CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa–Yesterday I hopped from the S.S. Gore to Bill Bradley’s battered dinghy. The contrast between the two candidates, and between the two campaigns, could hardly be more striking.
Gore glides across Iowa’s highways in a sleek vice-presidential motorcade, with a plush bus for the candidate, black wagons full of Secret Service agents, an ambulance, and two press buses. For longer distances, Gore hops aboard Air Force Two. Bradley shambles through traffic in a ragtag caravan.
Here’s the scene at the typical Gore event of yesterday, a huge rally in Waterloo: A cheering, sign- and flag-waving throng of many hundreds fills the bleachers and floor of the basketball arena at Northern University of Iowa. A marching band blares out “Twist and Shout” as an enormously bloated Ted Kennedy jiggles to the music. Kennedy gives Gore a rasping stem-winder of introduction. “He has the potential for greatness,” Kennedy thunders. “He has the potential to be one of our greatest presidents.” Gore assumes the stage like a rock star, dressed in his best Iowa casual–deep-blue sport shirt, cowboy boots, and khakis, with a Palm Pilot holster attached to his belt. The vice president introduces another celebrity, the jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, before launching into a feisty pep talk to his troops. The press watches from two raised platforms, but throughout the day has no direct access to Gore.
Here’s the scene at Bradley’s only event last night, a talk to an Arab-American organization at an Islamic cultural center in Cedar Rapids: Perhaps 50 members of the group, most of the women in headscarves, sit listening to stand-ins for the other candidates as they wait for Bradley to arrive. Occasionally, people wander to the back of the room, where there are platters of raw vegetables and cheese. The head of the organization introduces Bradley as someone who “knows how to listen and acts on what he thinks.” Bradley turns up late, wearing a blue suit, red tie, and black shoes. He delivers a restrained chat and then mingles with members of the audience. Any reporter is free to walk up and ask an awkward question about his heart condition or his downward drift in the polls.
But the biggest contrast between Gore and Bradley isn’t a matter of style, standing, or policies. It’s the entirely different attitude the two men have toward politics.
Gore presents himself as someone who once lost faith in politics but who now embraces its potential. In his speech, he says that his Vietnam-Watergate-era disillusionment gave way to a sense that by running for elected office he could help people. He boasts about what the Clinton administration has accomplished, mentioning the low unemployment rate and the passage of pro-union legislation, among other things. He promises more money for public education, universal health insurance starting with children, and “tax breaks to speed up the purchase of new technologies.” He slams Republicans, the Confederate Flag in South Carolina, and HMOs. “I want to fight for you,” he resounds, again and again.
Bradley presents himself as someone ill at ease with the way politics is currently practiced. He says that he’s running on the “radical premise that you can tell people what you believe and win.” He talks about the power of example, being a “good steward,” and leading America in “a world of new possibilities guided by goodness.” Where Gore boasts about his accomplishments, Bradley says he’s trying “to find a balance between modesty and confidence.” Almost every comment Bradley makes contains an implicit criticism of the way politicians ordinarily behave. And where Gore promises specific benefits and improvements, Bradley reaches for something grander and less tangible, saying that the fundamental challenge for someone running for president is to help people “find some meaning in life that is deeper than simply the possession of material things.”
At the end of his speech, Gore implores people to vote for him. “Feeling enthusiasm is great but you gotta be there and you gotta bring more people with you,” Gore thunders. “I need you. And I want to fight for you and I want to fight for the future of this country! I need you to fight for me–7 p.m. Monday!”
At the end of his speech, Bradley says that if people share his vision of a virtuous nation, they are welcome to support him. “What my campaign is about is asking good people to come forward and join us so that our voices can be heard,” he says. “I am behind. But there are two days left. … We could surprise a lot of people.”
Gore’s fighter/scholar distinction has taken root because there’s a lot of truth to it. When you see Gore, you see a thoroughbred politician who is simply running for president and running as hard as he can. When you see Bradley, you see a naturally diffident man talking about how he would like to run for president and fretting about the distance between his ideal campaign and the real one. This is the decisive distinction. It explains why Gore is almost certain to defeat Bradley in the caucuses tomorrow night: because voters prefer the man of action to the man of ideas. Because they prefer the politician to the civics teacher. Because they prefer the probably better president to the possibly superior human being.