strength. He cannot summon the courage to break with his patrons (the unions, the White House) but is aggressive and cutting in the pursuit of power; he will divide to conquer. He is a sophisticated man, and yet he speaks the language of yesterday’s class warfare. He seems at times like an illustration of the idea that some modern men have become, in the great age of feminism, confused about what it is to be a man. The more he huffs and puffs and tries to dominate the less manly he seems. Powerful men don’t deride and intimidate; they speak the truth and lead. They don’t lie.

There is no nice way to say this: we can’t afford another famous liar in the White House. America is a strong country, but it may not be able to sustain another fabulist; one can be called an accident, a trick of history, but two would amount to a culture of governance, a way of being. It is by institutionalizing the acceptability of lies that a great power becomes a punch line.

“Don’t change horses in midstream,” Mario Cuomo tells us. But Clinton and Gore were not the horse that brought us across the stream—the American people made the great economic current that pushed Clinton and Gore safely to shore. And now the latter brag at how they used the spurs and whip.

A change is in order: the stream has been crossed, the horse should buck, throw off the old and get a new rider, one worthy of it. Of us. That man in this race would be Bush, the gentleman from Texas.

Grace Under the Glare

We keep saying goodbye to big pieces of the century, and this last is just too sad and unjust. What would have become of that unfinished life? What would have come of that promise?

Let me tell you what it was like to see him. I was in a restaurant last Thursday in Manhattan with a small group of friends who were catching up and arguing politics. Suddenly some invisible shift happened, some peripheral force entered the room—a tall man in sunglasses hobbling toward a back table. He moved briskly, as if he hoped no one would notice.

“There’s J.F.K. Jr.,” said one of the women at the table.

We watched, and I looked around to watch the people watching. The place had gone quieter, and a man stopped, fork in midair, as he passed.

I thought, What a star, a natural star. I thought I was looking at the kind of beauty that movie stars want and are supposed to have but don’t. A face just old enough to be interesting and young enough to be perfect, with the kind of manly features that make you think of the handsome man in a 1950s magazine ad. Thick, shiny black hair, a slim muscular body on which his dark suit draped in soft folds. Afterward, I wondered if it was something like what Scott Fitzgerald saw when he remembered the college football stars of his young manhood, those young men who just then, on the gridiron and in their youth, were having the best moment of their lives.

He was on crutches because he’d recently broken or sprained his ankle. And as we all walked away, a friend of his said to me, “Maurice worries about him flying that plane.” Maurice Templesman, Jackie Onassis’ longtime friend. “He’s afraid John is too…” She couldn’t think of the word, but it was something like distracted, scattered.

And now it’s Saturday morning, and I’m thinking of the crutches and the hobbling and wondering if he was, as is reported, piloting the plane, and if he could maneuver the rudder pedals. If he could do what he thought he could do because he knew how to do it, and was confident, and wasn’t concerned.

You’d think he would be, coming from the family he comes from. You’d think he’d be always concerned about safety and luck and fate. But maybe when you were J.F.K. Jr., so surrounded by tragedy, with a life so shaped by it, maybe you thought, “We’ve had our share. We’ve had more than our share. I’m going to get in a plane and fly.” You can come from a place of such bad luck that you think your luck will always hold.

His father lived a life of meaning and drama, a heroic life that spanned less than 50 years and yet encompassed war and political tumult and the great ideological struggles of the day. J.F.K. Jr.’s life spanned 39 years—only seven fewer than his father’s—and encompassed no such dramas as war and wrenching political struggle. His dramas were personal, not historic, but then so much more was expected of him. Wouldn’t he live a giant life too? What kind of man will King Arthur’s son be?

He knew about the expectations, and one supposes they were the central trauma of his life. He seemed to hobble through the search for a while—actor, lawyer, person in politics. And then: editor. Of a magazine on politics. But one that treated politics as entertainment. As if he were detaching himself from the heaviness of political struggles, and the tragedies they can bring.

Now it will be a mystery, what he would have become with a good long life. His friends say he was modest, deeply courteous—very much his mother’s son—and intelligent, and funny. People liked him, he had good stuff in there, not only beauty and good genes. The few times I saw him refer to politics in an interview, he did it with what seemed a natural humility. He didn’t seem to think he ought to be harrumphing from the floor of the House about what we’re doing wrong as a people, or right. If you didn’t know him, you wondered whether life had been too strange and soft to mold him into a harder person, one who could move into the world with force and meaning, marshaling all the things he had to make a difference. But that takes time. You wonder what he would have done if he had got it.

He was born with the burden of fame, but he handled it with patience and humor, and more. Ben Bradlee wrote a book about President Kennedy after he died, and it was called That Special Grace. J.F.K. Jr. had it too, though history didn’t give him wars and great movements in which to show it.

But he showed it anyway. Not so long ago, the day his mother was buried, after the prayers and the graveside service at Arlington, when everyone was starting to leave, young John Kennedy stepped up to the casket of his mother and the gravestone of his father. He leaned forward and stretched toward them and put his hand upon each with a touch that was more like a kiss. It was an act of great physical grace, and love, and maybe it was done in part on behalf of a country that felt as he did—a generous gesture like the one 30 years before when a little boy made a salute.

Why The Speech Will Live In Infamy

After seven long months, what we got was four minutes of petulance and prevarication. It felt less like a speech than a slap.

The President’s speech was a disaster, a historic failure that will be ever noted and long remembered. It was, in fact, a reverse Checkers speech. The Checkers speech was a defiant and manipulative statement that saved a career. The Monica speech was a defiant and manipulative statement that will, I believe, ultimately undo one.

The speech had to do four difficult things. First, it had to both be forthcoming and seem forthcoming. Second, it had to elicit from the audience sympathy, empathy, a desire on the part of Americans to make the collective leap from the pursuit of justice to the bestowing of mercy. Third, it had to answer more questions than it raised. And fourth, it had to make the case that it is in our interests as a great nation to move on; it had to end this story by taking the steam out of it.

It failed on all counts. The President was not and did not appear to be forthcoming. His previous untruthful statements were “legally accurate,” though he did not “volunteer information.” He had a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was “not appropriate.” His public comments and his silence gave “a false impression.” He regrets this. He used the lawyerly locutions of one who is using words not to reveal but to conceal. He could not resist the self-indulgent—he was the victim of questions raised “in a politically inspired lawsuit which has since been dismissed.” He meant to show conviction and instead revealed arrogance—”It’s nobody’s business but ours.”

The speech did not elicit sympathy because he was not tough on himself. He was, instead, tough on the independent prosecutor. His demeanor was not that of a strong man in a moment of contrition but that of a defensive man in a moment of aggression. There was no trust in his speech, no sense that he knew he could trust the compassion of the people he leads. When you fail to trust the people, they notice and are not warmed. More to the point, they are left uninclined to give you what you don’t give them. He did not explicitly apologize for having forced the country through seven solid months of mystery, distraction and embarrassment. He suggested this was the fault of an overzealous prosecution.

He raised more questions than he answered. What was the nature of the relationship that was “not appropriate”?

Why was it “wrong”? What did the patronizing “Even Presidents have private lives” mean? Does it mean that Presidents can have sexual relations with 21-year-olds in the room next to the Oval Office and that if we look into it we are “prying into private lives”? Has he learned anything? Will this happen again? Is it quite right for him to instruct the public to “turn away from the spectacle” and “repair the fabric of our national discourse”? Who caused this spectacle? Whose actions led to the most recent deep tearing of the fabric?

I should note here that just before the speech, a guest on Larry King Live said the President should “do a 100% grovel.” The American President cannot, should not, must not grovel. But a strong man can tell hard truths; can be tough on himself; can, through painful candor, inspire a nation to be its best, most generous self. But he must be his best, most generous self first.

Because he was grudging and graceless, because he was not utterly candid and unsparing, because he kept alive old questions and gave life to new ones, because he was his worst self, Bill Clinton did not end this story. He left his friends what they so often are, embarrassed, and his enemies emboldened. He did not rob the engine of its steam. He did the one thing he absolutely could not afford to do: he stoked the fire.

Are we surprised by all this? I was. Clinton has usually been equal to the moment. He has never been eloquent, merely verbal, and he has never—how to put it?—stunned us with his brilliance. But he has often been shrewd, and he has always shown the skills of the survivor. He has always, too, acted the public part of the presidency with ease and burly vanity. The other night on TV I saw a videotape of Clinton walking along the White House lawn, his hands clasped thoughtfully behind his back, his face a shaded mask of contemplation. In physical attitude and facial expression he looked exactly like the lovely White House portrait of President Kennedy. And you know what I am sure he was thinking as he walked by the cameras? He was thinking, “I look exactly like the lovely portrait of President Kennedy.”

So he can act, and does. Why was his acting so bad the other night? I don’t think he was acting. I think he’s tired. I think he dropped the mask. I think it was the real Bill. And I think that for a lot of people the glimpse was unsettling.

But the speech was one thing all speeches want to be. It was historic. It changed things. Alice Roosevelt Longworth once explained the scandal-plagued President Warren Harding to a friend: “Harding was not a bad man, he was just a slob.” For six years, Bill Clinton’s countrymen have thought that for all his messiness and melodrama, he was a basically good fellow, our Bubba, our flawed and favored good ole boy. But after this speech, with its sullen anger and trimming, a chord may have been broken, an estrangement begun. Something tells me “He’s not a slob, he’s a bad man” is on the way, which will be especially wounding for one who so needily gulps the people’s approbation.

Early reports are that Hillary Clinton had a hand in the speech. This would seem to suggest that Dr. Freud was right: a person who has been hurt by another individual will sometimes take unconscious revenge.

Ronald Reagan

Clare Boothe Luce famously said that each President is remembered for a sentence: “He freed the slaves”; “He made the Louisiana Purchase.” You have to figure out your sentence, she used to tell John Kennedy, who would nod thoughtfully and then grouse when she left. Ronald Reagan knew, going in, the sentence he wanted, and he got it. He guided the American victory in the cold war. Under his leadership, a conflict that had absorbed a half-century of Western blood and treasure was ended—and the good guys finally won.

It is good to think of how he did it, because the gifts he brought to resolving the conflict reflected very much who he was as a man. He began with a common-sense conviction that the Soviets were not a people to be contained but a system to be defeated. This put him at odds with the long-held view of the foreign-policy elites in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, but Reagan had an old-fashioned sense that Americans could do any good thing if God blessed the effort. Removing expansionary communism from the world stage was a right and good thing, and why would God not smile upon it?

He was a historical romantic, his biographer Edmund Morris says, and that’s about right. He was one tough romantic, though.

When Reagan first entered politics, in 1964, Khrushchev had already promised to bury the U.S., Sputnik had been launched and missiles placed in Cuba. It seemed reasonable to think the Soviets might someday overtake the West. By the time Reagan made a serious run for the presidency, in 1976, it was easy to think the Soviets might conquer America militarily.

But Reagan said no. When he became President, he did what he had promised for a decade to do: he said we were going to rearm, and we built up the U.S. military. He boosted defense spending to make it clear to the Soviets and the world—and to America—that the U.S. did not intend to lose.

As President, he kept pressure on the Soviets at a time when they were beginning to fail internally. He pushed for SDI, the strategic defense missile system that was rightly understood by the Soviets as both a financial challenge and an intimidating expression of the power of U.S. scientific innovation.

There are those who say it was all a bluff, that such a system could never have been and will never be successfully developed. Put that aside for a moment, and consider a more relevant fact: If it was a bluff, the Soviets didn’t know it. And more to the point, Reagan as President had the credibility with the Soviets to make a serious threat. (And a particularly Reaganesque threat it was: he said not only would we build SDI, but we would also share it with them.)

Reagan’s actions toward the Soviets were matched by his constant rhetorical pounding of communism. He kept it up, for eight years, from “the evil empire” to “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” a constant attempt to use words to educate and inspire.

Margaret Thatcher said it best: he took words and sent them out to fight for us. He never stopped trying to persuade, to win the world over, to help it think about the nature of democracy and the nature of communism, and to consider which system it was that threatened the world’s peace.

In doing all this—in insisting that, as the sign he kept on his desk in the Oval Office said, IT CAN BE DONE—he kept up the morale of the anticommunist West. And not only Americans. When Natan Sharansky was freed after nine years in the gulag, he went to the White House and asked Reagan never to stop his hard-line speeches. Sharansky said news of those speeches was passed from prisoner to prisoner in the forced-labor camps.

After eight years of Reagan and his constant efforts, the Soviet Union collapsed. And Kremlin chieftains who had once promised to bury us were now asking for inclusion in NATO. That this is now a commonplace—ho-hum, the Berlin Wall fell—is proof of how quickly we absorb the astounding. An elderly woman I know was at lunch at a great resort one day before World War I began. Suddenly from the sky, one of those new flying machines, an aeroplane, which no one there had ever seen, zoomed in to land on the smooth, rolling lawn. Everyone ran out to look at this marvel and touch it. What, she was asked 70 years later, did you do after that? “We went inside and finished lunch.”

That’s what the world did after the Wall came down, and is doing now. We went inside and finished lunch. But it is good to remember: a marvel had visited, had come down and landed on the lawn, even though such things are impossible. And it’s good to remember that though many people built and funded and sacrificed for the “plane,” Ronald Reagan was its pilot.

Domestically, he was no less a smasher of the status quo, a leader for serious and “impossible” change. F.D.R., the great President of Reagan’s young manhood and from whom he learned the sound and tone and tense of the presidency, convinced the country in the 1930s that only the bounty and power of the Federal establishment could fully heal a wounded country. Reagan convinced (or reminded) the country that the bounty came from us, the people, that the power was absorbed from us, the people, and that we the people would benefit from a good portion of their return. Reagan had a libertarian conviction, which is really an old American conviction, that power is best and most justly wielded from the individual to the community to the state and then the Federal Government—and not from the Federal Government on down. He thought, as Jefferson said, that that government governs best that governs least. He wanted to shrink the bloated monster; he wanted to cut very seriously the amount of money the monster took from the citizenry each year in taxes.

He was not afraid to speak on school prayer and abortion, though his aides warned him it hurt him in the polls. He cared about the polls but refused to let them silence him. Abortion is wrong, he said, because it both kills and coarsens.

In doing all this, in taking the actions he took at home and abroad, in using words and conviction and character to fight, he produced the biggest, most successful and most meaningful presidency since Franklin Roosevelt’s. In fact, when you look at the great Presidents of this century, I think it comes down to two Roosevelts and a Reagan. Reagan kept Teddy’s picture in his Cabinet Room, in part because he loved T.R.’s brio in tackling the big questions.

The result of Reagan’s presidency? I asked him a few years after he left office what he thought his legacy was, how he would sum it up. It wasn’t a very Reagan question: he didn’t think much about his personal place in history, he thought about what was right and then tried to do it. But he told me he thought his eight years could be summed up this way: “He tried to expand the frontiers of human freedom in a world at peace with itself.”

He came from nowhere, not from Hyannis or Greenwich but from nowhere. He was born above a store in Tampico, Ill., born in fact 16 years before Lucky Lindy landed in Paris. It is easy to romanticize the Midwest Reagan came from, but he didn’t. “There was nothing in those towns,” he told me when I asked, years ago, why he left. He wanted more, and got it, in Hollywood and beyond. But he was not just a lucky and blessed young man, a bright fellow smiled on by the gods. He had grit.

He showed one kind of grit by becoming a conservative in Hollywood in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Just when everyone else was going left, particularly everyone in Hollywood who could enhance his career, he was going right. But he held to his position. It is easier to have convictions when they are shared by everyone around you; it is easier to hold to those convictions when you are surrounded by like-minded people. He almost never was.

He could take it in the face and keep on walking. Reaganites like to point to his 1976 run for the presidency, when he came within an inch of unseating Jerry Ford. When Reagan lost, he gave a valiant speech to his followers in which he spoke of the cause and signaled that he’d be back.

But I like to remember this: Reagan played Vegas. In 1954, when demand for his acting services was slowing, Reagan emceed a variety act to make money and keep his name in the air. He didn’t like doing it. But it was what he had to do, so he did it. The point is he knew what it was to be through, to have people not answer your calls. When I thought about this time in his life once, I thought, All the great ones have known failure, but only the greatest of the great use it. He always used his. It deepened him and sharpened him.

What was it that made him great? You can argue that great moments call forth great leaders, that the ‘20s brought forth a Harding, but the dramatic and demanding ‘30s and ‘80s summoned an F.D.R. and a Reagan. In Reagan’s case, there was also something else. It was that he didn’t become President to reach some egocentric sense of personal destiny; he didn’t need the presidency, and he didn’t go for it because of some strange vanity, some weird desire to be loved or a need of power to fill the empty spaces within. He didn’t want the presidency in order to be a big man. He wanted the presidency so that he could do big things.

I think as we look back we will see him as the last gentleman of American politics. He was as courtly and well mannered as Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich are not. He was a person of dignity and weight, warmth and wit. The English say a gentleman is one who never insults another by accident, but Reagan took it a step further: he wouldn’t insult another on purpose.

For all that, there was of course his famous detachment. I never understood it, and neither, from what I’ve seen, did anyone else. It is true that when you worked for him, whether for two years or 20, he didn’t care that much about your feelings. His saving grace—and it is a big one, a key one to his nature—is that he didn’t care much about his feelings either. The cause was all, the effort to make the world calmer and the country freer was all.

Reagan’s achievements were adult achievements, but when I think of him now I think of the reaction he got from the young. It was as if some mutual sweetness were sensed on both sides.

The man who ran speechwriting in the Reagan White House was Bently Elliott, and Ben’s secretary was a woman in her early 20s named Donna. She adored Reagan. When he came back from long trips, when his helicopter landed on the White House lawn, the sound and whirr of the engine and blades would make our offices shake. We’d all stop and listen. Donna would call out, spoofing the mother in a ‘50s sitcom, “Daddy’s home!” But you know, that’s how I think a lot of people felt when Reagan was in the White House: Daddy’s home. A wise and brave and responsible man is running things. And that’s a good way to feel.

Another memory. Ben Elliott went with Reagan on his trip to China in 1984. Reagan spoke everywhere, as the ruling gerontocracy watched and weighed. The elders did not notice that the young of China were falling in love with the American President (that love was expressed in part in Beijing’s great square during the democracy movement of 1989). One day as Reagan spoke about the history of America and the nature of democracy, a young Chinese student, standing in the back and listening to the translation, turned to the American visitor, Ben Elliott. He didn’t know much English, but he turned to Ben, pointed toward Reagan and said, eyes shining, “He is great Yankeeman.”

One great Yankeeman is exactly what he was, and is.

A Combatant In The World

Such joy. It was the spring of 1985, and President Reagan had just given Mother Teresa the Medal of Freedom in a Rose Garden ceremony. As she left, she walked down the corridor between the Oval Office and the West Wing drive, and there she was, turning my way. What a sight: a saint in a sari coming down the White House hall. As she came nearer, I could not help it: I bowed. “Mother,” I said, “I just want to touch your hand.” She looked up at me—it may have been one of God’s subtle jokes that his exalted child spent her life looking up to everyone else—and said only two words. Later I would realize that they were the message of her mission. “Luff Gott,” she said. Love God. She pressed into my hand a poem she had written, as she glided away in a swoosh of habit.

I took the poem from its frame the day she died. It is free verse, 79 lines, and is called “Mother’s Meditation (In the Hospital).” In it she reflects on Christ’s question to his apostles: “Who do you say I am?” She notes that he was the boy born in Bethlehem, “put in the manger full of straw…kept warm by the breath of the donkey,” who grew up to be “an ordinary man without much learning.”

Donkeys are not noble; straw is common; and it was among the ordinary and ignoble, the poor and sick, that she chose to labor. Her mission was for them and among them, and you have to be a pretty tough character to organize a little universe that exists to help people other people aren’t interested in helping.

That’s how she struck me when I met her and as I watched her life. She was tough. There was the worn and weathered face, the abrupt and definite speech. We think saints are soft, ethereal, pious and meek. But some saints are steamrollers, and great saints are great organizers, great operators, great combatants in the world.

Once I saw her in a breathtaking act of courage. She was the speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington in 1995. All the Washington Establishment was there, plus a few thousand born-again Christians, orthodox Catholics and Jews, and searchers looking for a faith. Mother Teresa was introduced, and she spoke of God, of love, of families. She said we must love one another and care for one another. There were great purrs of agreement.

But as the speech continued it became more pointed. She asked, “Do you do enough to make sure your parents, in the old people’s homes, feel your love? Do you bring them each day your joy and caring?” The baby boomers in the audience began to shift in their seats. And she continued. “I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion,” she said, and then she told them why, in uncompromising terms. For about 1.3 seconds there was complete silence, then applause built and swept across the room. But not everyone: the President and the First Lady, the Vice President and Mrs. Gore, looked like seated statues at Madame Tussaud’s, glistening in the lights and moving not a muscle. She didn’t stop there either, but went on to explain why artificial birth control is bad and why Protestants who separate faith from works are making a mistake. When she was finished, there was almost no one she hadn’t offended. A U.S. Senator turned to his wife and said, “Is my jaw up yet?”

Talk about speaking truth to power! But Mother Teresa didn’t care, and she wasn’t afraid. The poem she gave me included her personal answers to Christ’s question. She said he is “the Truth to be told…the Way to be walked…the Light to be lit.” She took her own advice and lived a whole life that showed it.

Dole’s Long Road

In a more or less conservative country, the more or less conservative candidate—Bob Dole—should have been a shoo-in for the presidency, especially against a feckless charmer whose Administration threw off scandal like spores. But until the end, Dole was barely competitive, and in the end he lost. There are three schools of thought on why. The first:

Everything went wrong. Dole was so bloodied and bankrupted by Steve Forbes in the primaries that he never fully recovered. The choice of Kemp for Vice President seemed bold, but Kemp as candidate was not: he was weak and embarrassing. The Republicans took an early pounding on Medicare and were late in understanding the impact of a year’s worth of anti-G.O.P. spots from what should once again be called Big Labor. The President’s luck on almost everything held—until the very end.

Clinton’s people were better. Clinton surrounded himself with tough and talented tigers who spoke with authority because they had been in the meeting. Dole surrounded himself with second-raters who had the easy arrogance of national-campaign veterans and no national-campaign experience. In the last month they got up every day with what a Washington insider called two and only two objectives: not to get fired and to blame everything on Dole. They succeeded. That was staff. The lobbyists around Dole seemed more interested in getting a piece of the media buy than helping him win.

Dole got no breaks. But then he made no breaks for himself. He didn’t do the obvious, didn’t take full advantage of the conventions of modern campaigning, like the free media of radio talk shows. And he didn’t do the daring—picking a Cabinet in advance, making it Our Team vs. Their Team.

That is one school. Here is another:

It all came down to two things. The year began with two reigning cliches. One was that the incumbent would win because the economy was good; the other was that Dole was too old. Normally in an election the early cliches are replaced by newer cliches, but not this time. The good economy denied the challenger the traction he needed to move forward. As for Dole’s age, the best political commentary I heard all year came one morning on C-SPAN during the Republican Convention in San Diego. An elderly woman called in to say why she couldn’t back Dole. I am his age, she said, and people our age—they shouldn’t let us drive! Have you seen us on the highway? They shouldn’t give us licenses!

Reagan was almost 70 when he was elected the first time, and he was not too old. But Dole at 73 was, because he had the crochets of old age—crabbiness, defensiveness. Reagan looked forward toward the horizon, saw the city on a hill and said, Let’s go there. Dole looked back and saw flat Kansas, the boarders living upstairs and the family in the basement. He was emotionally landlocked. Where Reagan had a vision, Dole had only a picture: of Bob Dole sitting at a desk in the Oval Office and doing a good job. But a picture is not a vision, and Dole’s picture wasn’t enough.

There is a third school on Dole’s loss. It has to do with limitations—and not all the limits were his:

True, he never said anything interesting. On the stump he seemed like a man caught in a 1983 applause-line factory. He never thought aloud in his speeches, never offered the sustained and layered argument that precedes the applause line. He just declared things—And there’ll be no more crime in a Dole Administration!—and waited for people to clap as he cleared his throat. Every time I saw him on C-SPAN, his sentences lay there like half-dead fish flopping on the dock.

An almost poignant note: His staff advised him as to the modern media convention that a politician has to repeat his message relentlessly. They perhaps didn’t notice he didn’t have a message. So he took to repeating phrases endlessly: It’s about your money…your money…your money. I thought the media were exaggerating the tic until I saw him on the stump and found they didn’t report half of what they came to call the trifectas.

Dole ran on the wrong issues. More than most candidates, he needed the right ones to justify running at his age. In a good economy he shouldn’t have banked everything on a 15% tax cut, should instead have pushed a tax cut within the larger context of going after the biggest corrupter in American life, the IRS. He should have echoed Forbes: tear it down and sow the field with salt.

He made no use of a big issue: a latent anxiety about Clinton’s competence if something bad happens. Everyone in the country knows Clinton has had four years of good luck, and they all know luck doesn’t come in eight-year doses. Much could have been made of Clinton’s lack of international sophistication.

Clinton successfully obscured every issue. All politicians know how to dance, but boy, can this boy foxtrot. Clinton ran as champion of the family, knowing he could obscure the issue if he turned it into something else. And so family values became parental leave. It was brilliant. Dole never called him on it.

Clinton got away with having one of the most scandal-plagued Administrations in U.S. history. Perot gave a good speech detailing the scandal in this Administration and outlining its implications. Dole never made the case, only used applause lines—”some barroom bouncer named Craig Livingstone!” Dole never nailed Clinton in a way that said to the people: This isn’t just a partisan matter; this is a level of corruption that actually endangers our country.

The media played favorites by refusing to obsess on Clinton’s scandals. The other day at a Dole rally in New Orleans, a reporter was assailed by two Dole supporters who said the media are in the tank for Clinton and don’t report the scandals. The reporter answered, honestly, that the media had reported all the allegations against Clinton. But what the Dole supporters meant and didn’t say was this: the media failed to crusade against the scandals of the Clinton Administration as they’d obsessed on Watergate, on Iran-contra, on Ray Donovan and Ed Meese and all the smallest scandals of the Republican presidencies. They reported the Clinton scandals—and then let them go, released them like balloons into the air, where they disappeared.

Could any Republican have defeated the Great Conniver? I think so. A fighter aware of and engaged by the things that bedevil our country, a thinker able to speak with such clarity and simplicity that his words move people to action. That is not what the Republicans had this year in Bob Dole. But considering all he had against him, including himself, the percentage of the vote he won was a kind of triumph, even a kind of tribute to his gritty and stubborn endurance.

The Captain Of His Soul

On the stump those last days, Bob Dole’s campaign was more local than national—the taped Sousa marches, the town bigwig at the mike vamping in front of an audience in elephant hats. Then Dole would come out from behind the stage, parting the polyester-blue curtain, and enact the body language of victory—thumb up, quick-flash smile, the arm that doesn’t hold the pen punching the air in a go-get-’em arc. The crowd would always stand and applaud. “We love you, Bob!” someone would yell, and the unmuffled sound would echo too well, because the hall was always half empty.

He didn’t look bitter or lost that last week, didn’t look—concussed, as big losers of past history have. He just looked like a man who was enacting a campaign rather than waging it. And I stood in the back of the hall and thought, He’s losing with grace because losing is something he knows how to do. I thought of the old poem Invictus:

Out of the night that covers me, Black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance My head is bloody, but unbowed.

I think that’s how he saw himself at the end. Invictus, one of F.D.R.’s favorite poems, was popular in the storm-tossed 1940s and would have been known to a lieutenant named Dole. It is a poem about fierce human will, a poem you might call proud or braying, depending on your taste. And you could say the Dole campaign at the end was a similar kind of poem.

He drew the party faithful. A Dole campaign stop was not Reaganesque (20,000 adoring college students) or Bushian (mom and pop and the kids in the city square). Dole’s crowds were 400 and 600, often at small, third-tier colleges, and they were Republican believers. One night, on the Wednesday before the voting, at the Pontchartrain Center outside New Orleans, about 700 people showed up, a big crowd. It was dinnertime, after work, and they could have been home relaxing, watching TV, helping with homework, but instead they got in the van and drove on the highway to stand and cheer for a man who they knew would give a bad speech and who in a week would be an asterisk in a boring book.

The faithful lived up to their name. At Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee, there was the young mother in jeans, hair frosted blonde, a baby in her arms and a toddler in a stroller. She came late to the speech, flustered, and she was excited to be there to see a man who was running for President. When Dole was moving along the side of the gym talking and shaking hands, she saw the top of his head, his tanned brow and his combed, sprayed hair, and she said to someone, “That’s him—oh, I’ll never get there with the kids …” I turned and motioned to the stroller. “Go ahead,” I said. “I’ll watch him.” She looked at me as her brain rolled out the possibilities—the young mother said she last saw her son at a Dole rally when a member of the press offered to stay with him—and she jerked the stroller softly and barreled toward Dole, who was turning now and disappearing in a small sea of suits. “Oh,” she said as he left, “oooooooh!”

Those twilight days Dole took to talking about Dwight Eisenhower. He would tell crowds, I want you to be proud of your vote, just as I was proud years ago when I voted for General Eisenhower. Hearing him refer to his fellow Kansan, I realized Eisenhower was to Dole what F.D.R. was to Reagan—the prototype, the vivid President of his youth, the one who set the standard and the style. Do you remember Ike’s philosophy from the ‘52 campaign? Neither does anyone else. He didn’t have a philosophy; he barely had a discernible point of view. What he had was himself: I’m Ike. I ran the war, and I can run the White House, because I am me. The buttons said it all: I LIKE IKE.

Dole ran the same kind of campaign: I’m Bob Dole, and you know me: I ran the Senate; I’ve been here for 30 years; I’m solid and competent, the Big Bobster. But that won’t do anymore. The candidate must be himself, and more than himself: he must be the carrier of a point of view, the expression of certain assumptions. He must have a philosophy. You may say, but Clinton didn’t have a philosophy! And the answer is, sure he did—he had plenty of them.

Dole ran like Ike but without Ike’s air of inevitability, and without his sunny good fortune. But then Dole never saw himself as a fortunate son, and if you know his history, you know why. The story of his devastating war wound and recovery is so moving because trauma was at the heart of Dole, not only of the physical kind but in so much of his life that would follow. For he would enter the Republican Party just as the great wave of modern liberalism was washing across the American continent. He would rise to head the Republican National Committee just in time to see victory washed away with Watergate. He rose to lead his party in the Senate—only to find his time going not to securing victory but to limiting loss. He would run for President twice and lose and keep running.

It was a political life of great triumph—he did, after all, go for the very top job—but his victories obscured its persistent theme. And now here, in the last days of his last campaign, at the end of another long losing haul, he stood alone, with the faithful, the master of his fate, as the old poem says, the captain of his soul.

Welcome to Hard Truths

Bob Dole’s acceptance speech was big—stern, daring, even at moments Churchillian—but it was marked most by a kind of interrupted eloquence. The speech betrayed the weight of a few too many hands. Even in its strongest, most poetic passages there seemed to be something missing. When Dole stirringly pointed to the exits in the convention hall and declared the Republicans the party of Lincoln, he invited any bigoted delegates to leave, “as I stand here and hold this ground.” But the way the section was constructed, it seemed as if he were telling the party it was bigoted and no longer welcome at his convention.

The speech didn’t quite hang together. Yet it was a brave speech and deserves credit for its ambitions. It was brave first in that it ignored many of the time-honored conventions of political oratory, and did so in a way that asked a lot of the audience—especially the people in the hall. Half the delegates had been to dinner, had had a few drinks and were ready to rock. But Dole gave them little to play with. He didn’t offer much humor, didn’t inspire a chant, didn’t ask them to hoot ‘n’ holler.

What he asked them to do was stand there and think. And that is a lot to ask of a delegate surrounded by guys in elephant hats. But the most interesting part of the speech’s bravery was its high moral seriousness; it attempted to address what really ails America. And it did so while rejecting the florid optimism of political speeches and asserting instead that America is in trouble because of the way modern Americans have been living their lives. He scored the small corruptions of our lives, of ambition and unthinking selfishness that damage first individuals, then a whole society.

“Permissive and destructive behavior must be opposed,” Dole said, “honor and liberty must be restored.” How? Through personal “right conduct, every day at every level.” What stops us from rising above ourselves? The answer was beautifully put—if not utterly convincing: “It is because for too long we have had a leadership that has been unwilling to risk the truth…An Administration in its very existence communicates this day by day until it flows down like rain. And the rain becomes a river, and the river becomes a flood.”

But what worked on page didn’t always work onstage. Dole never seemed to “own” the speech, didn’t have it absorbed so deep it was bubbles in his blood. My guess is he never really liked it, but stuck with it because his previous collaboration with his speechwriter, the novelist Mark Helprin, was such a hit. Aaargh, eggheads all liked the resignation speech, do it again. There was a lovely spareness to certain small sections, and if it had been sustained, it would have resulted in elegance. Helprin had given Dole a first draft of the speech on April 22, then met with him roughly a dozen times to work on it. But in San Diego things unraveled when Dole asked for new writers. Soon sections of eloquence were followed by blocks of boilerplate. After more than a dozen drafts, Helprin turned in his beeper and went home to upstate New York. There he issued a statement. It said in part, “Early on I was happy to volunteer to Senator Dole a first draft of an acceptance speech, and he then made it his own…In the end the legitimate and understandable requirements of political speechwriting did not mesh with the principles of my profession, which I can in no circumstances abandon. So I stood down, without rancor.”

That is pretty strong rhetoric. Perhaps some of the best at the convention.

A Memo to Bob Dole

    FROM THE DESK OF PEGGY NOONAN
    TO: BOB DOLE
    DATE: JUNE 10, 1996

This week you leave the Senate, with a goodbye speech on the floor that is sure to be moving. Whatever happens in November, you’ve closed a great chapter of your life.

Now what? The standard thing to do is what all modern presidential candidates do: get on a plane and hop like a mighty flea from one end of the continent to the other. Your advance team will get the schedule late and throw events together haphazardly. They’ll put you in the wrong room with the wrong crowd, with the TelePrompTer shading part of your face and with a bunch of nine-year-olds standing behind you at the lectern with faces that say, “Mama, whatever I did to get put here, I won’t do it again!” That is, it’ll all be like your Macomb County event last week.

What should you do? Let’s start with your problems and work from there. You’re out of money and will be until roughly the time of the G.O.P. convention, when you get an infusion of federal funds. Your campaign is also, at the moment, without a kind of physical context. When people think of Bill Clinton they think of a big white house with pillars on Pennsylvania Avenue. When people think of Dole they used to think of the Senate floor, the wrong place but a place nonetheless. Now you are—where? On a tarmac without a tie.

You’re rootless, moneyless, groping toward a message. Is there a way to make a virtue of these disadvantages? Yes. It’s an idea that’s just begun bubbling up from the Republican ranks. (Ted Stevens and Slade Gorton are talking about it in the Senate.) It is simple, cheap, so old it’s new, so hokey that it has a startling cleanness about it.

It’s this: go home to Russell, Kansas. Go back to the house you and your brother and sisters grew up in, the house in which you waged your lonely battle to recover from the wounds of war. Wage the last great front-porch campaign of the 20th century. Now and until the convention, make that house and that porch the locus of your last great battle. Let the word go forth that you’ll meet with any American or group of Americans that has the wherewithal to get there and the patience to stand in line. Get them all in—farmers, fishermen, enviros, ranchers, housewives, fire fighters—and listen to them. Ask them what they most need from the next President, listen to them, learn from them.

This will be the first real front-porch campaign since 1920, when Warren Harding oozed to effortless victory. But before him the great front-porch campaign, the one that caused the phrase to be coined, was in 1896, by William McKinley, who sat on his porch in Canton, Ohio, and met with whoever came by. As William Safire once noted, McKinley “had good reason to stay at home . . . he was not the stem-winding orator his opponent, William Jennings Bryan, was.” He played to his strength, a strong personal presence. “I rang and walked in,” wrote an English journalist. “Mr. McKinley was sitting on a rocking chair not 10 feet from the door . . . he is gifted with a kindly courtesy that is plainly genuine and completely winning.”

Like you. You shrink in crowds and expand in private. Play to your strength. Sit on the porch with a glass of iced tea and have them come to you, as they should. Here are the reasons to do it:

It will give you place and context. Your campaign will reside in a place called Kansas, a square state in the middle of America. This is a good place to be.

It will give you a symbol—the old American porch, the kind people rocked on before the days of drive-by shootings. The symbol underscores a message: I stand for the heartland.

It will make you a better candidate. You’ll learn things you didn’t know. No matter how sensitive or astute, no man spends 36 years in Washington and doesn’t lose a sense of the texture of his country.

It will force the media to tell your story for you. Every major news outlet in America will send a crew and reporters. They’ll be forced to get to know Kansas towns and Kansas people. They’ll be forced to do feature stories on your life—this is where he played football, this is where they passed the cigar box to pay his hospital bills.

Every comedian in America will spoof it. Dennis Miller will rant, Al Franken will say Kansans are big fat idiots, Letterman will have a Top 10 Reasons I’m Really Sitting on This Porch. Fine. The more famous they make it, the more famous it becomes, the more present in the minds of people.

You’ve just begun thinking about this, as has your wife, but you haven’t really focused on it. But do.

By the way, McKinley and Harding won handily.