CLINTON WATCH

The Politics of Personality

           IT BEGAN WITH Superman and ended with Saddam: Last week was a politician's wet dream for Bill Clinton, who roared out of Chicago with a commanding double-digit lead in the polls. In the last four decades, no presidential candidate who trailed by more than six points on Labor Day has won the election, so Bob Dole's defeat seems almost assured.

           The lachrymose Democratic convention was a perfect illustration of Gore Vidal's dictum that America has elections instead of politics. From Christopher Reeve's moving irrelevancies to keynoter Evan Bayh's recitation of his mother's breast cancer, every speaker followed the White House script and evoked personal tragedy, a threnody meant to co-opt the family values theme so dear to the Christian right. TV's talking heads proclaimed the Chicago telethon a technical triumph; only historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, on PBS, made the sensible point that this insistence on the personal is the antithesis of any notion of collective responsibility, which is the motor of political action.

           ABC's focus groupies rated Al Gore's tearful tale of how cigarettes killed his sister as the best convention speech. I've always found politicians who exploit their families to gain votes rather distasteful, but Gore is getting quite good at this sort of thing. Four years ago, his convention acceptance speech made similar use of his young son's near-death experience. This year, the cynicism of Gore's supposed death-bed pledge to eradicate Demon Nicotine was apparent to anyone who happened to catch a piece of videotape unearthed some weeks before by CNN.

           When Gore ran for president in 1988 as the candidate of the party's right, he grabbed every tobacco industry dollar he could and frenetically courted tobacco state votes. A video clip of a speech that year in North Carolina shows a red-faced Gore bellowing his fealty to the nasty leaf. "Throughout most of my life, I've raised tobacco" on the family farm, he intoned. "All of my life, I put it in the plant beds and transferred it. I've hoed it. I've chopped it. I've shredded it, spiked it, put it in the barn and stripped it and sold it." Gore was making speeches like this four years after his sister, who died in 1984, succumbed to lung cancer.

           But Gore's duplicity fit right in at a convention drenched in hypocrisy. Jesse Jackson and Mario Cuomo were allowed to mention their disagreement with Clinton's embrace of the Republican welfare abolition bill only because they gave him a blank check for four more years, arguing with tortured logic that Clinton should be re-elected to undo what he has just done. These hopes are but a snare and a delusion; as Pat Moynihan was quick to point out, even a Democratic Congress will not be able to restore children's aid, since that would require getting a majority of Democrats in both houses to flip-flop their positions and muster two-thirds of the Senate to stop a filibuster in the bargain.

           I'm not usually a fan of Maureen Dowd's work, but she got it right in her New York Times column when she noted that, after Chicago, there is nothing left of the Democratic Party but a cult of personality. Clinton has discarded his party's past, and even the platform is a very conservative document that declares the party's "first priority" to be not economic or social justice, but law and order. But history says that when presidents have tried to run away from their party, as did Eisenhower in 1956 and Nixon in 1972, the result is a loss in Congressional seats. Clinton's deracinated pseudo-Republicanism is unlikely to provide a coattail effect for more progressive Congressional aspirants.

           But the incompetent and sclerotic Dole candidacy is no match for Slick Willy, especially now that Saddam Hussein has given Clinton the excuse for a little war-making. What better way to clinch an election against a one-armed war hero than by raining death on Iraq? The cruise missiles are being prepared for launch as this is written; when they fly, this election will be effectively over, except for the body count.

 
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