Archive for Thursday, October 26, 2000

Demeanor should matter

October 26, 2000


— "You've spent a quarter-century in public service and have worked a lot on these issues, obviously have mastered a lot of details of them. When you look across the stage, are you frustrated at all?"

Question to Al Gore, after the third debate, on ABC's "Good Morning America"

"Imagine that you watched the debates, particularly the first and third debates, with the sound muted."

Clawed by such questions or are they genuflections? from the tigers of the media, Al Gore knows his message is getting through. It is getting through the media in their role as his campaign's megaphones. The distilled essence of his campaign is:

Voters, I am going to speak slowly so you can follow this. You simply have no choice. You must vote for me because my opponent is an imbecile.

For example, George W. Bush's principal foreign policy adviser, Condoleezza Rice, says Bush favors termination of the U.S. peacekeeping role in the Balkans. Surely this is an idea about which intelligent people can differ. However, Gore responds that the idea is indicative of a failure of "understanding." His implication is that Bush (and presumably Rice, former provost of Stanford) cannot fathom serious matters.

The "Good Morning America" question implicitly commends Gore for being such a good sport about the intellectual slumming involved in debating the doltish two-term governor of the second-most populous state. The question illustrates the extent to which Gore's campaign has become an exercise in undisguised condescension. Democrats have done this before.

In 1952 and 1956, the Democratic nominee was an early prototype of Gore. Adlai Stevenson, governor of Illinois, was thought it is now not clear why to be quite an intellectual. Today Michael Barone, editor of the Almanac of American Politics and of "Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan," notes that when Stevenson died the only book on his bedside table was the Social Register. However, Stevenson, like Gore, was susceptible to strange ideas supposedly grounded in science.

After Gore offered himself as a presidential candidate in 1988, and the electorate emphatically said "No, thank you," Gore responded by writing a book, "Earth in the Balance," the theme of which is: Unless you people listen to me, you are doomed. In 1956, Stevenson suggested that the Earth might literally be in the balance. He said (Oct. 26, in Rock Island, Ill.) that his opponent, Dwight Eisenhower, favored nuclear weapons tests "that can shake the earth's axis."

Liberal intellectuals disdained Eisenhower. Stevenson (unlike Gore) spoke elegantly. Eisenhower's spoken syntax (he was a graceful writer) was sometimes indecipherable. Eisenhower won two landslides. The intelligentsia said the bovine electorate had been beguiled by Eisenhower's smile.

In 1980, Democrats again said voters really had no choice. Ronald Reagan was a simpleton. Reagan won handily. The intelligentsia, happiest when condescending, clung to the Smile Theory of History.

However, this year's election may turn on an aesthetic judgment. Demeanor may matter, and maybe it should. American politics usually has low ideological octane, so other calculations, such as likability ("I like Ike," was the ubiquitous slogan in 1952), can matter a lot.

Try this thought experiment. Imagine that you watched the debates, particularly the first and third debates, with the sound muted. You would have seen two strikingly different demeanors demeanors denoting political sensibilities.

Bush's ambling on the stage and his low-voltage delivery of his words exhibited a kind of behavioral modesty, analogous to and expressive of conservatism's modest expectations for the uses of government. Gore, for whom the debate rules were not a controlling legal authority, strode and gesticulated and generally overflowed with the sort of confidence with which liberalism would wield government for grant purposes.

First radio (Franklin Roosevelt became, in the words of impresario George S. Kaufman, "that grand old pal of the airwaves") and then television (the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960 was the first national coming-together around the electronic hearth) contributed to the inflation of the president into the constant commentator and commiserator about everything. This involves Americans in a peculiar (or so Americans once would have thought) intimacy with presidents.

Which is why a candidate's demeanor, as an indicator of political sensibility and as an unavoidable presence, should matter.

George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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