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Citizen Wolff

We have entered the Age of the Wing Nut: In politics, just about everything counts more than competence. (So does that mean this columnist has a chance?)


I have been trying to understand the political -- and media -- meaning of Jesse "the Body" Ventura and Warren Beatty and now Donald Trump and, indeed, the remarkable rise of George W. Bush, without success. Until, that is, an acquaintance in Democratic Party circles called me up and asked if I was serious about going into politics.

"Excuse me?"

I'd given an interview, I was reminded, in which I had said that at the rate things are going it seemed possible that even I could end up as president.

"There are people," he said, "who might be interested in having such a discussion about your thoughts insofar as a political future."

My acquaintance -- not someone with a mischievous sense of humor -- started to outline some current thinking about what it takes to develop what he familiarly termed "a personal brand" in politics today. The main principle, he said, was insurgency, which, he pointed out, continuing to switch with ease between political and new-media vocabularies, was really guerrilla marketing. The challenge, he said, was to cut through the clutter. You had to have the ability to project a unique and identifiable style.

"It's all about personae," he said, nailing the formula. "John McCain," he added, "is really quite an odd duck, but he's clicked in."

I suddenly thought that my friend, as representative a political type as they come -- ambitious, earnest, policy-obsessed, and painfully square -- was bored silly with politics, too.

"We need," he said, "people like you to get involved in the political process."

This is the kind of civic-minded plea that is customarily directed at salt-of-the-earth types (if there are such types left). The non-cynics. But here I had the distinct feeling that people like me meant odd people, unexpected people, difficult people. The counterintuitive. Wing nuts who could do television.

"It's personality. It's about whether you're comfortable enough with yourself to put yourself out there and project yourself and let people get to know you as you are. Nobody can hide anymore. Nobody can repress. It's useless to pretend you're just a straight arrow -- nobody believes you anyway. You are what you are. Hang a lantern on it."

I could do this, I thought. I could be good.

I tried to explain to my wife -- the possible future First Lady -- why this made sense. Beyond the 24-7 attention of the media -- which, in the end, made everyone look like a disturbed individual anyway -- there clearly is some different style and aesthetic thing going on in politics. The triumph of the nerd, the Seinfeldization of America, the media-breakdown thing, the rise of the World Wrestling Federation (and NASCAR -- although what is NASCAR?) were bound to affect voter preferences. There was just no context in which Mr. Policy-in-a-Suit looked like America or talked like America anymore. I had a theory here -- which my wife did not immediately accept -- that in fact the weirder you were, the more normal television made you look; and, conversely, the stiffer and tighter you were, the weirder you looked.

"This is just everybody," said my wife, who is very levelheaded and who knows a thing or two about the Democrats, "freaking out about Gore."

If I had now become elected-official material, it was a freak-out on a grand scale. But perhaps this should not be a surprise. The year's political extremes are obvious: Al Gore is the least interesting political figure and Jesse "the Body" Ventura the most interesting. (By the same token, I think you can also make the case that Gore and Clinton define opposite poles -- one is the very good boy and one is the very essence of bad boy, and it is certainly clear with whom we would rather spend our time.)

It was a heavy-handed irony: Gore represented a certain obvious order of perfection -- even an order of personal virtue -- at a moment in American life when we have actually gotten fairly comfortable with everybody's sins and lapses and neediness. It is the move from network to cable. Hipness -- or contrariness, or anti-yuppiness, or home-school oddness, or libertarian I-just-don't-care-ness, or seven-step live-and-let-live-ness -- had become, if not a voting bloc, at least a point of view that couldn't be ignored.

Part of the odd thing about the effort to analyze Gore's political vulnerabilities is that he really has no political vulnerabilities. His biography is perfect. His intelligence is obvious. His personal rectitude is believable. (And he's tall.) As a result, he is everyone else's foil. Against his classic model, everyone else is what Saul Bellow calls a contrast gainer. By looking odd, strange, unexpected, loopy, even inexperienced, everybody looks more interesting next to Gore.

Gore's perfection is so extreme that even Bradley gets to be novel and interesting -- at least Bradley left the Senate, and is, therefore, advantageously, a quitter; the whiff of petulance and sullenness he offers is, next to Gore's antiseptic air, almost romantic.

Similarly, it is Gore's rectitude and experience and straight living and vast familiarity with the issues that makes W's stunning inexperience (not only in politics but with virtually any sort of sustained endeavor), his relatively wastrel existence, and his relaxed attitude toward affairs of state look awfully attractive. He seems fun. He's an underachiever. A pistol, but keeping it under control. He seems more like us than Gore does. In fact, he seems more like Clinton than Gore does.

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