Election 2004; Forecasting the End of the Road to the White House

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 12, 2004 | Go to article overview

Election 2004; Forecasting the End of the Road to the White House


Byline: Nat Hentoff, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

In the crowded, noisy field of presidential candidates, Al Sharpton is the wittiest and most transiently crowd-pleasing contender. However, since he has never repented his involvement in the opprobrious Tawana Brawley fraud, his only achievable goal in this race is to surpass Jesse Jackson as the most visible national black leader.

Moreover, since Mr. Sharpton's platform, like those of his Democratic rivals, has more to do with bristling rhetoric than substance, his most notable, unrivaled performance was his graceful, gliding series of dance steps on NBC's "Saturday Night Live."

The two qualities that usually open the Oval Office to a candidate are likeability and credibility. The former, as Al Gore learned, can't be manufactured by changing one's images, including clothing.

Against Richard Nixon, John Kennedy, despite an undistinguished record as a congressman, had likeability and wit. Nixon, uncomfortable in himself, had none. Lyndon Johnson, though master of the Senate, had little likeability or credibility until fate propelled him into the Oval Office. There, he gained some credibility as a genuine civil-rights leader until his continuation of the war in Vietnam, against his own instincts, ended his presidency.

Among the current crop of presidential hopefuls, Dr. Howard Dean has become the main candidate against whom the most stinging witticisms are directed, and not only by his Democratic competitors. If he gets the nomination, a recurring theme in Republican ads will likely be John Kerry's jab at the vacillating doctor: "People are left wondering: What will he say next? And then, will Dean reverse himself?"

For a growing number of temperate Americans, Mr. Dean is neither likeable nor credible. But his momentum has not yet slowed, largely because of the raging Bush-haters in the Democratic Party, and the tireless, sprightly cadre of young Internet idealists who yearn for another Camelot (whether they've seen the movie or not).

I recognize those symptoms, having been part of a similar collective youthful leap of faith when I was a supporter of former Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson for president. Stevenson sought to raise the level of public debate and awareness nationwide, using his eloquent command of language and impeccably sharp wit, during his campaign against Dwight D. Eisenhower. When he was later our ambassador to the United Nations, I visited him as part of an anti-Vietnam War delegation. We asked him how he - this man of pure reason and crystalline wit we had so admired - could now, before the world, repeat the administration's slippery talking points justifying the war. Even after being repeatedly asked, he kept evading the question.

As we talked, Stevenson's former grace of language and bearing disappeared. It was only at the end of our meeting that - with a sudden sincerity that I found moving - he thanked us genuinely for coming.

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