It was a bad week for crusaders.
Republican John McCain got knocked off his horse, discovered doing what he said would never happen if he got to the White House. He had intervened with a government agency last month on behalf of a campaign donor on whose corporate jet he had once hitched rides.
Democrat Bill Bradley, in his debate with Al Gore, was off his game. He got shirty with a reporter who asked if he was aloof. He cut her off. It was hardly a Stevensonian moment for the candidate who is seen as being like last generation's idol, Adlai Stevenson--albeit minus the wit and the poetry.
McCain could at least be grateful that his rival George W. Bush took advantage of his embarrassment only peripherally in Thursday night's debate in New Hampshire, their latest encounter. Bush's dismissal of McCain's special favor for a friend carried the inference of "everybody does it," which is both a defense of the Arizona senator and an indictment. McCain was going to drain the Washington swamp.
McCain seemed uneasy during the raucous mill-in among the six Republicans at the University of New Hampshire, alternately portraying himself as a "victim" of a tainted system and as a conscientious Senate Commerce Committee chairman who had prodded sluggish bureaucrats at the Federal Communications Commission. On the merits, he was right. The FCC was taking forever to consider the application of Paxson Communications to buy a Pittsburgh TV station.
The exchanges between the serious New Hampshire contenders were of course cluttered and padded by the presence of the floorwalkers--Orrin Hatch, Alan Keyes, Gary Bauer and Steve Forbes, the quartet that paces the campaign scene waiting for Bush to stumble. They staged a festival of demagoguery on gays in the military, taxes and Elian Gonzalez. Keyes was briefly sensible about the rights of the 6-year-old Cuban boy's father to get his son back, but went on to demand that the father come here to prove his intentions. Keyes's belligerence was universal. He attacked moderator Tim Russert.
Bush displayed a reckless disregard of November. He denounced McCain, not for hypocrisy but for disloyalty to right-wing Republicanism because he advocates campaign finance reform. As a candidate sitting on a $63 million war chest, Bush could hardly be expected to complain about the pernicious effect of money on politics; but to discount any national interest whatever suggests a somewhat cramped vision.
The Texas governor is proudly parochial and continues to exhibit a breathtaking banality and shallowness of mind that has to cause heartburn among thinking Republicans, if there are any left.
His discussion of religion, a topic he chose to introduce, raises serious questions about whether such an inarticulate man could put into words the hopes of 270 million of his countrymen. He concluded an uninformed answer with the sophomoric cliche, "It's what I am all about. It's how I live my life."
Such is the poverty of his expression that you can almost hear him in the White House exhorting the public to mediocrity, the quality he seems to prize most.
The night before, Democrats Gore and Bradley went at each other. Their level of discourse was not much higher. They are both brainy, but wit is wanting, and they sounded like two boys shoving each other around a playground.
Bradley, who unaccountably kept a full campaign schedule on the day of the debate, looked tired and acted peevish. He apparently has not learned the lesson memorably taught by John Kennedy--that the way you look in a televised debate can count as much as what you say. On the day of his fatal encounter with Richard Nixon, Kennedy's handlers yanked him off the trail, did a little debate prep and left him alone for an afternoon of rest and sunshine. He was polished to a high glow and outshone a pasty-faced Nixon.
Bradley was reduced to bickering with reporter Jenny Attiyeh, who was pressing him on the subject of his aloofness. If he hadn't been out of sorts, he might have turned it aside; instead, he interrupted her in a rather ill-natured fashion that contradicted his frequent assertions of leadership.
Yet he menaces Gore for the same reason that McCain bothers Bush: He promises change.
What both debates showed once again was that the candidates' differences are in degree, not in kind. Gore, his equilibrium restored last week by Teddy Kennedy's certification of him as a liberal, seemed on an even keel and made no blunders.
Here is what passed for repartee:
Bradley: "Well you know, Al, your underdog pitch brings tears to my eyes."
Gore: "Well, I hope that my upset victory brings tears to your eyes on February 1st."
It will be over soon.