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The New Political Plotline.

Vying to Star in the National Movie

August 20, 2000|Neal Gabler | Neal Gabler is the author of "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood" and "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality."

NEW YORK — However much they sometimes lurch, careen or spin aimlessly, all elections ultimately resolve themselves into narratives. Either by design, the power of spontaneous coherence or both, they accrete into stories about who the candidates are and why they should lead, into a central plot about where the country has been and where it is headed. Successful candidates are invariably those whose stories manage to mesh with the American story. Or, put another way, the winning candidate is the one we can best imagine as the star of the national movie.

If the primary campaign was the first act of this electoral story, the conventions are the second. As for the parties, the basic plotlines of the slick Ed Sullivan variety show the Republicans threw in Philadelphia two weeks ago and the more ragged Queen for a Day convention the Democrats held last week in Los Angeles are remarkably similar for two parties engaged in trench warfare. The GOP trotted out a veritable Rainbow Coalition of speakers to demonstrate that the party was no longer a gaggle of angry white troglodytes, while the Democrats trumped them on the tolerance front by placing an Orthodox Jew on the ticket. After nearly 100 years of ethnics and minorities doing their best to pretend to be white Protestant Americans, both parties were acknowledging that the United States had changed. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) went around talking about his faith as if he were running for national rabbi, a vivid sign that we are all pluralists now.

In their platitudes, gaseous even by the abysmal standards to which most of us hold convention rhetoric, the conventions also demonstrated how little ideology now matters. Like the era of good feelings in the early 19th century, when the differences between the parties were small--mainly arguments over the benefits of the tariff--and elections close, we live in a time when the issues are less a matter of what the next president will do than how he does it. To paraphrase the famous declaration of early America that we are all republicans and we are all federalists, today we are all centrists.

Because both parties are selling essentially the same story to the American people--inclusion and compassion--the pundits have defined this as an election of personality rather than issues. As they see it, this is your high-school election writ large: the most popular guy in class versus the class grind.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush, we hear endlessly, is Mr. Congeniality. He's fun-loving and at ease, self-deprecating and good with a joke. Ever eager to seize on a metaphor when it can find one, the press took Bush's inability to identify world leaders in a quiz sprung by a Buffalo disc jockey as a sign of his intellectual insubstantiality. If he was to fulfill their (and his) narrative of a prodigal son, the media warned, he had to seem presidential when delivering his acceptance speech. He obliged by standing as straight and glum as a little boy in church. In 45 minutes, the media rapidly transformed him from a callow good ol' boy to a man of presidential mien. Thus, he advanced the storyline that this wild young hedonist was more St. Augustine than Bill Clinton--a man who had sowed his oats and was ready to lead.

According to these same pundits, Vice President Al Gore is Mr. Roboto, the kind of guy who always had his shirt's top button buttoned and his hair brilliantined. He is so incapable of spontaneity that even when he attempts it--appearing unannounced at the convention on Wednesday night to embrace his daughter Karenna--it seems to be just another ploy. Bush likes running for president, and people pick up on that. Gore makes it seem like a chore, something you have to tolerate to get to the fun stuff: policymaking. His personal storyline, then, is to prove he is human rather than the class wonk, though, on Thursday, he seemed intent on proving he is so good a wonk, he deserves the job.

Bush has based his campaign on this premise of personal charm: As long as you like him, it doesn't matter where he stands on the issues. He is the first presidential candidate since John F. Kennedy to deploy his appearance and his manner as his primary weapons. Gore's paradigm is the opposite: Even if you don't like him, you will like where he stands on the issues.

The problem with both these roles is neither takes into account the very narrative that the parties have just developed at their conventions. That narrative seems to demand of its putative star something beyond likability or command of policy. What that narrative seems to demand is credibility: the ability to convey to the American people sincerity and goodness of heart.

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