One of them will certainly not win the presidency this year, and the other two face long odds. But at least for one day last week, John McCain, Bill Bradley and Orrin Hatch had the satisfaction of knowing that they acted in a way that did them honor.
The three men were in the Senate together for years, and three more dissimilar politicians would be hard to find. Yet each of them found, at a moment of maximum pressure, a way to express something that was so genuine it made you want to cheer.
Hatch lost everything in this race except his sense of humor. But the Utah senator was as gracious and uncomplaining in his farewell remarks as he had been droll and direct during the earlier Republican debates. He is more proof that the qualities that make an effective legislator count for little in today's presidential politics. Bob Dole learned that in 1996, when he had to struggle with the never-elected-to-anything Pat Buchanan for the Republican nomination and then decided he had to leave the Senate and his powerful post as majority leader to wage his losing race against Bill Clinton.
Even more apropos to Hatch's case was the 1996 experience of Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, who came and went in the presidential race without anyone's knowing it. For 15 years or more, Hatch and Lugar have been Senate heavyweights--dealing with a range of issues that affect every aspect of national policy from Russian-American relations to the character of the federal judiciary. Both have worked effectively within their party and across partisan lines.
As senators, both received plenty of news coverage. Lugar told me the other day that by the time he ran, he had appeared more frequently on "Meet the Press" than all but four people--Dole among them--in the program's half-century history, "but that doesn't guarantee everyone is going to know you in Iowa or New Hampshire." Hatch also told me he was surprised to discover his own anonymity.
It is futile to fault voters for their lack of even minimal attentiveness, but it is certainly true, as Lugar said, that "you have to have money and organization, or your ability and record aren't going to matter."
McCain is struggling to overcome those handicaps in his contest for the Republican nomination with George W. Bush, and on Wednesday, he ran into one of those reporters' questions that might have been better left unasked. Testing the Arizona senator's commitment to the antiabortion cause, a journalist asked what he would do if his teenage daughter became pregnant. "The final decision would be up to Meghan," McCain replied, later amending his response to say that it would be a matter the family would discuss and decide.
That evening, in the Republican candidates' debate, Alan Keyes, determined to show his own inflexibility on the question, challenged McCain's response as an inadequate guarantee that he would fight to end abortion rights. McCain responded that his record as an opponent of abortion was unblemished, but said: "I will not draw my children into this discussion."
Keyes persisted, and later in the debate, a grim McCain did what no other Republican candidate has had the guts to do: They have listened respectfully as Keyes has called for the abolition of the income tax, an outright ban on gays in the military and other implausibilities. Finally, McCain told the self-proclaimed moral authority to take a hike. "I've seen enough killing in my life," the Vietnam veteran said. "I know how precious human life is. And I don't need a lecture from you."
If that putdown was overdue, so was Bill Bradley's finally reacting with anger to the campaign Vice President Gore has been running against him. Gore has hammered relentlessly at the New Jersey senator's health care plan, suggesting many times that Bradley would end Medicaid and endanger Medicare, placing millions of elderly and needy--especially minorities--at risk. He also has said that Bradley voted for the Reagan budget, without noting that Bradley led the fight against the tax cuts that were at the heart of Reaganomics.
After weeks of protesting feebly against these distortions, Bradley, in the Wednesday night debate, finally put the question into the right context: "If you're running a campaign that says untrue things," Bradley said, "I wonder if you can be a president who gets people's trust."
Since trustworthiness is the quality voters understandably prize above all others after their experience with Clinton, that question resonates.
Hatch has lost, and McCain and Bradley may well lose too. But they sure have had their moments.