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A Fine Detachment

Thinking is the great enemy of perfection.”

—Joseph Conrad, Victory

Only one person has ever been elected president of the United States after losing the New Hampshire primary. This is a statistic of no predictive value, but it does qualify a little the perception that American presidential campaigns get started with a couple of random bounces out of states too small and demographically eccentric for their preferences to be meaningful, Iowa and New Hampshire, before settling down to a series of contests in places genuinely representative of the national electorate.

This year the first of these putatively meaningful contests is the Republican primary, on February 19, in South Carolina—a state where a Confederate flag flies over the capitol and where the Republican Party keeps polling places in predominately black precincts closed during presidential primaries. Governor George W. Bush chose to begin his campaign there, after his loss to Senator John McCain in New Hampshire, with a speech at Bob Jones University, a school that had its tax-exempt status revoked because of its policy of prohibiting interracial dating. Yet a consensus seems to exist that if Bush defeats McCain in South Carolina, the New Hampshire result can be written off as just one of those crazy Granite State bounces, and Bush’s aura of electability will be restored.

This consensus reflects a prejudice, current since Richard Nixon’s victory in 1968, that no one can win the presidency who has not first demonstrated an ability to win in the South—so that, as a measure of electability, a primary victory in any Southern state must count for more than a primary victory in a state like New Hampshire. Historically, it’s true, New Hampshire has rewarded doomed anti- establishmentarians in one of its party primaries—Pat Buchanan, Paul Tsongas, Gary Hart—almost as often as it has picked future presidents in the other. The question this year is whether the man who emerged as the big winner of the New Hampshire primary is one of the doomed or one of the presidents.

That person, of course, is McCain. Within twenty-four hours of his nineteen-point victory over Bush he had raised almost a million dollars in contributions on his website; within forty-eight hours he had gone from as much as twenty points down in the South Carolina polls to two points ahead. By the end of week the New York Republican Party, after months of resistance, had agreed to allow his name to appear on the ballot throughout the state. McCain had jump-started a real race.

In fact, Vice President Al Gore’s victory in the Democratic primary was at least as significant as McCain’s was in the Republican. New Hampshire was a state it was widely thought Bill Bradley had to win; for several months, he had had a small but apparently secure lead in the polls. It is a measure of the press’s distaste for Gore that his win on February 1 was interpreted as a “close call,” and a warning that he faces a stiff challenge in the weeks ahead.

At the moment, this seems a little wishful. A third of the voters in the New Hampshire Democratic primary were registered as independents; Bradley received 60 percent of their votes. If only the votes of registered Democrats had been counted, Gore would have beaten him by seventeen points. (McCain, by contrast, won both the Republican and the independent vote in his race against Bush and the other Republicans.) Bradley now catches a break from the calendar: the Democrats do not have another primary until March 7. He has a little time to retool his candidacy. But it is not working so far. What happened?

There seems to be a problem of articulation and of temperament. By the standards of contemporary American politics, Bradley is running very far to the left, farther to the left even than when he was a New Jersey senator. He names as his models Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt—creators of large government programs. Intel-lectually, his politics are descended from early-twentieth-century Progressivism. He believes, almost religiously, that law and public policy are the proper instruments for improving the quality of life in a democracy. He is contemptuous of the notion that the role of government is just to tinker with the tax code and to goose the private sector occasionally to get it to behave more responsibly—which is the notion held, in varying degrees, by every other candidate in the race.

So far, though, no one has accused him (as they did, for example, Hillary Clinton) of social-engineering elitism or big-government, tax-and-spend liberalism. His ideas have been taken seriously, and he has been treated, by the press and by his opponent, as a serious contender. As he deserves to be: he is, after all, an Olympic athlete, a Rhodes scholar, a basketball star, and a three-term senator—a certain kind of American hero. But although Bradley has got the attention of the middle-class public, he has failed to galvanize it. This is because he has been reluctant to appeal directly to its self-interest. That is a kind of appeal middle-class voters have come to expect from politicians, and Bradley can’t quite seem to bring himself to meet the demand.

Bradley believes that some segments in our society have not shared in the current prosperity, and that some groups, such as homosexuals and African-Americans, continue to suffer from exclusion and discrimination. He has expressed this belief clearly, sometimes eloquently. But Bradley also wishes to say that Americans who do not count themselves in either of these groups, Americans who feel relatively well off under the present dispensation, are deluding themselves.

His insistence on the importance of campaign finance reform is the key to this aspect of his politics. He believes that the government has allowed workers—and not only workers at the bottom end of the income scale—to become effectively disempowered because corporate interests have been permitted to dominate the legislative process. He thinks that the present high employment rate and the growth (on paper) of equity-based retirement funds mask what for most Americans is really an acutely insecure condition. His emphasis on universal health care is a way of reminding people how dependent their security has become on corporate, rather than civic, beneficence. He thinks the psychology of prosperity is shallow, that the middle class appears complacent because it cannot afford to bite the hand that feeds it. If the public can wrest control of the political process away from the business interests, he thinks, it will find that it has the resources and the will to protect its own interests from the vagaries and depredations of capitalist struggle. These beliefs can be found in his writings, but he has not expressed them so well in the campaign.

On January 26, Bradley and Gore had their last debate before the New Hampshire primary. It was in Manchester, a city Gore would carry easily six days later. This was the moment Bradley chose to go on the offensive. The moderators were ready to help. The first question of the debate, from Judy Woodruff, of CNN, was a strongly worded request to Gore to explain why he has found it necessary to distort Bradley’s record. Gore has two forensic modes: laborious explanation and loud bluster. On this night he went with the bluster (“Well, Judy, of course I strongly challenge your characterization,” and so on). Bradley, he suggested, just can’t take the heat. But Woodruff followed up by naming two specific misrepresentations of Gore’s—his assertion that Bradley’s health care plan would eliminate federal standards for nursing homes (“It would not,” she said) and his claim that when Bradley supported school voucher programs he voted to siphon money off from public schools (“which is also not the case”). Gore continued to dispute “your characterization.”

It was a propitious start for Bradley. When his turn came to address Gore directly, this was the question he had prepared:

Al, Hillary Clinton said the other day that consistency on fundamental issues of principles is important. She went on to express how she and Rudy Giuliani have the same position on choice now, but that he had changed his position to arrive there and she had always been there. My question to you is, do you think she’s wrong?

Bradley’s intention, apparently, was to raise the charge that Gore is a trimmer, that it’s all just politics for him. Gore is certainly vulnerable to this kind of attack; he is the kind of candidate who seems less sincere the more sincere he gets. But this was just about the worst possible ground from which to launch it. The Clintons are one of Gore’s biggest liabilities; it is one of Bradley’s greatest assets that he has not even been in Washington for the last three years. The charge that Gore has failed to meet Hillary Clinton’s standard of political correctness, the standard of a woman whose political fortunes are currently in free fall, could only be counted a favor to Gore.

Abortion is a poor issue to have picked in any case. Being pro-choice is not inconsistent with the belief that abortion is wrong. It is just the view that the state ought not to criminalize a woman’s decision to have one. An hour earlier, in the Republican debate, Alan Keyes had twitted McCain for remarking, in response to an earlier interview question, that if his daughter approached him to say she was considering having an abortion, he would make it a family decision. This, Keyes gleefully pointed out, is exactly the pro-choice position; yet McCain claims to believe abortion is murder. If his daughter had advised him that she was considering killing her grandmother, Keyes asked, would McCain turn this into a family decision as well? McCain spluttered (he is not by any means as poised a performer as his reputation for charm and insouciance suggests), but in fact Keyes did not make him look bad to anyone but a fundamentalist. A little inconsistency on an issue many people find morally complex suggests humanity rather than opportunism. Principle is not the same as dogma.

Gore, though, had programmed himself in dogmatic mode, and he responded to Bradley’s question with more stentorian denials. (“I have always supported Roe v. Wade. I have always supported a woman’s right to choose.”) This was stupidly obfuscatory—that Gore was regarded as moderately pro-life during his years as a Tennessee congressman is not a big secret—and it led to a column a few days later by Al Hunt in the Wall Street Journal pointing out that Gore had once supported a proposal that would have defined a fetus as a human life, a position not exactly consistent with Roe v. Wade. (Hunt pointed out as well that Gore’s charge that Bradley was not involved until very late in the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit is completely false, as is Gore’s claim to have been a “co-sponsor” of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, since Russ Feingold was not even in the Senate until Gore had become vice president. In real life, Al Hunt is Mr. Judy Woodruff.) In the end, remarkably few New Hampshire voters named a candidate’s position on abortion as an important factor in their votes.

Toward the close of the Democratic debate Woodruff tossed Bradley another alley-oop. Why, she asked, had he been so reticent about “such things as who your main advisers are, what books have particularly interested you, your complete medical record, among other things.” It has for some time been understood that if you wish to run for president of the United States, you must be able to produce, on demand, a short list of favorite books. This is not an onerous requirement—one title can do the trick—and Bradley (unlike, evidently, George W. Bush) is a reader. He seemed mildly annoyed by the question, but he had been prepped for it. “Well, Judy,” he said,

if you want me to share a little bit with you, I’ll give you two books that I like. One is Victory by Joseph Conrad. I like that because there’s something in there by a character named Heyst, who says, “Woe be it to the man who has not learned while young to put his trust in life.” Now what does that tell you about me, running for president? It tells you I’ve read the book.

It was not exactly a slam dunk. Bradley was probably tired, and Gore’s condescending obstreperousness had put him in a foul mood. He seems genuinely not to like “personal” questions; he evidently thinks they’re frivolous (“if you want me to share a little bit with you”), which may be why the last sentence of his answer seemed to be saying something like: the reason you’re asking these silly questions is to try to catch me pretending to have read something I haven’t (as Bush had been caught, earlier in the campaign, when he claimed to have read James Chace’s biography of Dean Acheson). Still, it seems a safe guess that no other candidate for president has ever read, let alone recommended, Joseph Conrad’s Victory.

Victory is one of Conrad’s last novels. It was published in 1915, in the first year of the Great War. Its protagonist is a Swede named Heyst, a wanderer among the islands of the western Pacific. Heyst represents the spirit of complete withdrawal from worldly desires. He is, philosophically, a nihilist and a stoic. He lives, most of the time, by himself on a remote island, where he is given to saying things like (this is not Conrad’s most nuanced narrative): “Here I am on a Shadow inhabited by Shades.” He eventually meets (naturally) a woman, and finds himself caught in a web of passions from which he had imagined himself safe. As a consequence of jealousy and resentment over the woman, whom he has taken with him to his island refuge, he ends up being set upon by a gang of murderous adventurers who kill the woman, and, then, when help unexpectedly arrives, destroy one another. Heyst then utters the sentence quoted (pretty accurately) by Bradley, retreats into the bungalow where his dead lover is lying, and burns himself alive.

This is not a story to be unpacked in a sentence, but the moral according to Conrad, at least, is that Heyst is a man who thinks too much. The more he thinks, the more clearly he sees the vanity of human wishes and the less he wants to have anything to do with other people and their pettiness and self-deception—the less he wants to waste time, so to speak, naming his favorite books for the amusement of pundits. When he is finally confronted by a threat to his survival, he is therefore unable to meet it. “In his fine detachment,” Conrad says, “he had lost the art of asserting himself.” Heyst is a man paralyzed by reflection; he has lost (Bradley quoted the right passage) his instinctive “trust in life.”

Is there a little parable here of the Bradley campaign? Heyst is an odd character for a politician—an odd character for almost anybody—to identify with. But there is a sense in which Bradley, too, once believed that he could campaign outside the usual bubble of personal trivia and routine distortion. He therefore made a decision to ignore the main teaching of the 1992 Clinton campaign, which is to let no attack pass for more than twenty-four hours without a response.

As a campaigner Gore is klutzy, but he is not dumb, and he understood right away that Bradley’s aura of righteous detachment was a weakness. He went on the attack almost immediately, in their debate in Hanover last October, and the longer Bradley remained unresponsive the more insistently Gore needled him. In the end, he succeeded in getting under Bradley’s skin to such a degree that Bradley actually called him, in a brief press appearance immediately following the debate, a liar. “Al will have a long way to go to demonstrate that what he said tonight is true, that he has not lied in this campaign,” is what he said before turning and marching out of the room.

This must have been exactly the reaction Gore had hoped for. It gave Bradley the appearance of a basketball player who approaches the referee in the final seconds of a close game and explains that he has ignored his opponent’s incessant holding all night, but now wants a foul called because he needs the points. Suddenly the whole onus of “going negative” got transferred to the other side of the contest. A phone bank worker in the Bradley campaign later told me that when she called around the Sunday before the primary, many people told her they disapproved of Bradley because of his personal attacks on Gore.

Part of what happened to Bradley in New Hampshire, of course, was simply McCain. McCain stole some of Bradley’s constituency—20 percent of the independents who voted in the Republican primary said they had considered voting for Bradley before choosing McCain—and he has taken over the issue that is the philosophical centerpiece of Bradley’s candidacy, campaign finance reform. This had seemed an uninteresting political year until McCain raised all that money overnight on the Internet. Now, suddenly, something like a grass-roots insurgency might be emerging, with the possibility of raising the kind of money that threatens the control of the parties. McCain’s new wealth, though less than a fiftieth of the money Bush has raised, has thrown the Bush campaign into a panic verging on political lunacy. Bush went to South Carolina and accused McCain of being indifferent to veterans and a captive of the Washington establishment. (Bush has the endorsement of thirty-seven Senate Republicans; McCain has been endorsed by five. The plan to drive a wedge into McCain’s support among veterans is almost too farfetched to be believed.)

The man who won the presidency after losing the New Hampshire primary was Bill Clinton. It seems to be agreed among the front-runners this year, even Gore, that the public is sick of Clinton. Certainly the press is. But Clinton looms over this primary campaign, and he will loom over the general election in November. McCain’s victory—everyone says it, even the candidate himself—was a victory of “character,” not issues. Everyone also says, and especially the candidate himself, that McCain is the anti-Clinton, meaning that his character is strong where Clinton’s is weak.

McCain isn’t the anti-Clinton, though. Bob Dole and Ken Starr are the anti-Clintons; their lack of political charm is part of the reason for their failure. McCain is more like the unClinton, in the way 7UP was the unCola: different flavor, same sugar content. McCain is harvesting a crop Clinton had planted.

For it was Clinton who taught the public to believe that ideology was unimportant (which is why so many McCain voters also considered voting for Bradley), and it was Clinton who showed how personality—the knack of looking into the eyes of the voter—could (in the absence of a recession) triumph over almost any form of political adversity. Now voters don’t want a candidate who has the right positions. They want a candidate whose heart seems to be in the right place, someone who seems to trust his own instincts—as Bush and Gore and now even Bradley don’t quite seem to trust theirs. In the end the election will, rather astonishingly, probably be won by the candidate who contrives best to come across as just like Clinton, but without the slickness. And the candidate who gives the best evidence of being able to do this right now is, just as amazingly, John McCain. His is an act the others will not fail to imitate if they can.

—February 10, 2000

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