I am a pencil

William Safire

September 04, 1992|By William Safire

ONE SIGN, up near the stage in the amphitheater, reads "Stills," inviting not moonshiners but still photographers.

Another, near good seats in the center, proclaims "Cameras," for the TV medium.

Behind them, the view largely blocked, is the designation "Radio and Pencils," which was where I took a seat at Wednesday's Bill Clinton rally at Montgomery College in Rockville.

What a deliciously archaic synecdoche: "pencils," to stand for "the writing press," much as "head" is the part used for the whole of "cattle." Most of the pencils around me take notes with laser-point pens or hand-held recorders or laptop computers and would not know a lead pencil from an antique quill, but the figure of speech is apt and original to this campaign.

I am a pencil. So is the 10-year-old boy sitting in the row below, laboriously writing an essay while we await the arrival of the candidate. I can make out the large block letters at the top of the page on his composition pad: "A Saga of Carnage," presumably about Hurricane Andrew; it is unlikely his topic is the plight of the Bosnians or Somalis.

The school chosen to be the setting for the day's public campaign event is the two-year community college in Montgomery County, a wealthy area in a Democratic state. It has good facilities and teachers, superb jewelry-making and crafts courses and is close enough to Washington to provide a useful suburban backdrop for a stump speech with emphasis on education during a day of political huddles.

The crowd is a couple of thousand nice people on a pleasant day. Many are bedecked in badges, festooned in ribbons of momentary authority.

Governor Clinton ambles in. I remember Richard Nixon explaining how a political leader should make an entrance, striding into a room or onto a stage briskly and authoritatively, taking charge -- but that's not the Clinton style. He eases his way to the platform, almost sleepily listens to the introductions and embarks on his speech in a folksy way.

What's good about his stump speech is this: Mr. Clinton speaks from notes but does not read at an audience, in contrast to President Bush, who is chained to his ever-changing text. The repeated Democratic message is health care, education, the new economy -- positive themes, delivered in a non-threatening way.

The general impression is that this guy means well and is not likely to do much harm, which befits a front-runner's strategy of playing not to lose.

What's not so good about the Clinton stump speech is this: He won't win by playing not to lose. He must sharpen and toughen his assault on the present deadness in the water -- and stop calling it the status quo. He has to learn to bring people out of their seats.

Unlike President Bush, who knows how to capitalize on current events, Mr. Clinton does not use a new fact to work himself into some passion. He briefly cited that day's economic news -- that personal income in real dollars had declined last year -- but with quicker staff work, could have made that shocker the centerpiece of his speech and made the network news with his most effective message: Times are tough.

The unwary candidate, pleased that the Bush family-values balloon has failed to rise, may be stepping into a generational trap. Mr. Bush charges that Democrats will raise taxes, striking fear into wage-earners; Mr. Clinton is counter-charging that Republicans will cut services, frightening retirees. Workers outnumber retirees; if these are the battle lines, Mr. Bush will win.

Here in the amphitheater, candidate Clinton is wrapping up, charging wonkily that the country is "undereducated, underorganized, underinvested and underled."

I'm underwhelmed. So is the kid doing his homework, who has made good progress with "A Saga of Carnage."

But the campaign is just getting started; the opposing candidates are sparring, not yet slugging; we undecideds are in no rush to make a decision; and the political carnage lies ahead. It's a great time to be a pencil.

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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