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Commentary | UNCONVENTIONAL THOUGHTS

Big Money Talks and Principles Walk

August 18, 2000|Richard Rodriguez | Richard Rodriguez is the author of "Days of Obligation: An Argument With My Mexican Father" (Viking) and an editor at Pacific News Service

The most important question being asked of our two major parties this year concerns the role of big money--soft money, big bucks--in our national politics. Lacking any sort of answer--and even though you didn't get invited last Sunday to Barbra Streisand's Malibu brunch--the Democrats and the Republicans both would like you to know that they are "inclusive."

Is this some kind of country or what? In Philadelphia, Gov. George W. Bush, who is fluent in Spanish and even has Mexicans in the family, decided to turn the GOP into the party of cha-cha.

Al Gore, a son of the South, is better at imitating the cadences of black Protestant ministers than he is at Spanish. But since everyone in national politics has decided that this is "the year of the Latino," Gore has brushed up his "Yanqui-Doodle."

Though his Spanish is weak, Gore has proved himself no slouch when it comes to inclusivity. He managed to trump the Republicans by naming Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman as his vice presidential running mate.

Lieberman is a liberal of the old school and out of place in the non-ideological, opportunistic political world that Bill Clinton mastered. But Lieberman helps Gore prove the Democratic Party's inclusivity by being a two-fer: He is religious and ethnic.

All this week, the network pundits--those white people who live in the same Maryland suburb and send their children to the same schools--have been remarking on what an astonishing thing it is that a "Jewish American" is running for national office.

The "American" designation here suggests that a Jew still needs the prop of allegiance. Nobody says "Baptist American." And for all the self-congratulatory talk of inclusive America, I wonder why it has taken so long for a Jew to be considered for national office. And how long will it take before we see a homosexual president or an atheist or a Muslim?

But I quibble. And besides, Lieberman's advantage to the Democrats was apparent from the first. In a campaign year that is beginning to look like a Yale-Harvard football game, Lieberman may be a Yalie, but he has a working-class past. And more, much more important: Lieberman refuses to put his religious beliefs in a closet. Indeed, he turned his first stump speech into a prayer.

One can imagine the chagrin within the Bush camp. The Texas governor had managed with some finesse to keep the resolutely non-inclusive religious right off the stage in Philadelphia. Lieberman's Judaism makes it possible for the Democrats to mention God, and Harry Golden, too.

Just so we wouldn't miss the inclusive point, Hadassah Lieberman, an immigrant and the daughter of Holocaust survivors, was not about to let the Spanish-speaking Bush family steal the ethnic sound bite. She declared herself one with all immigrants--one with the Mexicans, with the Vietnamese, etc.

Now that the conventions are done and the campaigns will begin in earnest, we should expect to hear many more assurances that America is, indeed, one large ethnic family. We should expect to hear a lot more Spanish from Gov. Bush; we should expect to hear Democrats talking about Jewish Americans.

Who knows? It may just work. It's possible that all the talk of inclusivity may just encourage the American public to forget the possibility that they are locked out of the real business of politics.

Months ago, the primary season began with John McCain and Bill Bradley telling us that our national politics are governed by big bucks and that, without serious reforms, we will end up with a plutocracy. To prove their point, both men lost to the more lavishly endowed candidates who had been chosen by party insiders.

Now there is only Ralph Nader and that other guy, the Libertarian whose name I can't remember, who threaten to spoil the party. Nader describes Washington as a city of lobbyists, where America's air and water and mineral rights get sold for the price of a banquet at the Washington Hilton.

There is also Pat Buchanan, who is a loon and dangerous, but real. Buchanan does speak about a group of Americans that never gets acknowledged in the new politics of inclusivity: the white working class.

Buchanan knows the white working-class anger in America. An anger against globalism and the North American Free Trade Agreement and the loss of jobs to immigrants. This same white working class paid the price of affirmative action, not the children of Gore or Clinton or Bush, who ended up--affirmative action or not--at all the good schools.

In coming weeks, we will doubtless hear about the Buddhist temple fund-raiser and about the Gore family's oil stock portfolio. We will also hear about Big Oil's support of Bush. We will hear about the retirement deal for Dick Cheney and the insurance companies' support of Connecticut's famous senator.

In the end, most Americans will not vote, claiming an inability to distinguish between Bush and Gore. During the two conventions, more Americans watched "Monday Night Football" and "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?" and, of course, "Survivor."

In the end, Americans are famished for "reality television." At a time when our politicians would burlesque democracy by giving us a pageant of ethnic pride, Americans are eager for the fiction of a group of middle-class buffoons, naked on an island, eating insects, dishing into the camera and humiliating themselves in order to win a million bucks. It looks like reality to us.

We expect the least-principled contender to win.

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