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Personality Test

Erskine Bowles and the politics of anti-personality.

Erskine Bowles likes to say that he is not a politician--which might seem strange considering that he's running to replace Jesse Helms as a U.S. senator from North Carolina. But watching Bowles campaign at a nursing home outside of Greensboro one recent summer morning, it was easy to understand his oft-repeated disclaimer. Several dozen seniors were gathered in the facility's dreary dining room, more than a couple of them nodding off despite the breakfast cleanup loudly taking place in the adjoining kitchen. It was not an auspicious setting for a campaign stop, and as the event's starting time drew near I waited for someone to prepare the room for the candidate's arrival. But no one did: At the appointed time, with no fanfare, Bowles walked into the room. He didn't pause to shake any hands or even wave; he just made a beeline for the podium, told a brief anecdote about his mother--"who's in a facility just like this"--and launched into his prepared speech. Those who were sleeping did not stir; the noise from the kitchen did not let up.

But if Bowles doesn't work a room like a typical pol, he does have some other things going for him in his Senate campaign. First there's his political rsum. Although the 57-year-old Democrat has never held elected office, he spent much of the 1990s in Washington as a member of the Clinton administration--part of it serving as White House chief of staff. Then there's his money. Before going to Washington, Bowles was a successful businessman, founding an investment-banking firm in Charlotte and accumulating a net worth that, in a February filing with the Senate, he estimated was between $31.3 million and $71. 5 million. Finally there's his name. Bowles hails from a prominent North Carolina family: His late father, Hargrove "Skipper" Bowles Jr., a flamboyant businessman turned politician who ran as the Democratic nominee for governor in 1972, is still remembered fondly by many older North Carolinians. All of which means that when Tar Heel Democrats go to the polls on September 10 for their long-delayed primary (it was originally scheduled for May but was postponed because of a redistricting dispute), Bowles is considered the overwhelming favorite to win.

STILL, BOWLES WILL be a decided underdog in the November general election. That's because his Republican opponent will almost certainly be Elizabeth Dole. Dole lived in Washington, D.C., for more than three decades and didn't move back to her home state to run for the Senate until last year. (She now claims her 101-year-old mother's home in Salisbury as her official residence.) Since her return she's conducted one of the most issue-less campaigns in recent memory--emphasizing her biography and personality in campaign appearances and dodging not only the press but even her opponents. But none of that has seemed to matter, as North Carolinians have greeted her with open arms. In the most recent public poll, conducted by the Dole campaign in July, she led Bowles 61 percent to 29 percent. Indeed, as Dole has campaigned, she's been treated more like a celebrity on the scale of Oprah or Kathie Lee--hounded for autographs and asked to pose for snapshots--than a mere candidate. "This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime things," a GOP county chair gushed to USA Today on the occasion of Dole's visit to his neck of the woods.

Bowles knows that he cannot compete with Dole's star power, so he's going in the opposite direction, downplaying his personality and talking up the issues. On the day I saw him at the nursing home, the issue was that old Democratic standby, prescription drugs. Bowles is a tall man with combed-back black hair and deeply tanned skin. But as he droned on about prescription-drug prices-- "Here in North Carolina ... the cost of Prevacid would be one hundred and forty- two dollars and twelve cents. The exact same drug in [Canada, Italy, and Germany] would be fifty-seven dollars and ninety-one cents"--he seemed to blend into his dreary surroundings. After about 20 more minutes of talking about prescription-drug prices--Bowles went on to compare the costs of Celebrex and Lipitor in North Carolina to their costs overseas--he offered to take questions. For a few uncomfortable moments no one in the audience stirred: Bowles had either stunned those who were awake with his mastery of policy minutia--or he'd bored them to sleep.

Bowles's self-consciously substantive, unflashy campaign--the mirror opposite of Dole's experiment in content-less political celebrity--makes for an interesting retroactive test case. Ever since Al Gore lost to George W. Bush, some Democrats have maintained that if Gore had just campaigned as the smarter, more engaged candidate that he actually was--instead of masking his superior intellect and experience in a bid to look as much a "regular guy" as Bush--he, rather than W., would now be in the White House. This is the operating premise of the ongoing presidential campaign on the TV show "The West Wing," the alternative political universe that Aaron Sorkin has constructed for disaffected Democrats. As Sorkin has imagined it (and as he told The New Yorker in March), the Nobel Laureate President Josiah Bartlet will try to beat his Republican challenger, the not-so-sharp Florida Governor Robert Ritchie, by making the "election about smart and stupid, about engaged and not, qualified and not." In TVland this gambit will undoubtedly work. (The show's ratings are too high for its stars to be voted out of the White House just yet.) But in the real world, the Sorkin strategy isn't so surefire. While it might be nice to think that smarter, more engaged candidates really do win elections, sometimes personality and presentation matter most--as Erskine Bowles is finding out.

AS CLINTON'S CHIEF of staff, Bowles had ample exposure to one of the era's great natural politicians. But long before he worked for Clinton, he worked for another natural: his father, Skipper Bowles. A combustible blend of charisma and ambition, Skipper Bowles had risen from humble origins in the small farm town of Monroe to become, by the mid-'50s, one of the most successful businessmen in North Carolina, amassing a fortune from a string of successful grocery, jewelry, and real estate ventures. In 1960 an up-and-coming young Democrat named Terry Sanford asked Bowles to be the chief fund-raiser for his gubernatorial campaign; when Sanford was elected he appointed Bowles director of the state's Department of Conservation and Development. It was traditionally a low-profile job, but not for Bowles, who traveled all over the United States--and sometimes the world--trying to lure businesses to North Carolina. He even used his post to score a high-profile civil rights victory, ordering the integration of state parks. For a flamboyant extrovert like Bowles, the limelight afforded by politics proved irresistible: After the Sanford administration ended, Bowles won a seat in the state legislature and set his eyes on the governor's mansion.

In 1972 he ran. Touting his business success but declaring that he was "no aloof stuffed shirt," Bowles barnstormed across the state. "He loved to get out and press the flesh," recalls Roy Parker Jr., a longtime North Carolina newspaperman who served as Bowles's campaign press secretary. When Bowles won the Democratic Primary in a runoff, it looked like the governor's job was his. After all, in North Carolina, as in most Southern states, Democrats had enjoyed the fruits of one-party government since the end of Reconstruction. But after the tumult of the '60s, white Southerners were gravitating toward the GOP, and old Southern Democratic stalwarts were starting to fall by the wayside: In 1970 Albert Gore Sr. lost his Senate seat in Tennessee. And George McGovern's presence at the top of the national ticket made 1972 a particularly tough year for Southern Democrats; that November, Richard Nixon's coattails were long enough in North Carolina to carry Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Holshouser (along with the GOP's U.S. Senate candidate, a TV commentator named Jesse Helms) to victory. Skipper Bowles never ran for office again; when he died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 1986, his obituaries noted that he was the first Democrat to lose the North Carolina governor's race in the twentieth century.

Erskine Bowles was 27 when his father lost, and he witnessed it firsthand: He had quit a job at Morgan Stanley in New York to move back to North Carolina to work on the campaign. The experience seemed to sour the younger Bowles on the public sector. "I don't think he ever had a good taste for politics after his dad lost that gubernatorial race," says Jim Compton, who has known Bowles since they were both children growing up in Greensboro. Unlike the young son of another vanquished Southern Democrat, Albert Gore Jr.--who was elected to the House of Representatives only six years after his father's defeat--Bowles did not seek to run for office himself. Instead he returned to the world of business, founding an investment-banking firm in Charlotte, where he stayed until the early '90s, when Clinton ( la Terry Sanford with Skipper Bowles three decades earlier) came calling for campaign cash. After Clinton was elected president, Bowles followed him to Washington, serving first as the director of the Small Business Administration and then in the White House.

BUT WHEREAS SKIPPER used his government job as a public stage, Erskine stayed out of the spotlight. In contrast to his predecessor as White House chief of staff, Leon Panetta, Bowles mostly steered clear of the Sunday-morning talk shows. Instead he fashioned himself as a deal maker, taking the most satisfaction from the 1997 balanced-budget agreement he negotiated with congressional Republicans on behalf of the president. "Erskine's previous life was as an investment banker, and investment bankers act as agents for companies, " says Nelson Schwab, a friend and former business partner. "They tend to be more behind-the-scenes than out front."

Bowles's style has made him a very reluctant candidate for elected office. When he left Washington in 1998, a number of North Carolina Democrats urged him to run for governor in 2000. But after a brief flirtation, he declined. The same dynamic initially played out last year when Tar Heel Democrats tried and failed to persuade Bowles to run for the Senate in 2002. But last fall Bowles changed his mind about the Senate race and declared that he would run. His stated reason was September 11: Bowles was in New York on the day of the attacks and, for several hours that morning, could not find one of his sons who worked only a few blocks from the World Trade Center. "Everything's changed for me," Bowles said when he announced his candidacy in October. "My aversion to being a politician is not important. I want to spend all of my time in public service."

Of course, overcoming that aversion was easier with Jesse Helms out of the picture. When Bowles had initially decided against a Senate bid in May of last year, Helms was still planning to run. But, three months later Helms announced that he would retire when his fifth Senate term ended in 2003. In North Carolina, Democrats have fared well in off-year Senate races, when turnout is low and there are no coattails from the GOP presidential candidate (who has not lost the state since 1976). But Helms had always been an exception to this rule: In fact, he's the only North Carolina Republican to have won an off-year Senate race this century. With Helms's retirement, the advantage in this year's Senate race seemed to shift to the Democrats. Especially since Dole, who threw her hat into the ring after Helms bowed out, was coming off a disastrous presidential campaign and (to Democrats at least) didn't seem ready for prime time. "She's just such a perfectionist," one Democrat close to Bowles crowed in March. "I think before this is all done she's going to crack!"

But Dole hasn't cracked. In fact, so far she's run a brilliant if utterly cynical campaign. Taking full advantage of her celebrity status--which means that voters pay attention to her even when she's not doing anything attention-worthy—Dole has largely steered clear of the press, usually taking only softball questions and sometimes abruptly ending interviews when the queries get tough. She has also avoided taking solid positions on sensitive issues, preferring instead to talk in generalities or focus on issues where there isn't really any debate. Or she does both at the same time, as she did in late July when, in what her campaign billed as a major policy announcement, she declared: "We need an all-out revival of our crusade to rid America of illegal drugs. ... I will be a champion for this cause." In effect, Dole's Senate campaign is an extended version of her 1996 Republican National Convention speech: Instead of strolling around a convention hall for a half-hour with a relentless smile and an ample supply of platitudes, she's doing it for a whole year across an entire state.

ALL OF WHICH is driving the Bowles campaign a little bit batty. Bowles's aides and supporters routinely complain that the press is giving Dole a free ride. (In truth, the North Carolina press has been pretty hard on Dole; it's the voting public that doesn't seem to care.) And they bemoan the fact that the long delay in holding the primary means that Bowles will only have two months, instead of six, to run directly against her. "I think once you get Erskine and Dole head-to-head, it'll become clear who the superior candidate is," says one Bowles adviser. "But we'll have to move fast after the primary."

Bowles has actually gotten a head start—virtually ignoring his two main opponents in the Democratic primary, State Representative Dan Blue and Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, and instead training all of his firepower on Dole. Bowles has hammered away at Dole for wanting to privatize Social Security and for her vague positions on other issues. "What she hasn't said is what she's really for," Bowles has complained. He has also frequently pointed out that Dole did not live in North Carolina for 44 years. Indeed, Bowles's entire campaign can be interpreted as a not particularly subtle critique of Dole; his just-the-issues approach is designed to highlight Dole's issue-less one.

AFTER HIS SPEECH  at the nursing home, I interviewed Bowles in one of the facility's small meeting rooms. Seated in the cramped space and sipping water from a plastic cup, he was a world away from an executive suite in Charlotte or a West Wing office in Washington, and I asked him how he liked being a politician. "You know I've said so many times, `I'm not a politician, I don't plan to become one, and I still don't feel like a politician,'" he insisted. "I think you see that when I go somewhere I try to answer all the questions, the hard ones, the easy ones, no matter what they are. I feel like I'm just being myself; and hopefully, you know, when people get a chance to see who you are and what you are and whether you're real and genuine, they'll decide whether or not to vote for you."

Bowles is hardly the first candidate to trumpet his authenticity. But normally, as was the case with George W. Bush, candidates display their authenticity by flaunting their simplicity and anti-intellectualism. If they're not really simplistic and anti-intellectual (e.g., Al Gore), they feign authenticity by pretending they are. For Bowles though--who, unlike Gore, spent most of his adult life actively avoiding politics—it's just the opposite: His authenticity stems from his refusal to dumb things down or act folksy. Sometimes he takes this to annoying extremes, as when he makes a big deal of refusing his aides' advice that he wear contacts rather than his distinctively dorky clear-framed glasses. "I'm not going to change what I am," he told me at the nursing home, "just like I'm not going to change my glasses." He's also too fond of the self-deprecating remark. "When Madeleine Albright came down here," he recounted, "she said, 'You know, Erskine can't dance as good as Jesse Helms, and he's not as pretty as John Edwards, but, you know, he's a really smart, good guy who I know really cares and can get things done.'"

But Bowles's emphasis on authenticity also allows him to speak in refreshingly blunt terms. When I asked him about whether Dole's campaign is issue-less and too centered on her personality, he answered exasperatedly: "Look, she is what she is. And if this campaign is going to be about going around and making a little forty-five-minute speech and then going to the next town and sending your husband out to do something similar"—Bob Dole is now making appearances on his wife's behalf around North Carolina—"if that's what it's going to be, then she may win. But I think if it's about the issues and where we stand on the issues and who knows the most about North Carolina and who's actually done the most for North Carolina and who can do the most and really will care the most about North Carolina, then I think I'll win." Bowles is also unusually frank about the contrast between his experience in the Clinton administration and Dole's decidedly undistinguished tenures as Transportation secretary under President Ronald Reagan and Labor secretary under the first President Bush. "I think the job I had in Washington, as compared to any of the positions she's had, will enable me to really get something done," he told me. "As White House chief of staff, on a daily basis you deal with health care issues, welfare issues, taxation, budget, the environment, Bosnia, Northern Ireland, the Mideast—and then you have lunch."

THE DOWNSIDE TO this candor, of course, is that it also makes Bowles seem haughty, the "aloof stuffed shirt" his father was not. Bowles has some of the businessman's disdain for Washington. Even when he worked in the White House, Bowles pasted on his office wall a New Yorker cartoon showing a man in hell. The caption read: "On the other hand, it's great to be out of Washington." And that disdain can be rather unattractive. After all, it's hardly clear (especially in the current cultural environment) that being an investment banker is any better than being a politician. Indeed, even Aaron Sorkin seems to recognize that if a candidate is going to run on authenticity, that candidate's authentic self had better be pretty appealing. While "The West Wing"'s President Bartlet does have a bit of a snotty streak, he's also witty and charismatic and inspirational.

At some level Bowles seems to understand this. So in spite of his disdain for the more superficial aspects of campaigning, he is trying his best to engage in them. On the Fourth of July he took part in an Independence Day parade in Greensboro. Standing in the bed of a vintage Chevy pickup that had been decorated with campaign signs, miniature bowling pins, and big cardboard glasses frames and christened the "Bowles Mobile," the candidate hammed it up. He hooted and waved and looked on with satisfaction as some children who joined him for the ride chanted, "Go Erskine" and threw candy to the onlookers lining the parade route. When a man holding a baby girl approached him, Bowles not only accepted the man's proffered hand and vigorously shook it; he leaned over, put his face up to the baby's, and planted a big kiss on her cheek. "Mmmmmmum!" Bowles smacked his lips for effect.

But as soon as the parade ended so did Bowles's ham act. He promptly jumped off the truck, and his smile turned into a slight frown. As the candidate stood by himself in an empty parking lot, I sidled up and asked how he'd liked the parade. "Oh, it was great!" he said a bit too enthusiastically, his mouth instantly going into a big, forced grin. "This is the fun part. All the other stuff is work. This is just being with people." But as Bowles continued to talk, his smile once again faded. "Well, for me it's a little embarrassing having my name up there," he confessed, gesturing at the "Bowles Mobile." "I've been to parades before," he went on, "but I always just ran alongside or threw candy." Shrugging his shoulders and letting out a small sigh, he added, "I just hope I never get used to this."

This article originally appeared in the September 9, 2002 issue of the magazine.