It's The Cult Of Personality

Brokaw and Bush, two guys just standing around talking. Shirtsleeves. Sunshine. Fence posts. Cameras. You get the idea. The candidate was hunkered down at the ranch, going mano a mano for a couple of endless, empty minutes with the anchorman. The governor showed off his Yiddish--"kibitzing" was how he described what he was doing with his father, the former president--but the seminal moment was in fluent good-ole-boy. "I know you are a pretty good fisherman," Bush said to Brokaw, who was angling for the name of the as yet unknown vice-presidential nominee. "Yes, you are, and I ain't catching."

Take a good look at that verb, fellow voters, and consider what the meaning of "ain't" ain't. It ain't good English, of course, and it ain't necessarily an entirely natural locution for a graduate of Andover and Yale, even by way of west Texas. What it is is a marker for the most important issue of this election. Relaxed, a little irreverent, down-home: that "ain't" is supposed to communicate a whole tractor load of material about the Bush personality. And personality is key in Election 2000.

Do not confuse this with character. Personality is to character as icing is to cake, as house is to foundation. If character were all, Bill Clinton would no longer be president. But his personality is still oddly intriguing to some people, part brainiac, part bubba, with bad boy to boot. This has been incredibly frustrating for the president's opponents, who often reflect on how poor Richard Nixon was crucified for simply obstructing justice and suborning perjury. Ah, but Nixon was utterly charmless, with that rictus of a grin and that computer-generated speaking style. The Democrats had the same frustrations during the Reagan years, when the president's avuncular manner was the Teflon off which slid the monumental deficit, the disinherited poor, the indifference to civil rights. Amid it all, the people said, "I don't know why, I just like the guy."

That's the most indelible phrase in American politics: I just like the guy. It is, for instance, a misconception that Hillary Clinton is running for the Senate in New York against Rick Lazio. Hillary Clinton is running against public perceptions of her own personality. Rick Lazio might as well be an Adirondack chair. The election will be decided by whether the number of those saying "I like her" is greater than those saying "I hate her." One Lazio voter was quoted in The New York Times as saying, in charming regional vernacular, "Kill the bitch." Which has little to do with health-care policy.

Personality is why Dick Cheney's ascension to the number-two spot on the Republican ticket was initially greeted with hosannas by the usual suspects. In official Washington, Cheney is universally considered a WANG--that is, a person about whom everyone says, "What a nice guy." This made it easy to overlook his Cro-Magnon voting record as a congressman. No on the Equal Rights Amendment. No on a resolution suggesting that the South Africans might want to let Nelson Mandela out of jail. No on Head Start. Cheney got a free pass because he isn't a screamer, because he speaks softly and carries a big right wing, because on television he seems thoughtful and sober.

Television is the best tool of the cult of personality. Think of the Kennedy-Nixon debates, when even in fuzzy monochrome one man came across as confident, charismatic and cool, and the other as grim, edgy and mechanical. (TV did not, however, create the cult of personality: remember all those anecdotes about Lincoln telling funny stories in front of a general-store stove?) TV turns politics into a cocktail party after which, in the car on the way home, you find yourself saying to your spouse, "You know, we should see more of the Gores." Pundits like to suggest that this is a shortcoming of the American people, that they are more interested in arm's-length friendship than in foreign policy.

But why should the voters lose their hearts to ideology when candidates have not? Candidate Clinton vowed to lift a ban on gay men and lesbians in the military, then quickly caved and came up with the execrable "don't ask, don't tell." George Bush the elder was once a pro-choice Republican who accurately labeled Ronald Reagan's get-richer-quick fiscal policies "voodoo economics." But that was before Reagan picked him for the second spot, when he cut his principles to fit the ticket. Cheney now says he has second thoughts about the amendment, Mandela and Head Start. (Whew--his wife had better hope she doesn't become a political liability!) And Gov. Tommy Thompson was all over the tube during the Republican convention, saying the party platform was a prix fixe menu but everyone was welcome to order a la carte.

What's left is personality. History does not value it highly; for the ages, character, vision and achievement trump a winning manner. But just as they use it to choose their friends, their spouses, the neighbors they invite over for a barbecue, the co-workers they join for lunch, so voters use their impressions of a candidate's personality to choose a president. In the next 90 days millions of people will decide, finally, whether they think Al Gore is rigid and humorless or instead serious and diligent, whether George W. Bush is straight-talking and sure of himself or simply arrogant and tactless. And that will matter. A lot.

The Democrats will talk about experience and intelligence, and there is no doubt that both are critical to real leadership. But they must remember when an experienced president of great intellect named Jimmy Carter debated a former actor named Ronald Reagan a week before the 1980 presidential election. Foreign policy, entitlement programs, nuclear weapons: the air was thick with issues. Yet what everyone remembers from that debate was the moment when the insurgent believed the incumbent was once more distorting his views. "There you go again," Reagan rumbled, his head cocked with a show of reluctant, somehow charming, exasperation. And that was that. People just liked the guy.