BRADLEY: Virtual Politics

The saying used to be: Is it live or is it Memorex? Ah, for the luxury of simpler times.Now we must ask a more sophisticated question: Is it real or is it virtual?With a timely assist from an unelected debates commission run by a matched pair of Washington lobbyists - Republican and Democrat -- political virtuality in this election year stands in barely disputed command of the field.The disconnected campaign of 1996 -- a virtual reality campaign, if you will, floating above and playing off of real world concerns, but seldom grappling with them -- lost perhaps its last chance for serious engagement when Ross Perot was reduced to a bargaining chip for the Clinton campaign and the other alternative candidates became official afterthoughts.In virtual politics, history is not so much made as it is replaced, with the limited mental space most Americans have for politics increasingly filled with junk. As is MTV and cyberspace, not to mention bad movies and TV shows, virtual politics is made up of a series of largely discontinuous moments shifting and blurring into an endless now.Its emblematic figure is Dick Morris, former chief strategist to a New Democrat president (Bill Clinton) and a New Right Senate majority leader (Trent Lott). Not because he works out of his home office with an under-powered laptop, but because he is the political scenarist as media programmer, ever sifting and selecting from a menu of moments, of political resonances detached from historical continuity and ideological coherency.In this, he is qualitatively different from the scenarists of the Reagan era. Like the man himself -- who came of age in the old motion picture culture of narrative continuity and consistent star personas - their proffered vision of the future flowed from and was bathed in the halcyon glow of an idealized history and a defined ideology.Morrisonian virtual politics isn't like that. It is of the moment, memorable within that moment, compelling when paid attention to, but not much beyond.In one such moment, Vice President Al Gore, a key Morris ally, provided the emotional highlight of the Democratic convention and eclipsed his reputation as a stiff. Holding the delegates and what there was of a national television audience in the proverbial palm of his hand, the once-and-future presidential candidate movingly described the political epiphany he experienced in 1984 upon the death of his sister Nancy, a heavy smoker since the age of 13, from lung cancer."That is why until I draw my last breath," he declared, "I will pour my heart and soul into the cause of protecting our children from the dangers of smoking." Which nearly brought a tear to my eye. But then, I have always loved the movies.Unfortunately, this scenario requires a greater suspension of disbelief than most movies. The purported epiphany Gore so movingly described last month simply didn't happen. Though very attentive and suitably distraught -- according to my former brother-in-law, who treated the vice president's late sister -- Gore made no such resolution and actually went on to boast of being a tobacco farmer during his 1988 presidential campaign!Unlike the incumbents, Bob Dole is not very good in the moment. But he is equally able to wrench his politics free from continuity. The man who used to relish telling this joke -- "There's good news and bad news. The good news is that a busload of supply-siders went off a cliff. The bad news is there were three empty seats." -- now bases his entire program on supply-side tax cuts. Unfortunately for Dole (a phrase which might be engraved on his campaign's tombstone), Clintonomics is best challenged from the left, not the right, by deconstructing its futuristic atmospherics.The president, of course, described by one insider as "locked in a mind-meld with Morris," is the master of virtual politics. His momentarily popular but militarily pointless missile attacks on Iraq point up the double-edged danger of virtual politics: Insubstantiality and evanescence on the one hand. And on the other, the problem illustrated by a Mark Twain story. In it, a man joins a gold rush to the netherworld after concocting the tale of the gold strike himself. It ends badly.

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