Wasps or Wonks

Little of what we’ve heard over the long campaign begins to answer the question: What will it feel like to have a ubiquitous Gore or Bush in our lives for the next half a generation?

In some sense – in some media sense, anyway – we’re getting married to this guy. Which means he (and his family) will be inescapable. We’re going to have to make room for him. We’re going to be looking at Gore or Bush over the breakfast table, and thinking about him, and referring to him (excusing him or castigating him) every day. He is going to upset the balance of things, the equanimity. Not most of all because he has a new set of ideas but because he’s so difficult to avoid. He’s invasive. Gross.

It’s the new president’s weight, the symbolic heft of his mannerisms, body language, verbal tics, facial expressions, magnified by a thousand photo ops, rather than his policy actions, that have, for better or worse, the greater ripple effect. (Who can be so sure that the Clinton appetite, enthusiasm, even recklessness didn’t have something big to do with the rush of the bull market? How much did his restlessness, his personal bootstrapping, influence the entrepreneurialism of the age?)

There’s no preventing him from becoming the center of attention.

The media, from the day after the election to the frothy excitement of the inauguration, and for several months following, will have an insatiable appetite for any news about the new president’s interests and desires and idiosyncrasies.

This lavish attention is almost always deeply approving. The man we currently feel ambivalent about and disdainful of will, within a few weeks, be transformed into a wholly positive version of himself (disappointment and the bitterness of dashed expectations set in later). Bill Clinton running (thighs wobbling). Bill Clinton eating junk food. Bill Clinton staying up all night. Socks the cat. We fetishize this stuff. We eat it up. There will be people who choose to fight the message that comes from these images and the power of this new guy, but this is the personality that will seep into every corner of national life. This is the look and feel of the age, the front end of the era.

Whom would you want your daughter to marry? That is a version of the question being weighed by undecided voters everywhere. Which guy can I stand to have in my face?

We’re electing a new Zeitgeist.

In the event of a Bush victory, we’ll immediately see the rehabilitation of George H. W. Bush (to the degree that a perfect president is a perfect father, Poppy will add to this dynamic by becoming the nation’s perfect grandfather) and the coronation of a new dynasty in American political history. The light will change around W., Jeb, George Sr., and Barb. This heretofore semi-comical collection of unreconstructed preppies, Wasps (already the word Wasp is re-ascendant), and clubby politicians (the last of the clubby politicians) will become, through a tale told by a thousand media outlets, as significant a historical achievement as the Roosevelts, Rockefellers, and Kennedys. Even the late-night jokes will have an element of awe.

What does it mean if the Bush family, the Bush dynastic family, becomes the benchmark? (We haven’t seen much of the twin daughters during the campaign, but if W. wins, soon we will – a double dose of sweetness.) The shift here, remember, is away from the Clinton new family, the professional, mobile, achieving, streamlined, slightly lonely unit.

For starters, the new American free-form identity will suddenly seem like a bit of foolishness. Self-indulgent – the self is not something the Bushes would have any interest wrestling with – will be what we call someone without a proper structure in his or her life. Self-indulgence is Clintonian.

A substantially overhauled multiculti America suddenly comes face-to-face with a white, Yale, gentleman’s-C, I-inherited-it-from-Dad guy. The result is that the inexorable pace of the new multiculture will be slowed – it’s a time-out. Anglo-Saxon coloring won’t look so sickly and out of it; it might even enjoy a fashion revival. Wasp cool.

The manic work-until-you-drop thing, which has gone on during the Clinton years, and which is part of the vast power shift (away from suburban white men), gets muted. The edge comes off the whole achievement business. Instead of Clinton’s panting, doing, eating – “I want, I want,” like Bellow’s Henderson – the central message in American life becomes much more easygoing. Overt striving becomes just slightly déclassé.

We will begin, in fact, to have newfound respect for George W.’s long, leisurely path to a career.

It will be all right not to be a brainiac. Bill Gates wants George Bush to win and save him from the Justice Department – but George Bush has no sympathy for Gates. It’s the revenge on the revenge of the nerds. A different value will come center stage. Who you are (your manner, affect, friends, frat and club affiliations) will be more important than what you are (CFO, techie, content guy, billionaire). The delegation thing will be central. (What would you do, Governor, in the event of a financial crisis? I’d consult with the chairman of the Federal Reserve. What would you do, Governor, in the event of an international crisis? I’d consult with Dick Cheney.) It will be a government of Dick Cheneys (the Bushes like solid citizens). Steadfast men (many, of course, with gay children), comfortable with org charts and with mediating relatively small differences, are the model of success (backed up by real-estate developers and oil-patch promoters), not young entrepreneurs. Indeed, pawning off the responsibilities sends the signal that the doing isn’t as important as the not doing. The more successful you are the less you should have to work is a rule of nature that got perverted in the nineties. Plutocracy is a kinder and gentler way.

If, on the other hand, Al Gore is elected, we will shortly believe that we have the smartest president we’ve had since Wilson. We’ll have a new respect for punctilious intelligence. The stiffness, the awkwardness, the remoteness become part of a rehabilitated fifties egghead mythology. True wonkishness (unlike Clinton wonkishness, which was just a clever hustle) will become an honorable condition. Reporters will begin to compete to know the numbers, to be able to trade statistics. We’ll be talking comparative political systems and political philosophy. The media will fall in love with old-style braininess. Hipness will be out. Retro-seriousness will be in.

The College Bowl will replace Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

Sociology will be a glamorous discipline.

Reading lists will be big. We will be kept up-to-date, in a paroxysm of anticipation, with what Al is reading (this will be an eclectic list). He will talk frequently about ideas and about thinkers and authors he admires. We in the media will be deeply impressed – or believe we ought to be.

Many impossible-to-read books will become best-sellers.

There will be lots of public symposia (no one will admit to feelings of intense boredom).

Gore will reconcile Deepak Chopra with incredibly conventional wisdom.

New Agey New Economy talk, which has largely been a foreign language in Washington, will be very current (just as it is going out of style in many other parts of the country).

Al’s facility with a PC (which Clinton doesn’t much use, and which, bet on it, W. isn’t hacking) will be much discussed. Here’s the picture: a laptop in the Oval Office. (Who will be the new president’s first e-mail recipient?)

Harvard will be very big. The entire Ivy League Eastern Establishment will be back in business.

A generation of ambitious academic types will descend on Washington. The New Republic’s Marty Peretz will be their Felix Frankfurter.

The public intellectual will come back into vogue in a way that he hasn’t been in vogue since the age of JFK – although, count on it, no one is pushing anyone into swimming pools in a Gore administration.

These are not frivolous intellectuals; there’s nobody having fun in a Gore administration (except Karenna).

It’s a righteous, slightly grim, precise, white-board sort of place – all the more so when the economy starts slowing.

An emblematic face of the new administration will be the pained and gloomy David Halberstam, one of Gore’s formative influences (and, as Gore always adds, a friend of the family); he’s already turning up with lugubrious frequency on Larry King.

Gore is a moralist. And a literalist. Soon we will be shaking our heads and talking about the excesses of the Clinton years.

We will hear a great deal about Gore’s perfectionism and his discipline.

Gore’s own disconnection and depressed air (and certainly we haven’t heard the last about Tipper’s depression) will be presented as a kind of stoicism. Not that he feels our pain, but that he feels his own pain and is strong in the face of it. Gore is not about pleasure. Pleasure is not serious. And seriousness will be the highest order of the day. Governing and leadership are not fun. They are intellectual burdens. It’s a weighty, self-conscious, self-doubting time.

Under either Bush or Gore, we’ll change … big-time. Not because of who is or who is not covered under this or that approach to Medicare but because through each guy, we imbibe new notions of behavior and style and taste. It’s not politics but aesthetics that guides the subtle shift in emphasis that reprograms everything.

At the moment, each of these opposing swings of the Zeitgeist seems painful in its own way. I’ve eaten at both dinner tables, the country-club type and the determined-to-take-ideas-seriously-even-if-it-kills-you kind. They’re both deadly.

Indeed: Whom would you want your daughter to marry? That is a version of the question being weighed by undecided voters everywhere. Which guy can I stand to have in my face?

That the Gore Zeitgeist seems, at least to me, more hopeful and less wrenching is only a relative thing.

This is the root of the deep ambivalence in this campaign. There is no sense that the change is going to be for the better, that excitement is in the offing. That the coming party is fraught with possibilities. Even that the bull market will keep going. Sensing this, both Bush and Gore have tried to hide behind their detailed and yet fuzzy agendas any hint of how their personalities, habits, reflexes, media selves will change the spirit of the times.

The suspicion that the past eight years were molded by Bill Clinton, and that they have been the best years of our lives, is no doubt not true in countless ways.

But many suspect, and share a terrible sinking sensation, that we are now tempting fate.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com

Wasps or Wonks