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The Good Times Roll and Roll and . . .

August 18, 2000|JOHN BALZAR

If we open a quarrel between the present and the past, we shall be in danger of losing the future.

Winston Churchill said that.

John F. Kennedy retold the adage in his acceptance speech when Democrats last held a nominating convention in Los Angeles.

The future is the high mountain meadow of politics. Beds of clover, grand vistas, warm sunshine, rainbows spilling pots of gold. Everything before, let's face it, is the long trail to get us there. Loose rocks, poison ivy, thunderstorms, an occasional avalanche.

Political conventions are one of those intervals when we regroup. We size up those who seek to lead the next pitch of the climb.

What will history say about the conventions of 2000?

In the main, we were promised a jaunty, carefree stroll ahead.

We're on the "sunrise side of the mountain," as Bush put it.

"A new journey to the best America," says Gore.


Forget sacrifice, toil and duty--those staples of Churchill and Kennedy. These are days of plenty. And don't worry about anyone lagging behind, they'll get caught up. Nobody is going to get sore feet or carry a heavier load, either. Weather report: CAVU. Clear above, visibility unlimited.

The campaign 2000 platforms adopted at these two conventions opened on a single note:

* America finds itself in the midst of prosperity, progress, and peace. . . . This election will be about the big choices we have to make to secure prosperity that is broadly shared and progress that reaches all families in this new American century.

* Our commitment to the nation's economic growth is an affirmation of the real riches of our country: the works of compassion that link home to home, community to community, and hand to helping hand.

Does it matter if we don't identify which party wrote which?

The 2000 conventions were not about government "by" the people. They were marketing presentations by service agencies "for" the people. Nanny, Sherpa and first-aid assistance for Americans on the go.

No wonder these conventions lost their audience. Who among us has time, really, to hang around too long with the hired help?

But don't fault politicians. They may be marketers, but they are smart marketers. They respond to continuous, instantaneous readings of the heart rate and blood pressure of the body politic. They know the moment a blister or muscle cramp is coming on.

Fifty percent plus one of the American democracy--and probably a lot more--are not looking for leadership in the true sense of the word. Leaders are who you need when you're uncertain about the path ahead and how to traverse the obstacles.

For now, the route looks straight and unhindered. The 50-plus-one of us wants a cut-rate package deal on trail-side services as we make our way--keeping the brush trimmed so we don't stumble into thorns and, perhaps, lifting an occasional wind-blown tree out of the path.

And we ask that it be done with good cheer by proper gentlemen, the kind of fellows who know how to read a bedtime story to the children. Bush left the GOP convention reminding America that his wife has a lovely smile. Gore arrived at the Democratic convention proclaiming love for his wife. That's what we expect from service providers right now. That's how they earn their tips.


What will history say of the 2000 presidential nominating conventions? Less about what America got than what it wanted.

And who can blame us for our human nature?

During another storied boom time, in 1928, Americans nominated the "Happy Warrior," Democrat Al Smith. The GOP went for a big ten candidate, the nation's former welfare chief and Red Cross disaster director--the original compassionate conservative, Mr. Chicken in All Pots.

"Ours is a land rich in resources, stimulating in its glorious beauty, filled with millions of happy homes, blessed with comfort and opportunity. In no nation are the fruits of accomplishment more secure," said Herbert Hoover.

The Depression began eight months after Hoover's election. Too swiftly for people to mount a retreat, the trail crumbled underfoot.

Three years later, the Democrats nominated Franklin D. Roosevelt, who understood the volatile, ever-changing relationship between voters and politicians. A candidate, he said, must serve as "the present instrument of their wishes."

Roosevelt would later reflect on the lesson of boom and bust: "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics."

Perhaps the grandiloquent point of Churchill and Kennedy is not universally applicable after all. Sometimes a quarrel between the present and the past raises sparks. And by their light, we can see. The trail is not always as smooth as it appears. You never know when we may need a leader up front.

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