In Quiet Praise of Pith and Vinegar

Article excerpt

In this era of omnivorous media, the cultural preference for "nice" has hardened into dogma. Even if a public figure is seized by a justifiable homicidal rage, it is imperative that a smile strain his face while the TV camera or a reporter is near. Which is nearly always in big-league politics.

If a tantrum does erupt, the story's good for a week, while any slight distemper assures press attention. Let's you and him fight is the credo of the media, taking precedence over normal liberal predisposition.

There was President Clinton's testiness at a recent White House minuet: Several reporters asked about his repudiation of an administration pledge (which pledge isn't germane, routine as political rope-a-dope has become). The president sputtered and fumed and created a fuss.

Why is it noteworthy that a politician has a temper and probably is reasonable in losing it from time to time? It's because "nice" has become elevated to a character trait -- no matter how cloying, how artificial, how inappropriate.

One reason for the priority of "nice" is wide public disgust at the ubiquitous political consultants for whom winning is everything -- and a bit more. These technicians are often as thoughtless as Barbary apes about the ideas and principles that make this society distinctive. They subordinate the candidate himself to crafted image. The office-seeker thus is a manipulated product and there is less of the intimate personal political involvement that distinguishes genuine qualities of a leader from the brittle. But that's a screed for another day.

The mandatory-nice doctrine has been particularly enforced against Bob Dole. The raps against the GOP candidate are, with various emphases: that he is too old for the job (nonsense); that he lacks "vision" (a concept less important in our mega-government than knowing how the beast behaves); and that his campaign is limp (perhaps the San Diego climate will help).

There also are those in the party who fret that Dole is insufficiently ideological. The distinction made by William F. Buckley is useful here: One may be conservative but not a conservative, that is, one may possess conservative instincts without necessarily having a chiseled and coherent conservative philosophy Dole clearly is of this sort.

But the Kansan is most indictable, judging from the baying of the press pack, because he has a sharp tongue and a frequently mordant humor. Journalists say he has a "Rand" edge -- variously sarcastic, cutting, ironic -- though the New York Times prefers to describe him as "dour. …