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Speeding Ticket

On Thursday, July 9, the Presidential campaign of Bill Clinton ascended to the mystic plane of political satori, where, with ever-mounting bliss, it remains. That was the day Clinton chose Al Gore to be his running mate, a metaphor the two have since made literal with their daily tandem jog. Even those of us who thought the choice of Gore would be a good one had no idea it would turn out to be a magical one. The whole ticket seems to be vastly greater than the sum of its two parts. The unlooked-for synergy of the Gore choice ignited the campaign for its breathtaking acceleration through a nearly perfect convention and on into its sequel, the triumphal bus tour (if that's not an oxymoron) across the Rust Belt. In picking Gore, Clinton rejected balance, that false god of politics (and journalism), in favor of amplification and consistency-harmonic convergence, you might say. Balance, at least of the conventional kind (regional, ideological, generational), is an act of cautious calculation. Amplification is an act of self-confidence, of clarity. The one aims for equilibrium, the other for dynamism. Of course, it helps when what is being amplified is youth, energy, intelligence, and open-mindedness.

Nothing actually happened at the convention in the way of concrete events except parties and speeches. The best of the former must have been one I missed, though Monday night's boozy reunion of old McGovernites, where Arnold Schwarzenegger, son-in-law of McGovern's No. 2 No. 2 Sargent Shriver, stood bleep by jowl with a succession of diminutive lefties, was pretty good. The best of the latter was Mario Cuomo's nominating address for Clinton. The libretto had some brilliant lines; the music, however, was the thing, and it was grand opera. As in his national debut during the 1984 season, Maestro Cuomo used his Italian baritone to devastating effect. The most striking aspect of his performance, also as in '84, was his effortless control of the audience. With outstretched palms and sinuous body movements he played the crowd like a resonating instrument, damping and releasing its roars as if touching the pedals and pistons of some great cathedral organ. All admired the Cuomo speech; but unlike eight years (or eight months) ago, few indulged fantasies of "if only." By now we know this Pavarotti will never be Rudolph Bing. The difference is that in 1984 Cuomo showed the Democrats, something they otherwise lacked; his masterfulness contrasted with the party's lassitude. In 1992 his speech was' an act of feudal fealty, an expression of Clinton's power rather than his own.

There was nothing small-D democratic about this convention. Democracy had had its day in the primaries, in which Clinton got a higher percentage of the vote than any candidate for an Open Democratic nomination in history. At normal Democratic conventions, once the wounded have been dispatched, the bitternesses deepened, and the police sent back to their barracks, the survivors comfort themselves with the thought that their sprawling, fractious, riotous, chaotic party is a wonderful reflection of the sprawling, fractious, etc., American people. This time, the Democrats had no need of such solace. The convention was simply a show of force. The ostensible message was that the Democrats are now the party of (enlightened) middle-class values and interests. The meta-message was this: Clinton and Gore can govern the party. Therefore they can govern the country.

Every Democratic convention has its emotional high point. Two stand out in my memory: the 22-minute ovation for Robert F. Kennedy in 1964, and the closing tableau of racial and regional healing in 1976, when the first ever nominee from the Old Confederacy stood surrounded by blacks and whites singing "We Shall Overcome." This year's festivities had nothing to match either of those in political meaning or depth of feeling. The 1992 high point was light and joyful: it came when Gore, buoyed by music and applause after his acceptance speech, swept the divine Tipper into his arms for a dance. And why not? The speech had been good by any standard, awesome by Gore-in-'88 standards. Unlike Clinton's shapeless, endless mess, which stopped just short of being bad enough to spoil the convention's by then firmly established story line of unmitigated success, Gore's address was crisply written. And well delivered: the Gore who called down thunderbolts upon the Republicans in Madison Square Garden was not so much wooden as Woden. I wept buckets during Gore's recounting of his son's near-fatal accident. It didn't occur to me at the time that there might be something exploitative about it, or about the avalanche of intimate details set forth in the two acceptance speeches and the films preceding them: not just Gore's son's ordeal arid Gore's sister's death from lung cancer, but also Clinton's father's death in a car crash before he was born, his stepfather's drunken violence against his mother, his separation from mom at age 3, her breast cancer, how he met his wife and proposed to her, what his daughter looked like ( "all sqwunched up) as she emerged from his wife's womb while he watched, how he took care of his wayward brother, and, Of course, how his daughter reacted to his and his wife's televised discussion of their marital difficulties. You can't really blanche Clinton and Gore for foisting all this on the public. The "character issue" is there, the "family values issue" is there, and they must be dealt with. The fact that we have to hear about young Bill Clinton threatening to coldcock his stepdad is an unintended consequence of the press defenestrating of Gary Hart four years ago. The problem is that once all the "positive" personal stuff that supposedly attests to good "character gets trotted out, it becomes harder to that the "negative" personal stuff is argue none of anybody's business.

One thing's for sure: if FDR were running today, his aides would wear little gold wheelchairs on their lapels. And John E Kennedy's 1960 acceptance speech, written under 1992 conditions, I would have sounded less like Cicerot and more like Geraldo. No doubt it would've started out with a vivid description of precisely how his brother Joe was i killed in World War II, tying that in with the theme of sacrifice as well as the need i to find peaceful solutions. Then a couple I of grafs on his mentally retarded sister, Kathleen, and how her plight brought all the members of the family closer together while sensitizing them to the issue: of community-based health care. Something about the candidate's chronic back pain as a metaphor for economic suffering, and a line or two about how his experiences as a recovering cortisone addict deepened his commitment to making drug treatment available to all who seek it. Nor would a reference to how much he had learned about compassion and understanding from living in a dysfunctional family with an intermittently pro-Nazi dad be out of place, along with a candid acknowledgement of the now overcome troubles in his own marriage. The strumpet summons us again, not as a call to bare harms...

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By Hendrik Hertzberg