Who’s Looking More Presidential: Al the Snipper or George the Human Boil?

Who can look less Presidential? George W. Bush’s charm has

drained away. He’s gray and his neck turtles out of his suit collar. He erupted

in boils, and the photograph he staged of his transition team looked like a

dinner-theater version of The West Wing .

But at least Mr. Bush is halfway transparent. When Al Gore

came out of the White House on Monday to talk liltingly about school children

and the democratic process, you had no idea what he was really thinking or

feeling. He grinned too much. His family touch-football game for the cameras

had the same air of bizarre artifice, like marzipan figures of the Kennedys.

And what is he bingeing on to keep all that weight when he works so hard?

It is not as if they are fighting over a principle or an

ideology; the only principle is self-interest-on one side the old guard’s dream

of restoration, on the other the meritocrat’s dream of advancement. Everyone

looks so graspy. When Lawrence Tribe showed up on the streets in Miami, then on

Larry King Live , it wasn’t to speak

of a stirring principle of civil rights. No, he was just a walking, talking

Harvard want ad for the Supreme Court.

So many of the old faces of Impeachment are assembled, with

all of Impeachment’s emotion but with none of the gripping issues of

Impeachment. One side is for holding the ball and running the clock out, the

other is for playing on, but on only one side of the field. In a sense, we are

learning now what Impeachment was about: about pure interest, one side against

another, a complex factional and cultural struggle of the urban versus the

non-urban, the new and the old. And especially now that the lawyers seem to

have dug in, it won’t go away, either. This is only the third quarter. We have

another whole bitter quarter to go, and overtime, 2004 and beyond.

Did your heart sink when you saw the red and blue map of the

United States with county-by-county results? Mine did: that sea of Republican

red across the middle of the country, the lakes and rivulets of Democratic blue

along the coasts and the upper Midwest. It showed how polarized the country is,

along deep lines coming out from the new economy and new sociology. There were

any number of ways to look at this map: the city and the country, the

Information Age and the pre-Information Age, globalization and isolation,

meritocracy and birth, and-especially in the light of Palm Beach-Jews and

blacks against Protestant whites. Jim Baker is back, and who can ever forget

Mr. Baker’s comment about the political clout of the Jews: Fuck ’em.

During Impeachment I heard people brag, “I voted for Nader

in ’96, and I’m already feeling good about my Nader vote now.” Nader voters

defy those red-blue fault lines, they are true independents who have sympathy

for both sides, a hard-core 2 percent who refused to be browbeaten out of their

vote by the Gore people.

The Gore people tried to

caricature us as elitists, presumably because Ralph Nader himself owned so much

stock in Cisco Systems Inc., but the biggest Nader vote was in Alaska, hardly

an elitist roost. Mr. Nader’s vision of America was romantic and nostalgic,

reflecting his small-town origins. He complained about the long commutes people

have just to keep up with the new economy, and seemed to believe that people

would sacrifice their standard of living for simpler lives. They won’t;

Americans like buying things too much. But Mr. Nader’s message resonated

because he had a grand passion, and the opposition had so little. Who will

lecture me about the environment while driving an S.U.V.? Who will lecture

about public schools when their kids are in private schools?

The Naderites tried to straddle the vast moral divide

between the reds and the blues. The seminal event for the reds was

Waco in ’93, and you can pile up lawyers’ reports till doomsday but it will not

remove the unease people out in the red territory feel over the government’s

actions in the deaths of 20-odd children. Blaring rock ‘n’ roll music all night

long at them during an impatient siege. The blues never cared about Waco, and

from ’93 on Democrats were supposed to tamp down all feelings of discomfort

with the administration because the economy was so good, and Bill Clinton was a

global maestro.

The degree of loyalty maintained by the Democratic side was

astonishing, through Impeachment and the campaign-finance scandals, the Sudan

bombing, the destruction of women’s reputations. Early on there was a contrary

example in Treasury aide Josh Steiner sharing his diaries with Congress,

diaries that undercut the official line, but Mr. Steiner was soon packing, and

the loyalty mode was established. Trash the diaries or don’t write them. Don’t

even think them. And so never during Impeachment did anyone say, “I’m

embarrassed that I served as a conduit of rumors to destroy the reputation of a

young woman-therefore I will resign.”

That red-and-blue map had already taken hold in people’s

minds, a feeling of us against them, expressed at once poignantly and

ridiculously by Barbra Streisand, who said lately of Mr. Bush, “Our whole way

of life is at stake.” She wasn’t just talking about abortion, but a whole set

of shared values about how the world works. As if they are really in danger.

The fury that Democrats turned on Mr. Nader, and then his

supporters, during the late campaign is the freshest example of those loyalty

demands. Here again they were largely successful. Mr. Nader had polled close to

5 percent and wound up with 2 percent. Much of Mr. Nader’s losses were

obviously Gore people coming home to the Democratic Party; still, it is

remarkable to compare the Nader third-party movement with Ross Perot’s and John

Anderson’s before. Those men routinely got 7 and 8 percent, even 19. Maybe

Ralph Nader’s movement was truly smaller. But the fact is that blue culture is

not really tolerant of dissent, and it hammered away at the Nader campaign

through the final weeks, effectively.

A letter by prominent progressive intellectuals caricatured

Mr. Nader as an unstable nut (“dangerous,” “wrecking ball,” “unbelievable,”

“incredible”). In The Times , Janet Malcolm compared Nader to

Roger Clemens throwing the shattered bat-head. Kate Michelman went on and on

about abortion.

It had the emotion of a family feud. The Nader chastisers

were always somewhat parental. But, like parents, they just didn’t get it. They

imagined that they knew what was most important to us, so they could say that

Al Gore was better on those issues. But Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore are hard to tell

apart, harder than ever. And what if your issue is corporate influence of the

political process? What if you are concerned that all the big media are owned

by big corporations, and ideas are marketed like Cheerios?

The other day, the Times

Arts & Ideas page had a deadly story (by Alexander Stille) about

progressive American intellectuals being completely ignored in the United

States while their ideas are taken up in Europe. Arguments against

bio-engineering, redistributive schemes to give every 18-year-old $14,000 to

invest in a house or education. These ideas are actively discussed in Europe

and shunned here. Because in the culture of globalization, they are heretical.

They could send the markets down. And that was always Ralph Nader’s strongest

argument: Our democratic discourse is shriveling, it has no room any more for

unorthodox ideas.

As a Nader voter, I feel a certain detachment now, watching

the factions, seeing the fixer Bill Daley come out with a gallows expression

vowing trench warfare and Bob Dole with his strange face lift warning about

Republicans boycotting the Inauguration. What hacks they are!

And sadly, Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush seem controlled by their

factions. If one of them were Presidential, he could lift us out of this. The

Frank Capra moment could still happen. George Bush could say, “You know what? I

lost the popular vote, and it sure looks like Florida didn’t want to vote for

me either, so I’m going to step back now and stop this mess.” He would be the

big winner.

For a while on election night, George W. Bush had even

played the old-time hero who stands above the fray. When a reporter at the

governor’s mansion said that his whole future was on the line, Mr. Bush bridled.

No it isn’t! he said. My life will go on fine without this prize, he was

saying.

But that act vanished in a hurry. Now we see who he is, a

nervous Nelly with his father’s lineup card, and determined to win on a

technicality.

Al Gore may still have his lofty opportunity to win by

losing. But it doesn’t look like it. Outside the White House, his relentless

smiling seemed to mask disappointment and rage. What kind of winner will he

be-how condescending-and how bitter a loser? Two princes, and not a noble drop

of blood between them.

They almost make Nixon look good. When he let go of the

Presidency, his parting words to his staff were poetic, and his wave from the

helicopter door was brave and cleansing.

Of course, that was his last act. We’re going to have both

these guys to kick around for a long time.

Who’s Looking More Presidential: Al the Snipper or George the Human Boil?