Monday, February 12, 2007

The X Factor for '08

During the 1960 campaign, John Kennedy said he sometimes felt sorry for Richard Nixon: “It must be hard getting up every morning trying to decide who you’re going to be that day.”

That could be the X Factor for 2008. Since Kennedy, few politicians have seemed so comfortable in their own skins. Ronald Reagan and Mario Cuomo come to mind, but Reagan was an actor and Cuomo refused to go through the political meat grinder in 1992.

Next year, after the longest campaign ever, voters will be starved for authenticity, the sense of a real person behind all the packaging.

Thus far, prospects are poor.

In fifteen years, has anyone seen Hillary Clinton in an uncalculated public moment?

Will John McCain stop reinventing himself before or after his party’s primaries?

What, if anything, is behind John Edwards’ eager-to-please smile?

When will Mitt Romney stop tripping over his past positions?

Who will emerge as the real Rudy Giuliani from his purloined playbook? Even this early, he is repudiating versions of his former self.

As voters puzzle over the meaning of such ink-blot candidates, will they start yearning for someone who is actually there for them to see?

That desire is part of what’s behind Obama’s early surge, but even he had to tell Tim Russert with a worried smile that his wife and friends think he’s still there behind all the hype. Can he stay? On 60 Minutes last night, he said the “attempt to airbrush your exhausting.”

Earnest men like Dennis Kucinich and Tom Vilsack are trying, without much luck, to be seen and heard.

In our age of super-blather, we have time for a long, hard look at the next President in debates that go beyond catch phrases and gotchas.

We can take clues from “Honest Abe,” everybody’s favorite President this month. (Obama steeped his announcement in a Lincolnesque aura, and Rudy Giuliani in New Hampshire has been comparing the Great Emancipator with, no joke, George W. Bush.)

In 2008, 150 years after the Lincoln-Douglas debates helped decide the 1860 Presidential election, we can create their equivalent for our era. Lincoln and Stephen Douglas went at it seven times for four hours each so voters could see the men behind the rhetoric.

We can insist that today’s contenders stop conning us and confront one another in comparable give-and-take.

Or will we just settle for a rerun of those “American Idol” campaigns that spewed out George W. Bush?

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