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Generation Zzzzzz

Maybe Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gray Davis isn't Mr. Exciting. OK, he isn't even Mr. Sort-of-Exciting. But in this jaded era, a breed of politicians is finding that bland is beautiful.

June 10, 1998|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A fourth killer asteroid, overlooked by Hollywood's "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon," is speeding toward Earth. But this time, instead of panic, there's calm.

Scientists laugh off suggestions of launching nuclear missiles or rocketing astronauts into space to destroy the dread rock. They've got a secret weapon.

They sit a solitary man in front of a microphone. They aim the signal carrying his voice at the center of the Earth-bound object. They tell the man to speak as he normally would: "Hi, my name is Gray Davis, and I'm running for governor of California."

The asteroid immediately explodes, dead from boredom.

This, of course, is an exaggeration for dramatic effect. There would be other people in the room if Davis spoke into the microphone.

Californians who've heard the lieutenant governor work his magic from a podium--and have been subsequently revived--know precisely the story's meaning. In blunt terms, Davis is boring. A regular Captain Bland. As inspiring as tap water or a bowl of butterless mashed potatoes.

"If you want to say the glass is half full, you'd say Gray exhibits steady, mature leadership," says Bill Carrick, a veteran political consultant and campaign manager for Jane Harman's bid for governor. "But if the glass is half empty, you'd say Gray is dull."

Even Davis' own campaign staff compares its candidate to the Washington, D.C.-based human tranquilizer, better known as Vice President Al Gore. The staff concedes that, in the past, its man Davis may have had trouble whipping anyone into a frenzy. But those days are history, staffers contend.

"Gray can be on the monotone side," acknowledges Davis' campaign press secretary, Chris Campana. "His years of giving flat and dull speeches are over."

Sure they are.

"Gray is a steady, methodical, insightful individual. When you get a person like that, you don't get an entertainer, you don't get a rock star," continues Campana.

You can say that again.

"Unfortunately, most policy questions aren't that exciting or interesting, and that's not to degrade the issues. Just ask an accountant how exciting accounting is," adds Campana.

Thanks, the former state controller on the stump is quite enough.

But Davis may well be among the first of a new breed of politician for the next millennium, argues Alan Caruba, founder and lone member of the Boring Institute in Maplewood, N.J. Voters are so overburdened by news and scandal that they simply don't care anymore, maintains Caruba, who gives Davis high marks for being boring. As long as the politician seems capable and is quiet, they'll support him, Caruba says.

"Gray Davis is the future of politics," Caruba says. "They won't make a lot of waves and won't occupy too much public attention. They'll have a deal with the voters--we'll leave you alone if you leave us alone."

And to his credit, Davis has publicly acknowledged he's charismatically challenged--a vital first step in recovery. While campaigning recently, Davis has cast a spell over many a crowd with an explainer of his lackluster demeanor.

Davis jokes, to the degree he's capable, that he has hired a commission to research his candidacy for governor. The make-believe commission reports back that the last two California governors (the Dynamic Duo of Boring, Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian) have been extremely boring. Therefore, if it's not too much of a stretch, the commission recommends that Davis act dull, too.

Zingers like that have led many California voters to suspect Davis is actually a Republican, the party that, historically, has produced the nation's most distinguished bores. Take Gerald Ford: Clumsiness is no substitute for personality. Though the confusion over party affiliations is understandable, Davis is, in fact, a Democrat. He's just more in the grand tradition of Hubert H. Humphrey and Michael Dukakis than a JFK.

A modicum of relief may not be far off, says Davis' campaign. For the general election, look for Davis to be more "upbeat" and "resounding." At least, that's the plan.

Too bad his campaign staff isn't calling for a transformation a la Warren Beatty's "Bulworth" for the man who refuses to try new dishes or new restaurants. For instance, what would happen to Davis' popularity if he started making public appearances with his hair all mussed?

Or if he canned "Gray" in favor of a color from the J. Crew catalog? Aubergine or tamarind, perhaps. Or if he dressed like Liberace for a day? Or if he just gave some heckler the finger?

Observers contend that, at this point in the race, any such acts that smack of a personality would be tantamount to political suicide. At the primary election earlier this month, observers say the California voters spoke in a loud, clear voice, declaring: "We only want someone boring."

"Gray has been in public life for 23 years, and if he suddenly showed up in a leisure suit doing a John Travolta imitation, people would be shocked," says Carrick. "Voters really aren't looking for him to be different."

To be sure, if voters fell asleep during the primary, their last act before nodding off was falling on the lever to vote for Davis. To many voters, observers say, Davis' apparently unimaginative style means more of the same--a prosperous state economy.

"Politics is timing, and he's hit the wave just right," says David Townsend, a longtime political consultant based in Sacramento. "They're not looking for a bombastic pulpit-pounding candidate. They're looking for a reasoned, caring, steady-as-you-go guy. That's Gray Davis."

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