RALL: Decision '96: The Real Issues

Now that America appears to have survived the vile spectacle of the political conventions, it's obvious that our politicians have finally abandoned all pretense of principle. Last week, Clinton signed a Republican welfare reform bill that will make 21st Century Americans yearn for the quiet, prosperous Nineties, when everyone cared about one another and all they had to worry about was hollow-point bullets. Then ex-Senator Bob Dole, guardian of liberalism, accused Clinton of selling out the Democrats! Good business, as they said in Robocop, is where you find it.Difficult times call for adaptability, and the only way to survive an era in which perception is reality is to buy into perception. This isn't as shallow as it sounds -- after all, we judge our friends and coworkers on what they wear and what books they say they like. Seemingly trivial matters of taste and judgment can give you tremendous insights into someone's personality. For instance, you probably shouldn't lend your car to someone who wears overalls in public. Someone who prefers the book version of The Bridges of Madison County to the film is clearly an idiot. And don't be surprised if the next person you see wearing one of those black waist pouches keeps the ground-up bodies of her last five paperboys hidden in the walls of her house.We grouse that our leaders are tiny men obsessed with mundane imagery, but hey, we elected them. Now that everyone is busy working 60 hours a week at three jobs, who has the time to study party platforms and position papers? Our attention span is short because our time is even shorter, so we need to be able to take the measure of our elected officials quickly.Clinton's decision to support welfare reform that throws children on the streets and to betray workers with NAFTA/GATT caught by surprise the Democrats who had only read Clinton's speeches, but not those who studied his imagery. Here was a guy who met his wife at Yale Law but whose taste in music was limited to bluegrass. It's apparent that Clinton was a social climber from the start. Sucking up to the rich comes naturally to white trash made good, so no one should be confused by his signing a welfare bill that stabs his old trailer-park neighbors in the back.This fall, forget the promises and the debates. The real ideological action is taking shape in the realm of each candidate's personal image and habits. Inanity is a far more efficient an indicator than intellect. Here's what to look for when making your decision about a candidate:¥ The Golf Question. There's nothing intrinsically patrician about playing golf -- well, actually, there is. Remember that 1991 footage of George Bush teeing off while millions of middle managers were getting laid off? That's how he lost his own job. Golf is a ponderous bore for WASP retirees with too much time on their hands before they die -- the Leader of the Free World certainly shouldn't have free time to argue about handicaps.The cleverer Clinton is aware of golf's snooty imagery, but he still plays in public far too often for the good of his Gallup rating. Our last half-dozen leaders have putted the country to hell, but for the first time in decades, we have a rare opportunity to elect a man who doesn't golf -- Bob Dole. True, Dole's populist stance on this matter stems from his war injuries. So that leaves us with the troubling question: Would he golf if he could?¥ How many vacation days does (s)he take? What about naps? Americans only get two weeks off a year. Since they earn a tenth as much as the president, they think the president should get a tenth as many days off. Johnson, Nixon, and Carter understood the need to keep their jaunts to Plains and Key Biscayne on the sly. Reagan got away with sleeping through his presidency because we knew that his lack of governance was for the best. (Bush got no such credit.) Both Dole and Clinton value their annual breaks; this year, the hard-working Ross Perot's frenetic demeanor works to his advantage on the very pertinent vacation issue.¥ The TV Thing. Older readers will remember that Nixon installed three televisions so he could watch all three networks simultaneously. Among voters, the Tricky One's viewing style provoked both awe at his resistance to radiation and disgust at his gluttony for pop culturem -- this ambivalent response is typical of the way voters, and now historians, perceived Nixon.Above all, as a rule, presidents should not let it be known that they watch televised football -- a sport that only provides eight seconds of play per minute of broadcast. Bored football fans have little patience for someone who chews up $250,000 a year in taxpayer dollars spending their weekends the same lame way they do, when they could be off making peace with Libya or something.¥ What music does (s)he like? Dole says his favorite musical artist is the Glenn Miller Band, indicating that his tastes -- like his politics -- are outdated. Moreover, Glenn Miller sucked swamp water at the time. The tacky but ever-adaptable Clinton had never heard rock music until a college-level staffer popped a Fleetwood Mac tape in his limo's tape deck during the '92 campaign. Nixon liked Lawrence Welk, but bear in mind that this was before irony was invented. It is well-documented, however, that Jimmy Carter was a fan of punk and New Wave. Under his tenure, the White House record collection wore out three copies of the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bullocks LP. Clearly Carter was a man ahead of his time. Under Reagan, the Carter collection was boxed up and stored in the basement, next to the generally-accepted accounting principles.¥ The Copycat Factor. Which past leaders a politician admires is perhaps the most useful indicator of all. Second-term Nixon kept a bust of Lincoln behind him during speeches, provoking derision at the comparison, but it proved apt-the country has been divided ever since he resigned. Carter modeled his "fireside chats" after FDR. At least he aimed high. Reagan replaced the portrait of Jefferson in the Oval Office with Coolidge -- clearly an early warning sign of Alzheimer's. Clinton works on Truman's desk -- and we know what that Missouran did with the launch codes. Dole says he'll be Reagan, Jr., invoking the ghost of the Gipper to promote warmed-over supply-sider corporate giveaways and fraudulent tax cuts.Maybe it's not too late to draft Mondale.

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