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Neither candidate offered voters a dream


I vividly remember walking out of the Democratic Convention, which had just nominated Michael Dukakis in Atlanta in 1988, and suddenly realizing that I was walking right next to Al and Tipper Gore. What a fine looking man! What a handsome couple! I couldn’t help thinking -- indulging briefly that romantic fallacy that imagines a symmetry between outward appearance and inner quality -- as in Washington, Wilson, and FDR.

Here I was, I thought, six inches away from the future president of the United States.

What went wrong?

Not since the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 has the country been in such a miserable fix: So said David Broder, considered the “dean” of political journalists, in The Washington Post during Thanksgiving week; and he repeated it on “Meet the Press.” At least then we made a quick transition from JFK to Lyndon Johnson.

Yet, Anthony Lewis had said, on the news and in his New York Times column, that the system was working just fine; although George W. Bush had been very unpresidential in his excoriation of the Florida Supreme Court -- using the same words that other Southern governors, such as George Wallace, had used to defy courts that had ordered desegregation.

One way to explain the mess, insofar as it is a mess, is to blame the media. And there is plenty of blame to go around.

Their policy of “calling” elections before the votes are counted this year has been responsible for misleading the viewers in several elections, with Florida only the worst example. The wrong call can do incalculable harm -- not just to the egos of candidates but to the public perception of the democratic process. And why do they call early? To hold viewers, to jack up ratings, to sell more and charge more for their ads.

Now a quick break. Don’t go away. We’ll be right back with the latest blah blah blah. Ad for GE. A CEO leaves his opulent office, drives to the airport, flies to a big city, hops in a fancy car, drives to a skyscraper -- all the while gabbing on his cell phone while driving his car with one hand! Break the law. GE is with you. Cool. Now to Dade County …

The “media,” which were once news organizations, are now cash cows for multinational corporations, such as GE, whose CEOs have but one purpose: maximize profits for shareholders. As Mark Danner wrote in the Sept. 21 New York Review of Books, “American politicians have been forced to become a species of bagmen who collect money from the wealthy and deliver it to television in order to sell themselves to the voters. And voters, seeing the mounting piles of money and the access and influence gained by those who supply it, grow less and less willing to participate.”

Thus there has been no incentive for the networks to cover the election in any real depth. A terrific issue of the Columbia Journalism Review (November/December) spells out the mainstream press’ failure to document the relationship between the economic boom and the rise of inequality. This should have been the election issue, but it was in neither candidate’s interest to raise it.

So we got a year of barking and braying about tax cuts and prescription drugs.

So the press, especially TV, let the candidates set the agenda.

Whom else do we blame? I blame Al Gore.

I voted for Gore and I relish the competition among columnists to best characterize the befuddled W. Bush’s attempts to make himself look “presidential” during these weeks. To several, he is the deer caught in the headlights. To another, he is the 5-year-old on his first day in school. To another, he is pleading with Dick Cheney and Colin Powell to give him his own parking space in their new administration. To Jim Dwyer in the New York Daily News, he is the man who refuses to notice that he is losing the popular vote by over 370,000 votes -- while Bush and his surrogates call on Gore to admit that he has lost.

A study by The Miami Herald has shown that if the Florida election had been run correctly Gore would have won by 23,000 votes. I am confident that within the next several months journalists, through the Freedom of Information Act, will gain access to Florida’s votes and document that the majority of Florida voters either voted for or attempted to vote for Gore. The nation will blush and go on.

During the campaign, as the journalists pounded out their biographies and character analyses, several Gores emerged: the boy struggling for his father’s approval, the reluctant but dutiful soldier, the would-be reporter and short-time seminarian, the chameleon adapting his earth-tone wardrobe to the color scheme of his environment.

Yet I stayed confident that his basic decency, intelligence and experience, plus the common sense of the people, would make him president.

The queasiness in my stomach started during the primary debates with Bill Bradley over who was more militantly pro-abortion. Gore had taken a stand years ago that the fetus was a living person. I could have respected an honest attempt to explain how he changed his mind, but no, he treated that once principled position as if he had never held it.

Second, when Tim Russert, combining two hot issues, asked him on “Meet the Press” about executing a woman who was pregnant, he asked for a day to think about it and finally answered that he would uphold the “woman’s choice.” Where was the journalist to ask follow-up questions like: How would you feel about electrocuting a woman eight months pregnant -- basically a double execution -- if that were her choice?

Third, why could not Gore bring himself to create some distance between himself and Bush on capital punishment? Because they are convinced that popular support for the death penalty is so strong that they will risk nothing -- not one vote -- to discuss one of the main moral issues of our time. Here Gore’s dishonesty was intellectual: He said he supported the death penalty because it was a “deterrent.” Yet a man of his intelligence must know, if he has studied the question at all, that is not a deterrent. It is simply revenge. Gore would not even go to bat for innocent people on death row. And gun control, which he had backed in the primaries, quickly disappeared from the discussion.

Fourth, pandering to the Florida Cuban-Americans, Gore separated himself from the administration’s position on returning Elián Gonzalez to his father and his Cuban home.

Ironically, when the Thanksgiving week mob intimidated and shut down the Dade County vote counting, cutting off access to the pool of ballots that could have given Gore the lead, those shouting and shaking their fists were the very Cubans whom Gore had tried foolishly to placate in the Elián fiasco.

Finally, Gore became a political parrot that had trained himself to recite a six-word vocabulary for all occasions: “Prescription drugs, woman’s right to choose, SQUAWWWK!!!”

Not one speech on either side tried to lift the electorate above its narrow self-interests. The candidates dreamed no dreams and saw no visions. And neither did we.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is the Jesuit Community Professor of Humanities at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J. His e-mail address is raymondschroth@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, December 15, 2000