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The Politics of Personality Destruction

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The Earnest Croucher: John Edwards in search of a nail.  

“Now, are there ways to break through that?” he asks. “Yeah. I think the Clinton-Gore bus trips were an inspired idea. I’m sorry we didn’t have those. Because on that level, you see things, people tell you about things. Drove the Secret Service crazy, but Clinton and Gore got the kind of spontaneity—the kind of learning—you don’t get in canned events, where you’re up in the plane, down, up in the plane, down.”

Like Dole, Dukakis didn’t have a flair for the up in the plane, down. “Part of the problem here is that most of us—I don’t care whether it’s Dukakis, Gore, Hart, whoever—most of us started in politics in living rooms and backyards and Legion halls,” Dukakis concludes. He’s talking about himself in the third person, just like Dole, as if to say, that politician-fellow named Mike Dukakis is a different man entirely. “And generally speaking, if I may say so, we’re very good at it. But see, how do ya translate that? I can’t deliver a speech off prepared text for love nor money. If I had a nickel for everybody who’s come up to me since 1988 and said, ‘You’re nothing like the guy we were watching on television … ’ I say to them, well, that was eight seconds. Clinton—Clinton can do it in eight seconds. Reagan. I gotta spend an hour with people.”

Anything short of that had the potential to result in disaster. During the second presidential debate, CNN’s Bernard Shaw famously asked Dukakis whether the death penalty would be appropriate if a stranger raped and killed his wife. He gave a characteristically unemotional answer: No, I don’t, Bernard. And I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life … People say it cost him the election. Kitty herself was stunned. (“Afterwards, I turned to him in the car and said, ‘What were you thinking?’ ”she says.)

“Look, when you’re opposed to the death penalty, you’re asked that question a thousand times,” Dukakis says today. “Unfortunately, I answered it as if I’d been asked it a thousand times. Folks expected more, I guess.”

A couple weeks ago, Warren Beatty called me up and said, ‘Let me ask you something: Do you think you have to be crazy to run for president?’ ”

This is Gary Hart, the Democratic senator who swept half the primaries in 1984 before flaming out.

“And I said, ‘What do you mean? Not crazy crazy, right?’ ” he says. “And he said, ‘Well, not conventionally normal.’ And I began to think about that. Because I … I don’t think I’m crazy. But I think what he was getting at was some combination of compulsion, drivenness, neuroses—who knows?”

What does he mean, who knows? He ran for president. What are the excesses of a presidential personality?

“Well, high energy. And a bit of … let’s see. Whatever the sane side of messianic is. A sense that you can see farther ahead than most people. I’ve always felt that that was my strength, that I could see farther ahead than most people.”

Whatever the sane side of messianic is. Because of its fractured grammar, this is possibly the loveliest—and truest—iteration of a campaign cliché, that a candidate for president must have a vision to convey. “And an ability to relate,” he adds. “And I’ll tell you how this is strange. The tagline for me throughout ’83 was ‘cool and aloof.’ But the only reason ‘cool and aloof’ came about is because I was shy—instead of working a room, I’d get my back against the wall. But I’d get into a conversation, and within twenty minutes, I had the whole room around me.”

How does a shy person run for president?

He gives a mild shrug. “There’s a stereotypical belief that to be a politician, you have to need acclaim and gratification and acceptance,” he says. “I never did. You would be amazed at the number of senators who are shy people. They hate running for office. They just force themselves. You’ll do whatever it takes, if you have that sense of seeing over the horizon.”

Hart is surely right. Given the right circumstances, a shy person can become president. But if history is any guide, it helps to be the kind of person who’s amenable to the steady breaches of privacy that a president must endure.

“If you were running for office, this is what I’d say to you,” says Bob Kerrey, now head of the New School. “At some point, arriving in your life is an organization called the United States Secret Service. And when the Secret Service arrives, you can’t open your own car door. They interfere with all your neighbors; anyone who wants to get in contact with you has to deal with them. So the best advice I could ever give to a candidate is, Think about this. You might win.”


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