Where Are You, Dream Candidate?

By Lawrence O'Donnell Jr.
Sunday, May 20, 2007

In 2005, just before we started filming the last season of "The West Wing," I passed along an urgent phone message to our star, Martin Sheen. I told him that Harry Reid, then the Senate minority leader, wanted to talk to him about something very important. (You know it's very important when a senator leaves his cellphone number.) Martin later told me that the Democrat all but begged him to run for the U.S. Senate in Ohio, Martin's home state. Martin didn't have to think about it. In a real-life version of the confident, decisive political style of his "West Wing" character, President Josiah "Jed" Bartlet, Martin immediately declined. "I'm not a politician," he said. "I just play one on TV."

Having been turned down by their dream candidate, the Democrats went on to win the Ohio Senate seat with the most conventional of competitors, a House member looking for a promotion. But the search for the dream candidate never dies.

Now the Republicans are looking to a TV star, Fred Thompson of "Law & Order" fame, as their dream candidate for president. We've been here before, watching uninspiring presidential candidates jockey for the nomination while the dream candidate lurks offstage. Mario Cuomo was the Fred Thompson of 1992. Cuomo was not a TV star, but the New York governor was by far the most telegenic Democrat out there. Cuomo actually let his offstage candidacy haunt the declared Democratic candidates up until the deadline for filing candidacy papers for the New Hampshire primary. As long as he toyed with the idea of running, Cuomo towered over the Democratic field -- Bill Clinton, Bob Kerrey, Tom Harkin, Paul Tsongas, Jerry Brown. When Gennifer Flowers held a news conference to play her tapes of phone conversations with candidate Clinton to prove that they had an affair, we didn't hear anything like phone sex; we heard Clinton fretting about Cuomo, the candidate who was not -- and never would be -- in the race. Not until the dream of the dream candidate died did Democratic primary voters begin to focus on those candidates who were actually going to be on the ballot in 1992.

Next time around, Gen. Colin Powell took his turn as the dream candidate who never entered the race. His long public flirtation with the 1996 Republican nomination wound up amounting to little more than highly profitable book-tour posturing.

Cuomo's and Powell's dalliances drastically shortened the patience of the media, campaign contributors and voters with offstage dream candidates. Thompson will not be allowed nearly as much time to declare his candidacy. And if he does finally run, he should not expect his poll numbers to go through the roof. On the Democratic side, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, a former dream candidate turned real candidate, has found himself running a solid but distant second to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. Meanwhile, Obama has had to endure constant speculation about whether a former real candidate turned dream candidate -- former vice president Al Gore, whose new book, "The Assault on Reason," will be published Tuesday -- will eventually jump into the race and run away with the party's nomination.

The logic behind all this is simple enough: Campaign organizers and contributors look for dream candidates because they don't think they can win with the lot they have. The media look for dream candidates because they're fun. (If Thompson gets into the race, his press bus is going to be the place to be.) And the voters look for dream candidates because they crave authenticity.

Authenticity is hard to fake. Just ask the presidential candidates. They each face authenticity challenges. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, had the authenticity thing down pat the first time he took to the presidential campaign trail on the "Straight Talk Express" in 2000. Now he's strolling through Baghdad markets talking about how safe they are while wearing a bulletproof vest, protected by heavily armed troops, tanks and air cover.

Mitt Romney, a Republican former Massachusetts governor who tried to run for the Senate in 1994 on Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's left, is a born-again abortion opponent and a defender of the holy state of matrimony against any assault by advocates of same-sex marriage. Romney is a Mormon whose beloved great-grandfather had five nonconsecutive wives back when his religion thought that was God's design of an ideal family. Romney's defense of marriage inevitably provokes questions about polygamy, to which he delivers hysterical answers: "I can't imagine anything more awful than polygamy." Really? How about flying planes into the World Trade Center?

Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who tries to portray himself as the toughest potential commander in chief for the fight against terrorism, doesn't want voters to notice that he received "special treatment from a friendly federal judge to avoid military service during the Vietnam War" (as a memo from his 1993 mayoral campaign put it). He's also not eager to dwell on the fact that his only command experience in the war on terrorism was cleaning up after the enemy's biggest success -- something he could have done a much better job of if he had enforced all those pesky job-safety regulations, which might have prevented the cleanup crews from breathing all those toxic fumes at Ground Zero, leaving thousands of them sick and suing Giuliani and the city of New York for negligence.

Hillary Clinton doesn't want voters to think of her as an Ivy Leaguer from a tony Chicago neighborhood who now lives the high life in New York and Georgetown, so she has been known to employ a fake Southern accent below the Mason-Dixon line.

Obama has been forced to try to prove to some that he is authentically African American while trying to appeal to others "who might not vote for me because I'm African American."

Democratic former senator John Edwards of North Carolina works the man-of-the-people thing harder than any other candidate, but his $400 haircut -- the one that finally got his bangs under control -- and his "job" at a hedge fund between campaigns tell the larger truth: Edwards is the richest man-of-the-people pretender running for president. Romney may in fact be richer, but in what may be his only flash of authenticity, Romney is running as an ultra-rich Republican, not a populist.

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