When voters become casting directors

March 08, 2004|By Ellen Goodman

SARASOTA, Fla. - If a celebrity is someone who is famous for being famous, what do you call a politician who is elected for being electable? John Kerry?

The very common wisdom in the wake of Super Tuesday is that the senator from Massachusetts won because he could win. People voted for Mr. Kerry because they decided other people would vote for him.

Frankly, I am charmed by the idea that the raucous and contentious Democratic Party suddenly became that pragmatic. At lunch here in the belly of the 2000 beast, the heart of Katherine Harris' congressional district, a woman slipped me a contraband button that said simply, "Beat Bush." Not exactly a Valentine to Mr. Kerry, but you get the idea. Still, I wonder whether the Democratic voters who picked Mr. Kerry were pragmatists or something else: casting directors.

An Ohio voter in that designated battle state told a reporter, "The guy just looks presidential. And in this country, I think it's all about the image." There was nothing really new about this idea except that he voted for it.

Having accepted the idea of the citizen as an audience, even earnest primary voters have begun acting like insiders and analysts rating the candidates on their show. More to the point, we aren't just casting them for a campaign waged in ads and sound bites, we expect them to act like opponents on cable shows, where complexity is banned and ambivalence is reduced to two certainties duking it out.

I am thinking about this as I make my way through that human endurance contest known as a book tour. When I named my book Paper Trail, many of my friends said I should get with the tenor of times and call it, I'm Right, You're Wrong, Get Over It! That's how polarized the dialogue in America has become.

One of the things you rediscover on the road is that Americans are largely ambivalent about many of the biggest issues of the day, from Iraq to the global economy to gay marriage. But even those who want a layered discussion of issues have stopped expecting it from a presidential campaign.

Indeed, people increasingly view politics as if they were not only casting directors, but amateur screenwriters and even critics - grading everything from body language to wardrobes.

The private questions I hear from those who want to "Beat Bush" are not whether Mr. Kerry is smart or experienced or even right, but whether he is "likable" enough. It's not what he believes, but whether he can explain it in less than 10 seconds - whether he can condense paragraphs of ideas into easy-to-swallow idea-lets. Not whether he can be a great president, but whether he can play one on TV.

They are, in short, asking the questions a booker asks when pre-interviewing a guest for a cable food-fight show. Remember the moment in 2002 when Mr. Bush said, "As you can probably tell, I don't see many shades of gray in this world"?

The first ads that are rolling out portray the president as unencumbered by doubt. At the same time, Republicans are already framing the Kerry record as a flip and a flop. On Wednesday, the president said, "In fact, Senator Kerry's been in Washington just long enough to take both sides on every issue."

Well, I've been around John Kerry long enough to hear him lapse into Senate speak, the Urdu of politics. And there are times when his shades of gray get pretty murky. But gray is the also the designated color code of a complicated reality. Black and white may be the team colors displayed on blinders.

Before Mr. Kerry was elected for being electable, he pulled off an Iowa upset by going to one meeting after another and doggedly answering every question. Was that "long-winded"? Do we now dismiss the Iowa caucus-goers as a bizarre subculture of humans willing to absorb ideas and policies as long as a page?

This is not just about Mr. Kerry or Mr. Bush. And I am well aware that earlier elections have been reduced to such deep insights into public policy as "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too." Every candidate quotes Lincoln, but no one has the nerve to do a Lincoln-Douglas six-hour debate.

But what strikes me this early in the season is how many of us have taken on these showtime roles. We accept and assume a polarized, simplified script, as if politics were now directed by a cable host saying, "Briefly, we have 15 seconds, tell us how to change the world."

If we are going to be casting directors, at the very least let's remember: We've got an epic on our hands.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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