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'Ordinary' Isn't Bad for a President : Talk of Political Dwarfs Stems From Elites' Efforts to Control

December 27, 1987|LEWIS H. LAPHAM | Lewis H. Lapham is the editor of Harper's

For the last eight months the troupe of Democratic presidential candidates (once six, now seven) has received such consistently poor reviews that I assume the effect is deliberate. The censure is too unanimous, the consensus of disdain too easily accepted as revealed wisdom. Something about the uniform attitude of scorn is offensive, and I suspect that the bad press notices testify to a deep-seated prejudice against popular--a.k.a. "democratic"--government.

The editorial pages of the nation's better newspapers make smug remarks about "the seven dwarfs" and "the car pool." The high-minded columnists (the ones who ride in limousines and comb their hair for the television cameras) complain about the candidates' lack of substance, charm, force, wit, sense and stature. The condescending tone of voice--not only among the senior functionaries of the media but also on the part of senior hierarchs within the Democratic Party--expresses the distaste of a self-appointed elite for what it perceives to be the vulgarity of the common man.

Reduced to its fundamental harmonic structure, the criticism can be stated as follows:

"Who dares accost us with louts and dolts? What pigsty of a republic has the effrontery to send us so ragged a delegation of would-be kings? Look at them in their tacky blue suits and cheap red ties, aping the manners of their betters, mouthing their inane promises, reciting their lists of dreary statistics, boring us with their interminable debates, grinning their foolish, provincial grins. How can we be expected to take them seriously, we who have said good evening to Ted Koppel and dined with Donald Trump?"

Now that Gary Hart has had the gall to return from oblivion, the tone of fluttering indignation has ascended in pitch. What was merely bad taste has become deliberate insult. The columnists cluck their tongues like dowager aunts, reminding their nieces and nephews about the rules of sexual procedure and saying that the solemn ritual of a presidential campaign might be transformed into trivial burlesque. The Establishment press makes of Hart a creature who belongs not in the stately rooms of first-class celebrity but in the circus tent of the National Enquirer along with Elvis and Liz and Joan and Princess Di and the two-headed baby born in an alien galaxy.

The complaints betray an abysmal ignorance of American history and a profound fear of the democratic mob. None of the latter-day critics apparently know, or care to remember, that most American Presidents have proved themselves as resolutely second-rate as Benjamin Harrison, James Buchanan, Rutherford B. Hayes, William McKinley and Millard Fillmore. Nor, apparently, do the critics know, or wish to know, that in the music halls of American politics mediocrity is the norm, not the exception.

How could it be otherwise? Mediocrity is the common clay of the human condition. As in politics, so also in medicine, finance and literature. Most people (that is, the presiding majority) do not possess exceptional talents--not for making money, not for governing, not for writing sonnets or laws. A state governed according to the whim of genius (that is, by the exceptional minority) would prove to be a very unhappy place for those of us not counted among the company of the elect.

The democratic principle holds that the business of the state can be conducted by ordinary men, subject to the ordinary failures of character as well as to the moments of ordinary courage and intelligence. The lack of magical or divine intervention in the affairs of men is what Lincoln meant by a government "of the people, by the people and for the people." It is also what Joseph Alsop meant when he praised Richard Nixon for his capacity as a "workable plumbing fixture."

Under this republican definition of government the season's presidential candidates meet the historical standard of blind presumption. Govs. Michael Dukakis and Bruce Babbitt could stand in the shoes of Presidents James Garfield and Warren Harding; so could Rep. Richard Gephardt and Sens. Paul Simon and Albert Gore Jr. Each of the gentleman also could do creditable duty as the president of Citibank, the editor of Newsweek or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Why, then, the mincing smirks among the political gentry in New York and Washington? Why do the elder statesmen of the Democratic Party (people like Cyrus Vance and Robert Strauss and Walter Mondale) whisper to the media their disappointment in "the dwarfs" and "the car pool?" Why do the media devote so much of their limited span of attention to the two candidates--Jesse Jackson and Gary Hart--who stand not the slightest chance of winning next November's election? Why do they persist in imagining that Gov. Mario Cuomo and Sen. Bill Bradley--absent candidates as thoroughly mediocre as the ones already present--might somehow improve the presidential campaign with the facade of dignity?

The answer divides into two parts--the perennial and idiotic wish for the proverbial man on horseback on whom it is possible to project the illusion of omnipotence, and the desire to avoid any bargaining with the illiterate mob. The people who know better wish to take the presidential nomination back into the back room--back where it properly belongs in the hands of the privileged hacks. If no candidate comes to the convention with enough votes to ensure his nomination, then the people who know better can invest their own hireling with the trappings of political romance. The dealers in influence can exact the tribute of patronage, and the media can sell a fairy tale.

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