Bradley only compounded the problem by blaming the incidents on "too much cream soda." First, you don't have to be a machista to think there's something a bit unpresidential about a guy who can be felled by drinking a caffeinated soda. Churchill would drink two glasses of brandy for breakfast and order the bombing of Hamburg;
Bradley's going to wind up missing a disarmament summit because some waiter misheard his order for an "extra tall mocha decaf skim latte." Second, Bradley's bound to pick some left-wing nut as his runningmate; are we only a Diet Coke away from President Wellstone or President Harkin? Still, if Bradley had the worst week of his campaign last week, almost guaranteeing a below-expectations result in this week's Iowa caucuses, there was more to it than his ticker. There are all sorts of things I was told would make sense once I matured,but still don't. I used complain at 18, "Hey, man, how come I can be sent abroad to die for my country but I can't go to Maddie's for a few beers after work?" It's a wiseass question, and someone should have pointed out that I stood a very good chance of drinking several beers every day, and next to none of doing anything in battle. But even in full adulthood, I'm not happy with any of the answers I got.
I used to ask similar questions about why we have such long, drawn-out election campaigns in this country. It's got worse and worse as the decades have passed. In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower dawdled until the edge of primary season before he even decided which party he belonged to. In 1968, Robert Kennedy waited until Eugene McCarthy's strong second-place finish in New Hampshire to decide to run. But today, if you don't have a campaign apparatus set up two years early, you're out of the running. If a government dissolves in Europe, they generally call an election in three or four weeks. The party machines go to work, tramping door-to-door, bribing journalists and doing all the stuff they generally do in Europe?and in no time, they've got a new government that works every bit as well as the ones it takes us 18 or 24 months to elect. What's our problem?
Last week, after being puzzled for my whole life, I finally understood why our campaigns are endless: it's to provide a trap door for people like Bill Bradley. Our problem is that we don't dissolve governments. Once we elect a president, we're stuck with him for four years. That wouldn't ordinarily be a problem, but our national culture is particularly inclined to give a hearing to sanctimonious mediocrities. After listening to Bradley for six months, we can tell that, while Bradley's no worse than most politicians, he's no better, either. But what first appealed in Bradley was a tendency toward moralistic lecturing that seems spiritual at first, but gets very old very fast. And the thought of enduring his sanctimony for half a decade is the reason why Bradley is dropping like a rock in the polls. Because Bradley's sanctimony, like all sanctimony, is never far from shading into dishonesty.
The low point of his campaign came during last week's "race" debate with Al Gore, when he challenged Gore to "walk down the hall" and get Bill Clinton to issue a variety of race-based executive orders. You can accuse Al Gore of many things, but negligence in "caring" about blacks is not one of them. It's Gore, not Bill Bradley, who has a black woman, Donna Brazile, running his campaign. She's a radical at that, who was involved in a pro-affirmative action sit-in in the offices of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush last week. Gore has taken a lot of heat to defend her against justified charges of racism and incompetence. If the Democratic Party's race-mongering is problematic, it's not (as Bradley would have it) because it's diffident and sneaky, but precisely because it's so orthodox and confident. There is not a chance in hell of Gore wavering on the Democratic Party's commitment to blacks.
Then there's the hokey weakness for aphorism that reminds one that Bradley is at heart a Midwestern goober, with no claim to being Northeastern aside from having run around the gymnasia of the civilized states for a few years. "You should be fixing your roof while the sun is shining," Bradley says, which, translated out of his manipulative front-porchery, means: You should trust me to pass a draconian deficit-reduction passage that doesn't make any sense to you.
But when Bradley broke down and cried while talking about a family of four without insurance in Salem, NH, that took the cake. I grew up near Salem, a town that grows more prosperous year by year, as more and more of Massachusetts' high-tech companies relocate north of the state line. Furthermore, I spent last interviewing Cubans who had escaped to Miami after making four dollars a month cleaning latrines. Listening to Bradley's snuffles, it was hard not be reminded of Oscar Wilde's remark on the death of Dickens' Little Nell: One would have to have a heart of stone to keep from bursting out laughing.
Homespun Elsewhere in the Dickens department, New Jersey Senate candidate Jon Corzine warned of inequities in our medical industry. "America's health care system can be the very best," Corzine said. "But I also know it can be a Tale of Two Cities, where we may be on a slippery slope that takes us away from historic excellence."
To hear such gobbledygook is to realize, with a flush of optimism, that what we call "soundbites" are not a permanent convention in American politics so much as a passing fad, and that they're on their way out. Soundbites started with a recognition that (1) Americans now were getting almost all of their political news through network television and (2) networks had developed an amply justified aversion to standard political pap, which left them reluctant to keep the camera on a politician for more than 10 seconds at a time. The result was a desperate attempt to insert a memorable, 10-second oratorical kernel at the heart of every political speech. But over time, the natural predisposition of political consultants toward complacency has made the soundbite as formulaic and unmemorable as the political boilerplate it was meant to replace. Nowadays, a soundbite is a wearily constructed extended (and invariably mixed) metaphor, almost a metaphysical conceit.
Typical was the attack John McCain's New Hampshire chairman Peter Spaulding made on George Dubya's tax plan last week: "Bush's two-step may play down in Texas," Spaulding said, "but here in New Hampshire voters won't dance to this negative tune."
That's right, Peter! And since the orchestra of high finance may have forgotten the sheet music of supply-side rhetoric, the dancefloor that is the electorate is retreating to the cash bar of voter apathy, uncertain whether to order the well drinks of continuity in government or the heady top-shelf liquor of fundamental change in the political system, waiting for those political disk jockeys, the pundits, to throw a Hail Mary pass down the slippery slope of Great Expectations while the sun is shining through the roof we forgot to fix.