Bush and Gore recall Kennedy and Nixon

May 16, 2000|By Richard Reeves

PARIS -- From a distance of a few thousand trans-Atlantic miles, the 2000 presidential race looks rather eerily like the 1960 contest between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon -- but with an ironic difference.

The difference this year is that it is the Republican, Gov. George W. Bush, playing the role made famous by Sen. John F. Kennedy; and the Democrat, Vice President Al Gore, playing the role of Vice President Nixon.

Governor Bush as Kennedy:

1. He is the charmer in this race, as Kennedy was the master of institutionalizing his own formidable charm. People like to be with Governor Bush.

2. He is the one with a religion problem. For Kennedy, it was trying to become the first Roman Catholic president. For Governor Bush, the problem is Bob Jones; he is too dependent on the Christian Right. That scares a lot of people.

3. He is the new face in this contest, as Kennedy was before him.

4. He is the lightweight in this race. That was how many people saw Kennedy after 14 years of undistinguished public service.

5. He is the one with the playboy past. So was Kennedy.

6. He is on a family mission. As Jack Kennedy was sent out, reluctantly at first, to claim the highest office in the name of an older brother killed in war and of his father, Governor Bush is trying to reclaim it in the name of his father.

Mr. Gore as Nixon:

1. He is the most qualified, as a former member of the House and Senate and the incumbent vice president. Same as Nixon.

2. He has a controversial, even dangerous past. Nixon was disliked by millions because of his relentless, even feverish, pursuit of un-American activities as an ambitious Red-baiting young congressman. Mr. Gore has a past named Bill Clinton, which includes a relentless, even feverish pursuit of campaign money.

3. He has a family mission, too, probably more bitter than Governor Bush's: revenge for the 1970 defeat of his father for re-election to the Senate from Tennessee. He has often seemed a driven man because of that, as Nixon was driven by his hatred for what he seemed to believe was a mysterious establishment that had destroyed his family in the California desert. (Ironically, of course, then-President Nixon was a factor in defeating the senior Gore, seeing him as the Southern chairman of the Eastern establishment.)

4. He has a reputation for shading the truth. Nixon had that reputation -- and more.

5. He has a reputation for tough and nasty campaigning, particularly in debates. Nixon had the same reputation, well-earned. It cost him in many ways, particularly when the supposedly lightweight Kennedy held his own.

6. He's a talented stiff. So was Nixon.

The 1960 election was one of the closest in the history of the Republic. Neither Kennedy, the winner, nor Nixon, the loser, was able to get a majority of the vote. That could happen again.

Governor Bush, for no obvious reason, holds his own and more in polls pitting him head-to-head with Mr. Gore. "Amazing, really," said Democratic pollster Peter Hart. "Times are good. You would expect Gore to be far ahead at this kind of early date. People seem to be holding themselves back from him."

Close polls usually mean dirty campaigns. This one could be killer-dirty.

Mr. Gore will link Governor Bush to Bob Jones, the man and the university, suggesting that the place is an outpost for updated, scrubbed, white-shirted young Klan members.

Governor Bush will be showing Mr. Gore with Al Sharpton, characterizing the noisy black preacher as a lying, white-hating demagogue.

Mr. Gore will scare the hell out of old people, telling them Governor Bush has come to take away their Social Security. For good measure, Mr. Gore, who seems to be particularly unpopular with women voters these days, will also portray his Republican opponent as having already lined up cadres of right-wing future judges determined to stamp out abortion.

And the winner will be ... ? Don't know. Too close to call. But, forced to guess, I would say Gore.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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