The Breakfast Table

A Politician Who Talks Like a Human Being

Dear Frank,

You’re right. Though crabbiness is as pardonable as it is endemic in this land of the Irritable and the Irritating, sometimes there are things that redeem your faith in the faint sparkling residue of integrity in American public life. Tonight on Fresh Air, I heard Terry Gross talking with Bob Dole. He has a book out called something like Great Presidential Wit and was flogging it by phone on the show. I voted against the guy. I would not have wanted to see him become president. And yet even during that election I was intermittently but regularly struck by his core of genuineness, by the sense he gave and still gives of saying, at least every so often, exactly what he’s thinking, in the exact manner in which he’s thinking it. Tonight on NPR he came across–freed once and for all from the tyranny of having something to lose–as candid, thoughtful, and honest in a way that was really shocking. He wasn’t saying anything particularly shocking. It was just that he was talking like a human being, and an intelligent one at that. Using wit and humor as a kind of statistical sample for analyzing the overall character of a man, he was remarkably decent and even-handed in judging Bill Clinton, at once appreciative and undeceived. He expressed heartfelt-sounding regret for Al Gore, and when it came to George W. Bush, he said essentially that he was reserving judgment but that there was potential for success or failure there, and his comments had a faint air of good-natured skepticism.

I guess what impresses me ultimately about the man is the lingering aura of his generation, who were probably not the greatest but who were certainly challenged, collectively, in a way that no American generation has since been challenged, and who pretty much–with some horrible, glaring failures–rose to the occasion. There clings to him the tattered remnants of the old civic religion of America, with its fundamental if at times self-deluding faith in the institutions and heroes and national style of the country. Even the idea of writing a book about presidential wit has something touchingly old-fashioned about it. I think my generation (b. 1963) was the one that saw that civic religion falter and crumble. I was inducted into its mysteries (from Columbus to Custer) only to have all of its assumptions and tenets called, sometimes violently, into question around me. And while I have no desire or hope to return to the willful, at times blind and spurious innocence of those times, I still respond to the old tune when I hear somebody whistling it who learned it by heart. I’ll be sad when the Bob Doles are gone.

I still wouldn’t vote for the guy, though.

See you in the Times.