The Day of the Buccaneers

GEORGE F. WILL

April 02, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. Memo to candidate: Stop already. No one cares about pot at Oxford in 1968. And relax. It is now real hard to think of you as slick.

Slickness is less hard to swallow than righteousness, which brings us to Jerry Brown and Ross Perot, two political preachers whose mandates from heaven may cause them to run this fall as independents.

Critics miss the point when they say of Mr. Brown's campaign that he is making it up as he goes along. Actually, he is making himself up. He is yet another political Jay Gatsby, his own work of art. Critics also miss the point when they dwell on inconsistencies (taxation, free trade, campaign finance). Mr. Brown is the Sixties sensibility in action, the candidate of ''authenticity,'' whose sincerity -- once sincerely for something, now sincerely for its opposite -- is self-legitimizing.

Having announced that the two parties are indistinguishably corrupt, Mr. Brown, when asked if he will support the Democratic nominee, says yes -- ''if the conditions that I'm setting forth in my campaign are met.'' They are ''to forswear the whole way business is being done there [in Washington] . . . the whole process.''

Questioner: ''But you say that Governor Clinton is a perfect exemplar of what you deplore.'' Mr. Brown: ''Yes.''

So what has he got to lose from wrecking Democratic hopes now or perhaps in the autumn? Nothing.

Today his anthem is what Janis Joplin sang: ''Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.'' He is dangerous to the Democratic Party because he is free of the normal attachments of family and party that moderate the pursuit of power and the ferocity of factional fighting. He is running for something because running for office is what he does.

He is running for president rather than for either of the Democratic Senate nominations open in California this year. In part, because it is easier for a presidential candidate than for a Senate candidate to rely on free media -- news coverage.

Mr. Brown is a pure politician. Mr. Perot is a politician the way a daydreamer in the bleachers is a center fielder. They are alike in one particular: Each thinks he is the Last Honest Man.

Just when you thought the political season could not be sillier, up rides Mr. Perot with a bulletin about what America needs. It needs ''to analyze the problem'' using ''the engineering process'' to ''figure out good solutions.'' And the most ''fundamental'' thing is to take ''an hour'' on television for a ''detailed explanation'' of things to us. The sound you just heard was that of 250 million palms slapping 250 million foreheads, and a continent-wide exclamation, ''Gosh, why didn't we think of that?''

Americans respect status attained by exertion rather than by birth and perhaps it is natural in a commercial republic to assume that economic virtuosity implies non-economic virtues, such as wisdom. Americans who would never bend a knee or tug a forelock will applaud crashing banalities from billionaires.

CEOs like Mr. Perot operate command systems. Politics is a realm of persuasion. CEOs are used to deference, even sycophancy. Mr. Perot has had a steady diet of that for a long time. He will not be a happy candidate.

He could be consequential, but it is virtually impossible to predict the consequences of third or fourth parties. In 1948 the Democratic Party split from right and left, with Henry Wallace and Strom Thurmond leading splinters, and Truman won anyway. In 1912, when Woodrow Wilson became the answer to a trivia question (which president was elected by beating two presidents?), the incumbent Republican (Taft) ran third. But the man who ran second, Teddy Roosevelt of the Bull Moose party, was a political Niagara, compared to whom Messrs. Brown and Perot are puny creeks.

Besides, for either to remain interesting, the Democratic convention must jump off a cliff with Governor Clinton on Wednesday, July 15 -- nomination night. Numerous polls now show Mr. Clinton's negatives so astonishingly high that his nomination could be considered a decision to forfeit the election. That would mean at least 16 years -- from 1980 to 1996 -- would pass between competitive, clarifying campaigns.

If Democrats cannot send forth a serious challenge to an unserious president, then the world's oldest political party must be considered exhausted, and the day of the buccaneers -- Messrs. Brown and Perot -- will be at hand.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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