Since the editors at Slate have been good enough to ask me for my Democratic pick, I hasten to share the experience of an ill-spent political lifetime. The only shard of wisdom I have acquired over the years is this: Personalities count for much more than issues. This might not be true in the few remaining countries that have programmatic and parliamentary contests based on competing political manifestos, but it is absolutely true of presidential elections in the United States. The character of the candidate is itself the only “issue,” and it is furthermore the only “issue” about which a thinking voter can be expected to make up his or her mind.
To phrase the matter in another way, I know many people who are much more intelligent than George Bush (even if they do keep saying so themselves) and whom I have heard, over the past decades, talk with perfect seriousness about the prospect of electing Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis, Bill Bradley, or Tom Harkin as president of the United States. Do such smart people really wish that Michael Dukakis had been president when Saddam invaded Kuwait, or when Mikhail Gorbachev began to signal from Moscow? Of course they don’t, or not really, but they always think it must be better by axiom to have a Democrat (or “any Democrat” as they often put it) in office. Are they then in favor of permanent one-party rule? Of course not! They are for a healthy bipartisan system, where their candidate always wins. (One of the pleasures of the recent cycle has been the discovery of the true value of an “endorsement”: If only Dukakis had endorsed Dean as well. Or perhaps he did, and I didn’t notice.)
Party-mindedness is an enemy in itself, if only because it makes intelligent people act and think stupidly. But the belief in the candidate’s “program” is hardly less of a trap. I hate to say it, but a successful contender for office can change his mind on, say, universal health care. What he cannot change is his personality. If he’s a money-grubbing, narcissistic, and approval-seeking psycho at the start, he will not doff these qualities in the Oval Office. One ought therefore to begin by eliminating all those who are running for some kind of therapeutic or Oedipal reason. (This doesn’t cost much: It would only have deprived us of Kennedy, Nixon, Hart, and Clinton in the recent past, and superior candidates from both parties were readily available in all those instances.)
With this in mind, one reviews the current Democratic “field.” I claim no prescience for predicting the implosion of Howard Dean: He was obviously very lucky to get as far as the governorship of Vermont. A man who will say anything to any audience if he thinks it will raise the roof is a candidate to be shunned: It should have been all over when he trashed his Hippocratic oath to invent a story about an incest victim from his physician’s office. Think of all the money he raised and squandered: It would have been far better spent donated to the reconstruction of Iraq. His entire campaign was, to borrow one of his sillier slogans, a distraction from the hunt for al-Qaida.
Dennis Kucinich is the sort of guy who we need in politics. He thinks long-term, and he doesn’t think that in the short or long term it pays to trade principles for compromises. That’s the attitude one wants in a president, of any party. This, however, is probably not the year for a man who basically believes in the downsizing of the United States.
Wesley Clark is a loss to the United States armed forces, and President Clinton and Defense Secretary Cohen ought to have been excoriated for firing him when they did, as well as for how they did it. Many Kosovars owe their lives to Clark, and the victory won in that war also helped to bring at least a semblance of democracy to Serbia. But there’s something bizarre about a conceited man in uniform who now can’t remember which regime-change he favored or why, which party he belongs to, or which “faith-based” community he espouses. He also has a weakness for half-cooked conspiracy stories and gets snappish when he’s questioned on the last weird thing he said. Again, beware of those who run to pacify their internal demons.
John Kerry should decide whether he’s a moral hero for fighting in a futile and filthy war against the Vietnamese revolution, or for protesting against that war. Can I guess from his demeanor which of the two was his “noble cause”? No. Shouldn’t I know by now? Yes, I should, since it’s not evident at this relatively late date whether or not he’s proud of voting to remove Saddam Hussein. As with most senior Democrats, Kerry’s revolving-door record with lobbyists and donors is one to make Cheney and Bush look like amateurs: As with all Democratic primary seasons there is an agreement to forget this collectively in the interests of “change.” That’s why Lucy in “Peanuts” has become a great national character.
Nothing occurs to me when I think about Al Sharpton, but as a rule it’s even worse to run as “Reverend” than it is as “General.” We haven’t sunk to the point where we need either. It’s a relief to see how few black voters identify with a big-mouth shake-down artist, against the patronizing expectations of the media, whether it’s an election year or not.
A couple of years ago I wrote a profile of Sen. John Edwards for Vanity Fair and decided that he is a good man who is in politics for good reasons. He voted for the essential measures on Iraq, but has also made some trenchant criticisms of the Homeland Security farce. I’d add to this that he has since—unlike Joseph Lieberman, say—given up his very promising Senate career in order to run. I leave to you the calculations about his Southern roots, his trial-lawyer connections, and all the rest of it, except to say that he earned his money from fighting large and negligent corporations rather than from fawning on them. I’m totally bored with the idea of “small town” origins, since for generations most Americans have lived either in big cities or suburbs, and it’s high time for someone to advertise himself as urbane. However, a good man can be glimpsed even through the necessary hypocrisies of election time. He has a terrific wife, as well.
I’m a single-issue person at present, and the single issue in case you are wondering is the tenacious and unapologetic defense of civilized societies against the intensifying menace of clerical barbarism. If in the smallest doubt about this, I would suggest a vote for the re-election of George Bush, precisely because he himself isn’t prey to any doubt on the point. There are worse things than simple mindedness—pseudo-intellectuality, for example. Civil unions for homosexuals, or prescription-drug programs, are not even going to be in second or third place if we get this wrong. And presidents can’t make much difference to the stock market or the employment rate or to income distribution. But they can and must uphold their oath to defend the country. So, having said that “issues” are only tangential to campaigns, the best estimate I can make is one about the seriousness of individuals. I was open-mouthed at the idea that anyone would even consider entrusting the defense of the United States and its Constitution to Howard Dean, but that problem appears to have taken care of itself, even if only through the sort of voter-intuition that one is ultimately forced to recommend. Make up your own mind, is my own best recommendation, and put “electability” (once a Dean property, for heaven’s sake) to one side. An Edwards-Kerry ticket would be made up of serious men, at least, and this is a test that people and politicians have to pass whether they are looking for votes or not.