Doleful state of the presidential race

July 25, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- Can you believe it? It's late July already, time to steam some crabs and ponder a trip downyocean. Oh yes, and time to write off Bob Dole.

As a serious presidential candidate, poor Senator Dole is history, all the important commentators agree. The leftish ones are mostly relieved, and some of the rightish ones are saying that the senator ought to drop out now and let the Republican convention give the nomination to someone else.

Columnist Dave Barry, without taking sides, says this election seems to be between Grumpy and Weepy. And indeed the senator does come across as an old-school lemon-sucker. If he tries kissing any babies out there on the hustings, they'll surely wail in terror.

Women, the polls seem to show, don't like him either. And now men who saw him on the Larry King show with his wife, the magnolia-voiced attorney with the eyes of steel, are afraid he's henpecked. His current positions on such things as partial-birth abortions and assault weapons are deliberately vague, and that gets him accused of timidity.

Then there are the gaffes of his campaign. The most recent of these was his decision not to attend the convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Even though he had about as much political support there as he could expect at one of Ben Bradlee's and and Sally Quinn's Georgetown soirees, this was considered a disastrous blunder.

But it might be just a tick premature for Senator Dole to throw in the towel.

Now I could be wrong about this, but it seems to me that when Ronald Reagan was running against President Jimmy Carter in the summer of 1980, I remember the press commenting in amusement about his gaffes. Remember when he actually said that trees give off carbon dioxide? And that the Vietnam war had been a moral cause? And that maybe it wouldn't hurt school children if they were taught that not everyone accepts the theory of evolution? It was all said to be crackpot stuff which no mainstream American would accept.

Then there was the age issue. Not only was Mr. Reagan too right-wing to defeat an incumbent Democratic president, even an unpopular one, but he was also too old. In the summer of 1980 neither the polls nor the experts gave him much chance, especially with a third candidate, John Anderson, in the race. Yet in November it was Reagan 51 percent, Carter 41, Anderson 7.

History no repeater

It's a fact that history doesn't repeat itself. Bob Dole isn't Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton isn't Jimmy Carter, and Richard Lamm isn't John Anderson. So the Republicans shouldn't get cocky, and the happy Clintonites, so jovially lampooned by the lately anonymous Joe Klein, needn't be looking around for new employment.

One important distinction between the Carter and Clinton administrations is that while the former was headed by an abstemious and earnest man of principle, at the helm today is a licentious prevaricating opportunist who never met a scruple he wouldn't trade away. And as voters tend to prefer rogues to ineffectual preachers, this is probably good news for the Democrats of 1996.

In many respects, the Clinton administration resembles nothing in American history so much as that of Warren Gamaliel Harding, a point made pungently by R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. in his new political biography, "Boy Clinton."

"Harding and his bossy wife could almost pass as role models for the Clintons if their differing political philosophies could be factored out," writes Mr. Tyrrell. "Both couples included a clever, assertive and forbidding wife who had displayed above-average competence in business and politics. . .The presidents were handsome, their spouses less so. Both presidents were personable and charming to the fair sex whose nicely turned ankles fetched their wandering eyes."

To learn the details of President Harding's extramarital adventures most Americans had to wait several decades for Francis Russell's wonderful biography, "The Shadow of Blooming Grove." In our modern era, by contrast, there is enough detail in court papers and elsewhere on the public record to satisfy the lustiest appetite for prurience.

Both presidents were golfers and, conversationally, amiable windbags. Both were fond of back-room politics. And both served amidst scandal, although the major corruption in the Harding administration wasn't exposed until after the president unexpectedly dropped dead.

That turned over the country to Calvin Coolidge, who unexpectedly proved very popular. He was an unsmiling and laconic introvert, rather like Bob Dole.

Peter A. Jay is a farmer and writer.

Pub Date: 7/25/96

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