A columnist gets out while the getting is still good

Posted: Friday, August 04, 2000

A number of people, hearing that I was about to retire, have asked: ``But how can you leave just as the presidential campaign is about to swing into full gear?''

To which I answer: ``What are you, crazy? That's like asking a miner why he's quitting just when there's a good cave-in scheduled for next week.''

It was the upcoming presidential campaign that convinced me it was time to retire; it wasn't the only thing but it was the last straw. The thought of spending the next three months pretending that I take the candidates' proposals, white papers, charges, counter-charges and outright piffle seriously was really more than I could bear. The Chinese have water torture; we have political campaigns.

Maybe I'm just getting old but it seems to me that the more professional campaigns get - that is to say, the more poll-driven, consultant-ridden and staged - the less interesting they get.

Which is not to say I don't have any interest in the outcome; I do. I'm not one of those who say there's no difference between the Democrats and Republicans. True they are both parties of Big Business, but there are real, if subtle, differences.

Democrats are pro-choice. Republicans aren't.

Democrats are pro-union (up to a point). Republicans aren't.

Democrats think that government can do some things well. Republicans don't.

Democrats think it's OK to protect the environment (up to a point). Republicans think concerns about the environment are a socialist conspiracy.

Democrats want a little anti-missile shield. Republicans want a big one.

Democrats want a little tax cut. Republicans want a big one.

Democrats are willing to accept a little gun control. Republicans think a little gun control is like being a little pregnant.

Democrats are for free trade, some of them. Republicans are for free trade, all of them.

While those differences don't offer a stark contrast between the parties, surely they are enough to guide you to your choice. I don't really understand people who, at his point, haven't made up their minds about whom they're going to vote for. The issues are out there for everyone to see and have been for some months. What's keeping you from making up your mind?

Puh-leeeze don't tell me you're waiting for the debates, that you're really going to vote for the next president of the United States on the basis of a dorky debate (which isn't even a debate, if you want to know the truth). The debates have a certain entertainment value (and God knows this campaign is going to need that) but as a measure of the better man they are virtually useless.

The past debates that have proved significant to the subsequent elections have all turned on trivialities - Nixon's 12-o'clock shadow, Ford's mislaying of Poland, Dukakis' confusion about the proper manly response to having his wife ravaged. None of those things were relevant to the candidate's fitness for office but, as it turned out, they mattered.

As will some trivial thing in this campaign, I suppose - Bush's smirk, Gore's wooden Indian persona or something unforeseen. It's a heck of a way to choose a president.

Nor am thrilled by either of the third-party candidates. I'm not fond of third parties in general and the ones available this year seem particularly unappetizing.

Pat Buchanan, who threatens to be the Independent (Ross Perot) Party candidate, is hopeless, the kind of guy who gives the term ``right-wing nutcase'' a bad name. He can never decide whether to come to the ball dressed in a brown shirt or a white sheet.

Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate, has had an altogether honorable even noble career as a consumer advocate and he makes a good deal of sense, but he bears the curse of sanctimony. With his suddenly-it's-1950 suits and his solemn demeanor he makes me feel guilty that I am not more pure. If he has ever experienced greed, lust, envy or selfishness, the emotion has come and gone without leaving a trace. I like politicians whom I can identify with just a little bit and they with me. (Say what you will about Bill Clinton; he never made you feel morally inferior.)

So I'm perfectly happy not to be covering the carnival this year. I'll hold my nose and vote for Gore - What? You thought I was a closet conservative? - but that doesn't mean I have to listen to his speeches.

Not any more.

Don Kaul is a columnist for Tribune Media Services.



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