Pantheons plundered for candidate images

January 04, 2000|By Marianne Means

WASHINGTON -- The common wisdom holds that there are no modern-day heroes in public life.

Politicians do not become statesmen until they die and are out of competition. The longer they have been gone, the more fondly we think of them.

But without heroes, policy debates can be pretty dull. So in the eternal search to find something interesting about the presidential contest, the media are experimenting with comparisons between the current four leading candidates and past elected superstars.

The idea is to give the candidates some glamour they don't generate by themselves. It's tough going. It requires imagination.

Big joke

Republican presidential candidate Orrin Hatch got a hearty laugh at a press dinner recently by joking, "When you are sitting on those debate stools looking at your fellow candidates, the same thought keeps running through your mind -- Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison -- how the hell did we come to THIS?"

Unfortunately, there was as much truth as humor in the crack.

Ever since Democratic vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen demolished his 1988 Republican rival Dan Quayle for inappropriately equating himself with John F. Kennedy, the candidates themselves have modestly shied away from drawing unseemly parallels.

But the media have never been shy about filling in gaps in the political dialogue, and news is skimpy these days. We have to make our own excitement.

A magazine compared former Sen. Bill Bradley with Adlai Stevenson, for reasons that escape me. Something about intellect and wit, although if the Bradley mumble has ever reached the cleverness of Stevenson's wry throw-away lines, most of us have missed it.

Others have compared Bradley with Robert F. Kennedy. The major similarity seems to be that they are both liberals.

Non-pragmatists?

Someone else proposed a Bradley likeness to 1988 Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, on the mistaken theory that Bradley resists pragmatic politics just as the clueless Mr. Dukakis did. Try telling that to embattled Vice President Al Gore.

John F. Kennedy, the everlasting symbol of youth and glamour, used to be everybody's first choice for historic twinhood until President Clinton overdid it by matching the Kennedy reputation for womanizing.

For years, voters gagged on the repetitious pictures of candidates pretending to be JFK, with ruffled hair striding along a beach, a gaggle of children nearby, jacket slung carelessly over a shirt-sleeved shoulder. Richard Nixon even tried it, although it looked a bit staged when he strode along a watery beach, feet squishing in leather dress shoes.

Nowadays JFK is an outdated image, although there has been a suggestion that some of Kennedy's early party days remind us of Texas Gov. George W. Bush's frivolous youthful years before he found Jesus. JFK has been replaced in the Republican pantheon by Theodore Roosevelt, who won a reputation as a tough guy by charging up a hill during the Spanish-American War and got carved into Mount Rushmore for conserving our great parks.

For current candidates he's a non-controversial twofer, both a military hero and a compassionate environmentalist. What he isn't, however, is a symbol of the current Republican refrain of lower taxes and a reduced federal government. For that, they should try Calvin Coolidge.

Rare ghost

When we get to Arizona Sen. John McCain, it is difficult to think of a political ghost who is his match. He is such a strong personality, with such an individual story, that he stands alone. Only former Sen. John Glenn, the first man to orbit the earth, is in his category for courage and self-confidence.

But Mr. Glenn, while undoubtedly brave, was never tested by physical pain on the scale that Mr. McCain endured. Besides, Mr. Glenn ran for president himself and lost. Great guy, but bad example.

That leaves Mr. Gore, who doesn't remind us much of anybody else either. He isn't nearly as wooden as his image. So Coolidge won't do. But Mr. Gore is not so firmly established as a battler for the average American that he can be compared with Franklin Roosevelt, either.

Mr. Gore's own hero is his father, a Tennessee senator who flirted with the presidency himself in the 1950s and who was credited with passage of the first national highway system. Not a bad choice, but not quite at the level of greatness.

The vice president is hard to figure because he is a work in progress, still emerging unevenly from President Clinton's shadow. All vice presidents have something of an identity crisis until they win or lose a national election in their own right.

The political hero of our time most frequently cited as a role model is Ronald Reagan. Mostly, Democrats don't do it because they spent decades opposing Mr. Reagan's mean-spirited, conservative, anti-government views.

Weirdly, however, Mr. Bradley recently suggested that he's just like Ronald Reagan in his sunny optimism and concentration on a few issues. But a presidential contest is not a competition for best mood. It's a battle of ideas and ideology.

Republicans publicly adore Mr. Reagan. They ignore the Iran-contra scandal, which might have led to his impeachment, and go directly to the fact that his cheerful personality and political mantra of shrinking government remain popular with conservatives.

Besides, who else do they have without reaching all the way back to Dwight Eisenhower? Richard Nixon? Jerry Ford? Oh, dear.

Marianne Means is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers.

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