The Inalienable Right To Whine

Call me a cockeyed optimist, but I think it's time to retire the chicken. You remember the chicken. It showed up most conspicuously in the 1992 presidential campaign, when a couple of Clinton guys in a bar decided to rent a chicken suit and trail George Bush the elder around, complaining that he was afraid to debate. Unfortunately, the elder actually engaged the chicken itself in heated colloquy while on the stump, and many fowl puns ensued in the press. The decision by his opponents to introduce a "pander bear" into the menagerie to harass Clinton didn't catch on in the same fashion.

The chicken, however, has always been good for a sound bite, in New Hampshire and Ohio Senate races, in the contest for a Florida House seat. The chicken even crossed the pond. After John Major's supporters sent a chicken to heckle Tony Blair, the Blair camp sent some folks in fox costumes, and a rhinoceros turned up to complain, justly, that the level of debate had gone to the dogs.

At home and abroad the chicken has been a symbol, of cowardice but of silliness, too, of elections that veer giddily from facts to feathers. And now that the chicken has shown up in the 2000 presidential race, sent by the Democrats when George Bush the younger did not turn up for a Republican debate in October, it's time to retire it. Because this race deserves more than cheap visual imagery and a ratty rent-a-suit. The truth is that this promises to be a most excellent election. If you have a gun, a womb, a wallet, a mortgage, an ailment or a kid, there are real choices proffered by serious men with competing agendas.

The sideshows evaporated mercifully quickly. Al Gore, who has labored long and hard in the shadow of Clinton and Lewinsky, taking instruction on being an alpha male. Bill Bradley, who scarcely spoke of basketball during his Senate career, going to the Garden with a clutch of retired Knicks. (Cue the pander bear!) George Bush failing a pop quiz on foreign leaders designed specifically to force him to fail. John McCain's volcanic temper and the covert suggestion that he might be tempted to deck Boris Yeltsin.

But day after day, breakfast, lunch and dinner speech, there has been more than that. There is substance abroad in the land, and clear choices, too, on everything from abortion to Social Security. These are powerful competing views of what America should become: Bush proposing a massive tax cut, Gore countering that the surplus is needed to save Social Security. Bradley insisting that the country needs something close to universal health care, McCain in favor of a more modest expansion of medical savings accounts. Think of the elections of the last 30 years, the querulous elder statesmen going through the motions, the doomed insurgents, the touchy incumbents done in by an uncooperative economy. Whether because of luck, timing, intellectual stature or good staff work--and don't knock staff work, it's responsible for some of the best legislation of our lifetimes--these guys prove to be better than that.

No third-party distractions this year. Pat Buchanan has become the Harold Stassen of his generation, always running with no chance to win, marginalized now by the economic boom and an essential American distrust of the demagogue. Donald Trump, Reform Party animal, is the pocket handkerchief amid the suits, a colorful and unnecessary momentary distraction. (And the only whiff of sex in the race, given his predilection for talking about what a stud he is with the angular supermodel running for First Girlfriend.) But the flash factor is blessedly low. Now that we have the stained-Gap-dress standard, questions about the cul-de-sacs of personal behavior or background have come and gone. Did George Bush snort coke in another life? Did Cindy McCain once have a pill problem? No one cares.

No one cares: that's the good news. It's the bad news, too. At the Kennedy School at Harvard there's a tracking study ominously called "The Vanishing Voter," which shows that more than 40 percent of those surveyed are paying no attention to the presidential race. This is not entirely surprising; in the 1996 presidential election attendance at the polls reached a record low, with fewer than half of those of eligible age actually coming out to vote.

It's interesting, and dispiriting, to consider this in the context of world politics, of the Northern Irish who have struggled toward a framework for self-government, of the women in Kuwait who vowed to fight on after their Parliament once again last week denied them suffrage. Yet in two short centuries Americans have learned to be cavalier about their astonishing ability to choose their leaders, and to hold dear only the inalienable right to complain. (Note to self: propose a constitutional amendment that if you can't be bothered to vote you shouldn't be allowed to whine for the next four years.) We have become a little like the woman waiting for the prince on a white horse while decent and ordinary men walk by unremarked, saying to herself, "Well, Lincoln's nice, but he's so ugly." There's nobody good running. They're all alike. It won't make any difference anyhow.

That simply will not serve this time around. The two senators, one governor and one vice president leading the contest are men of some achievement and stature. They are not all alike, and it will make a difference. Whether you can carry a concealed weapon. Whether you can have a legal abortion. How much of your paycheck will go to the government. How much of your salary will be spent on medical bills. Directly or indirectly, by the legislation he proposes or the deals he's willing to strike or the appointments he makes, many of these things will be indelibly shaped by which man moves into the White House in January of 2001. Chicken suits are easy. Issues are hard. But they have a way of becoming the stuff of our daily lives, and woe to the citizen who ignores that.