Nobody ever accused American presidential politics of suffering from too much dignity, but the 2000 election has been a singularly post-labial affair. In what is likely to remain the signature moment of the campaign, Democratic nominee Al Gore grabbed his wife Tipper in front of thousands of screaming delegates at the party convention in Los Angeles and kissed her passionately for–according to authoritative sources–more than three seconds. Pressed between their firm but broadcast, cabled, satellited, and videostreamed lips lies an elusive solution to a major Washington mystery: How could Gore’s convention have seemed such an embarrassment and yet have solved so many of his political problems?
The Kiss, for example, left nearly the whole of the elite press corps grimacing. Conservative critics such as columnist Robert Novak found the sight "disgusting"; right-winger Cal Thomas thought that the Gores "should have gotten a room." No surprise there. But even a centrist political reporter like Jack Germond of The Baltimore Sun thought the moment "X-rated," while presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said on PBS that watching the Gores made her feel like an intruder.
Most political critics also grimaced at Gore’s I’ll-Fight-for-You acceptance speech. Gore got credit for affect, because he managed to avoid sounding like a robot in need of major reprogramming. But the "most important speech of Gore’s life" was almost universally judged to be "the wrong speech." It was no good because it was a "class warfare" speech in a time of unprecedented prosperity; it was no good because it lacked the requisite statement of the candidate’s grand "vision"; it was no good because it was really a laundry list of programs appropriate to a state-of-the-union address; it was no good because, according to Bill Clinton himself, Gore wasn’t addressing the country’s "optimism."
Indeed, the whole, often stupefying Democratic convention was judged to be no good. The opinion-poll lead enjoyed by Republican nominee George W. Bush in the wake of the GOP convention actually seemed to grow each day the Democrats met. To the degree that there was a consensus among the agenda-setting political media, it was that Bush could pile up such a formidable lead by Labor Day that Gore simply wouldn’t be able to overcome it. From the point of view of professional politics-watchers, the poli-tical season was threatening to be historically brief.
All these judgments were, at the time they were delivered, entirely reasonable, at least based on the last half-century of presidential politicking. They also turned out to be almost entirely wrong. As the nation’s swimming pools drained at the end of Labor Day weekend, most polls reflected a neck-and-neck contest, with some indicating a small Gore lead. Newsweek actually had the vice president 10 points ahead. Bush seemed to have lost traction, his campaign sounding increasingly reactive. One could reportedly smell panic at The Palm, a favored hangout of Beltway Republicans, as the GOP advantage in the Electoral College threatened to disintegrate. On the other hand, The Washington Post announced on its front page that the "Gore camp’s confidence takes flight."
By the usual Washington standards, none of this made much sense. Gore was always expected to get a post-convention "bounce," but such bounces always faded. Why didn’t Gore’s? What had Bush done wrong? And why didn’t Gore suffer any consequences from his supposed convention mistakes, rhetorical and otherwise? How could Gore’s dull convention, in which his college roommate talked about defrosting turkeys, his daughter talked about toast for breakfast, and his wife showed pictures of Gore dressed as Frankenstein’s monster–all topped off by The Kiss and "the wrong speech"–have worked so much to his advantage? And, perhaps most important, what had happened to the standards by which the nation’s political gatekeepers have long judged campaign success and failure?
You could take your pick of Washington’s early answers. Democrats were making much smarter–and unanswered–media buys. Gore had defused Bush’s best issue–the morality-honor-dignity package–by choosing the publicly pious Sen. Joe Lieberman as his running mate. Lieberman, known only for being an early critic of Clinton’s personal behavior, had enabled Gore to de-Clintonize his candidacy. Bush had allowed Gore to dominate the news for weeks. Bush’s own running mate, Dick Cheney, was proving to be a lethargic campaigner with stock-option problems. Bush’s team of Texan managers was inexperienced in national campaigning. Etc.
These are all worthy answers, and they all knowledgeably address aspects of the Realpolitik of presidential campaigning. But they are all after-the-fact scrambling by a press corps addressing its own sense of surprise. The fact is that Gore’s remarkable early success was seemingly built on an unfathomable foundation.
The problem is that the campaign press was looking for answers in the wrong place. It examined politics from within. But American politics, as reflected in the unusual dynamics of the 2000 campaign, has itself been reshaped. The historic geopolitical changes of the past decade, along with the remarkable development of new media, have resulted in a succession of quiet, interlocking political reactions. American leadership models, once limited to a handful of rhetorical types, are expanding to include different character roles; successful public life is becoming ever more self-revelatory; the relationship between citizens and their elected officials is becoming increasingly direct and personal; the traditional gatekeeper political press is losing its power and significance.
This sounds less like politics as it has been practiced for decades than it does like the dynamics of popular culture. And in fact that is the point. American politics in the wake of the Cold War, and in the context of invasive new media, is readjusting itself according to a familiar cultural model. Al Gore, whether by design or chance, is helping to create what might be called the cultural campaign. Between the conventions and Labor Day, he was telling voters a more compelling story.
In the course of the presidency’s two centuries, politicians have approached the office with a variety of rhetorical and behavioral styles. Some, like William Jennings Bryan and Jimmy Carter, have adhered to an essentially religious model, an approach that can easily transmute into that of a mere scold. Others, like William McKinley and Calvin Coolidge, have adopted the public attitude of the taciturn business CEO. A few, like Woodrow Wilson and Adlai Stevenson, have been professorial, though many more (usually unsuccessful) candidates have been a closely related type: the wonk, a character often nominated in recent years by the Democratic Party.
Many candidates, whatever else they may be, try to reserve some space for being Jes’ Plain Folks. In fact, the claim to humble origins has been a mark of presidential candidacy since William Henry Harrison’s 1840 campaign advertised that he was born in a log cabin, though Harrison was actually born comfortably middle class. Both George W. Bush and Al Gore, sons of power and privilege, made shameless claim to the Jes’ Plain Folks identity in their respective convention acceptance speeches, embracing memories of their supposedly humble pasts.
The single most important leadership model of the past half-century, however, has been military. Throughout the Cold War (with the important exception of the Vietnam years), the commander-in-chief function of the presidency trumped all other models. Even if a candidate had not had the illustrious career that Dwight Eisenhower brought to the 1952 and 1956 campaigns, military credibility was essential in gaining the office.
It would be difficult to overstate the effect on American culture of an ever-present foreign threat. It reshaped almost every public activity, from the Olympics to the space program, transforming non-political figures such as astronauts (John Glenn), concert pianists (Van Cliburn), swimmers (Mark Spitz), and even hockey players into symbolic leaders of national significance. The role of president was consumed by it, and in fact a long series of contests between Republican "warriors" and Democratic "wonks" resulted in the postwar domination of the White House by the GOP.
It has been largely forgotten, for example, that John F. Kennedy campaigned in 1960 as a fiercer cold warrior than Richard Nixon. JFK accused the Republicans of allowing a "missile gap" to open, and promised to go to war to defend a pair of Pacific islands (Quemoy and Matsu) that no one had ever heard of before. Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign foundered on accusations by his own Republican rivals that he would be an irresponsible commander-in-chief, a charge effectively exploited by Lyndon Johnson.