Capital Letters: Presidential Contenders

In which our man in Washington hears Earthtone Al and Dubya Bush lower their voices reverently and D.C.'s mayor support vouchers.


Subj: China Good, Cuba Bad
Date: 5/30/2000 6:55:49 PM
From: mwlynch@reason.com

I headed over to the National Press Club last week, along with 300 to 400 of my closest colleagues in the Washington press corps, to catch George W. Bush. I was eager to witness Dubya answering unscripted questions. My hunch was that Bush gets a bad rap—"the English Patient" is his handle among some who travel with him—and that he couldn't be as bad as his Yale grades. He wasn't.

"I guess he's not talking about education," said a woman behind me, as Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Colin Powell, and other GOP foreign policy luminaries took their places between the podium and 12 American flags. Once the elders were settled, Bush commenced.

He got off to an awkward start, reading the prepared text of his big foreign policy announcement. Surrounded by Cold Warriors, he accused the Clinton administration of being "locked in a Cold War mentality," declared his intention to build a missile defense system to protect all 50 states and select allies, and promised to unilaterally reduce America's weapon stockpiles to the lowest level consistent with our national security.

He was trying a tad too hard. Like a first grader learning to read in front of class, Bush put all his energy into pronouncing each word correctly, at the cost of sentence and paragraph flow. If I wasn't reading the prepared text, I'm not sure I could have absorbed his speech.

He had no such problems in Q&A, when he answered questions directly and cut up the room with humor.

What's the difference, asked one reporter, between China's communist government and Cuba when you consider things like freedom of the press, fair elections, oppression of minorities, and attacks on religious movements with no political intentions? Bush didn't duck the question, but he lapsed back into the very Cold War mindset he'd been decrying. "The difference is, uh, as far as I'm concerned, that we are trading with an entrepreneurial class in China. That by trading with China we are encouraging a group of entrepreneurs, small business owners to get a taste of freedom," said Dubya, lowering his voice reverently when uttering "taste of freedom." "That's not the case in Cuba. In Cuba we are trading with government-controlled entities."

So I guess a President G.W. would have no objections to day trips to Cuba, where Americans could engage in one-on-one trade with small entrepreneurs and give them a taste of post-Cold War freedom? Don't count on it. What's the real difference between China and Cuba when it comes to trade? Only this: An organized voting bloc in an important state that happens to be governed by Bush's brother. Which is too bad. I'd take a Cuban-rolled Cohiba over a Chinese-stitched shirt any day.

Subj: Class of 2000 & 2004
Date: 5/31/2000 5:57:22 PM
From: mwlynch@reason.com

It wasn't easy getting me to show up for school, let alone for optional events like graduation. But when Patrick Purtill of the Washington Scholarship Fund, which provides partial tuition scholarships to low-income D.C. kids, called to invite me to its graduation, I marked my calendar. The ceremony for 75 eighth graders and six high school seniors was held at St. Augustine Catholic School, which is attached to D.C.'s oldest black Catholic church.

The auditorium was packed. Two students delivered remarks, thanking their families, their teachers, and the scholarship foundation. Ashley Tardy, the eighth-grade speaker, paraphrased Ben Franklin to the effect that "if a man empties his purse into his head, no one can take that away from him." Stephanie Lawrence, who graduated from the Bullis School and is headed to Dickinson College next year to pursue a pre-med major, waxed poetic: "Education is like going on a journey," she said. "It helps you discover who you are and who you want to become."

D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams rose to speak after the students. He talked about why education mattered and dwelled on the sacrifices the children's parents had made for them to be able to achieve what they have. Williams' dad, it seems, was a decorated veteran of World War II who returned home not to parades, but to a job at the U.S.P.S., where he worked for the next 40 years without a single day off, all to support his eight children.

I'm not sure whether that was meant to inspire the kids or just scare the hell out of them—40 years at the post office is about the best motivational message out there to go to college. The mayor followed it up by delivering the "three keys" to success: Believe in God, work together, and pay attention to the basics. He illustrated the second point with a story about a poor farmer's mule pulling a rich lady's Jaguar off a country road. The fable he told about sticking to the basics made even less sense. "A short cut is fine," explained Williams. "But if you don't learn the main route, a short cut doesn't do you very much good."

I caught up with the mayor after the ceremony. He was standing by his black Ford Expedition, which was parked right up in front of the school, its back door open, exposing a cup of Starbucks in the center console cup holder. A gaggle of press, asking him questions about the next fire chief, stood between him and his tepid latte.

"Good to see you man, how's everything?" he greeted me, as if I were an old drinking buddy or a regular on the city hall beat, when in fact we'd just met for the first time. I stumbled a bit, thrown off by his chumminess, but I managed to ask him if he created any controversy by speaking at a private school graduation. "I know vouchers aren't real popular with…" I mumbled, before Williams cut me off. "Why shouldn't I support every child in the city, wherever they go to school?" asked Williams. "I went to a parochial school. Why wouldn't I come here? This is my parish. I'm not connecting the dots. Maybe I'm stupid." I had no follow-up ready and he moved a step closer toward his Expedition.

Subj: Al Gore on Fatherhood
Date: 6/2/2000 6:27:28 PM
From: mwlynch@reason.com

"When Tipper and I started our own family," Vice President Al Gore revealed today at the National Fatherhood Initiative's Third National Summit on Fatherhood (sponsored in part by that great family business, Anheuser-Busch), "I was naturally eager to be involved." I'll bet he was eager.

Two dullards—Kevin Thurm, a Clintoncrat from the Department of Health and Human Services, and George Gallup Jr., of the famous polling family—spoke before the vice president hit the stage. I'm convinced that Gore operatives placed both of these fellows on the program to make Al appear dynamic. Polls, my friends, are meant to be read, not heard. And HHS bureaucrats ought never to be given a microphone.

Earthtone Al played to the audience of some 300 people who were passionate about paternity. "For too long, most of our national conversation about families has been a close-up of the mother-child bond," he said, fathering a bright, bouncing mixed metaphor. "And nobody here is saying that conversation shouldn't continue. It should. It must. But the father can no longer be cropped out of the family photograph when we are talking about families because fatherhood is an experience at the heart of the human experience."

Government, of course, is at the heart of Gore's experience and so, after stories of being a father and grandfather, Gore got around to policy. At times he sounded positively Republican. "We know that child poverty in America is often, more than by any other cause, caused by the absence of one parent in a child's life." Taking a page from his boss' playbook (the page that explains how to co-opt Republican policies), he called for ending the marriage-tax penalty, decrying it as a "fundamental flaw in the tax code's value system." The next generation of welfare reform, said Al, has to focus on making deadbeat dads pay up. We've put women to work, he said; it's time we put men to work as well.

And if they don't go to work and support their kids, he's ready to cut up their credit cards like an angry waiter in a restaurant. Promised Al, "I will urge the nation's credit card companies to deny credit to any parent who owes a substantial amount of child support." He also wants the government to set up special savings accounts for them.

But it's not just financial support that Al's concerned with. He's also worried about "emotional" deadbeat dads—"fathers who communicate with their children across a glaring TV set and don't communicate from the heart at all; fathers who pay the bills, but leave a deficit of love and caring and self-esteem in their children's lives." He didn't offer a solution to this issue, which is perhaps another indicator that the era of Big Government is indeed over: It takes some courage to admit that the state can't solve problems as pressing as the dearth of good dinner-table conversation.

Al wrapped up by recalling his own childhood and undercutting his assertion that the father who communicates over a television set is necessarily an emotional deadbeat. "The moments we learn from a father really do not come with big announcements or with bugles blowing," he said, lowering his voice for effect. "I remember watching my father bait a hook…and sit quietly for an hour. I remember him playing his fiddle for good friends late at night….I recall the way he had of looking at my mother. From such moments sons learn more from their dads about patience, joy, beauty, and love than they do from all of the lectures."

I'm sure there are times when Al wished his old man was a bit more outspoken—for instance, during his final, failed senatorial bid, Al Sr. might have told his son that he shouldn't enlist in the Vietnam War if he didn't really believe in it.

But I'm with the vice president when it comes to praising laconic fathers. I know I used to like my dad much better when he was sitting quietly for an hour than when he was lecturing me about getting caught by the cops for being underage and drunk in public.