Better Mr. Bland than Mr. Smug

November 03, 1996|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE -- Now it's decision time, perhaps not for all newspaper editorial pages, but certainly for Americans who intend to vote in Tuesday's election. By today, most of us have made up our minds, whatever we tell the pollsters.

The political polls have been saying for weeks that it's all over. Maybe they're right, and we're soon going to be looking forward to four more years just like the unusual four we've just experienced. But the polls also predicted the election of Alf Landon and Tom Dewey, and even today, despite the assurances of Dan Rather and other authorities, they aren't quite definitive.

In fact, one of the greatest incentives to vote this year is the faint prospect of landing some egg on the unlovely faces of big-time journalism's most unctuous experts. It would be a memorable Wednesday morning indeed if we were to wake up and find that the people of the country had given a raspberry to the big media.

Curiously, although the press infatuation with Bill Clinton is perceptively diminished from the giddy heights of 1992, the reporting of this campaign has been, if anything, worse. It has certainly been the most unblushingly partisan of any that I've seen in my adult lifetime, which goes back to the time of John Kennedy.

Peter A. Jay

Reporters, of course, are human. They have preferences, and they often make subjective judgments about the politicians and public issues they cover. Traditionally, in the interest of professionalism and impartiality, they try to keep these out of their copy, but these efforts aren't always successful, and in recent years have been mostly perfunctory.

If the Clinton administration had been truly outstanding in certain ways, it would be understandable to see it given an occasional pass in the press. Yet it has been singularly corrupt, pathologically untruthful and monumentally unprincipled -- and has still escaped serious challenge from most of its professional observers.

That there are Clinton loyalists in the news media isn't surprising. Every administration, no matter how troubled, has a few friends. But it's odd that Mr. Clinton's support has been so monolithic, particularly as his opponent doesn't generate anywhere near the personal antipathy among the press that, say, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon did.

If a second Clinton administration continues the pattern set by the first, some of the cheerleaders may wish they hadn't been such boosters. I know that feeling very well. Twenty years ago this fall, as The Sun was endorsing Gerald Ford for president, I wrote what I considered at the time a compelling case for the candidacy of Jimmy Carter. After the Watergate debacle, it seemed to me, the country needed a Democratic president, but not of the sort the party usually offered.

Too good to be true

And here, unexpectedly nominated without the slightest taint of Washington about him, was a Naval Academy graduate, a rural Southerner who had run a small business, a deeply religious family man who seemed to have a functioning moral compass. To me it seemed too good to be true.

And so it was. The paragon from Georgia, for all his personal rectitude, gave us a calamitous presidency, one as damaging to the country as Richard Nixon's. For four long years, I was given reason after reason to regret those arguments I had made so loftily in November of 1976.

When the results of that election were summarily overturned four years later, it came as an enormous relief. A vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980 was a step into the unknown, but it was hard to imagine that the unknown could be anything but an improvement.

In a way, to many of us, although perhaps not a majority, that's where we are, once again, in 1996.

It's true that the economy isn't spinning out of control as it did during the great Carter inflation. It's true that there is no foreign-policy crisis to match the taking of hostages by Iran. And it's true that good old Bob Dole from Kansas and Washington, a legislator and a compromiser, is certainly no Reagan.

Senator Dole is a decent man from a generation now fading from the American memory, and he has given much to his country. Personally he's short on charm, although his dry wit has potential. His suspicion of ideas and aversion to intellectual ferment is a turnoff, and so, unfortunately, is his trophy wife. Politically he's a mixed bag.

But what's a voter to do, forced to choose between the smug waffle artists we've come to know only too well, and the bland centrism that's the only real alternative? From this far-from-infallible oracle, the answer's easy. Cross your fingers and vote for Mr. Dole.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 11/03/96

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