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Getting Personal

August 22, 2000

Well, he did it again. Al Gore has brought his family into the picture at a Democratic convention for the third straight time. In 1992 he described his son’s near-fatal accident in order to display his humanity. In 1996 he recalled his sister’s death from lung cancer. In 2000 he planted a long, passionate, and (he said later) “completely spontaneous” smooch on his wife, as if oblivious to the presence of TV cameras.

Can we all agree now that Al Gore is a real human being, and not a space alien mimicking earthlings?

Yes, he looks good in a golf shirt. And no doubt he cares for his family. But his public use of his loved ones always seems less than “completely spontaneous.” In fact, as Robert Novak said of the kiss, it can be rather “disgusting.”

Can’t we presume that public figures have private feelings, without seeing them acted out before millions of viewers? Most people refrain from such displays, not because they lack affection for their families, but because they know that private affection may be unseemly in public. The most sincere emotions can become affectations when shown for effect.

[Breaker quote: The quest 
for a caring president]Richard Nixon may have loved his dog Checkers, but when he spoke on TV of his determination never to deprive his daughters of the animal, it became a national joke. Nancy Reagan was undoubtedly devoted to Ron, but her public dewy-eyed adoration of him on all occasions eventually became a little cloying. And was there ever a more contrived display of connubial bliss than the photo of Bill and Hillary, in the midst of the Monica scandal, dancing on the beach in their bathing suits (with her thick lower legs discreetly shielded by foliage)?

Clinton himself is the past master of simulated feelings. We never saw a better White House thespian than the man who, quivering with fury, expressed his outrage at us for even suspecting him of having had “sexual relations with that woman.” Most of the time he professes deep concern about “our children.” Or he feels our pain. Or he quotes the Bible.

I’m always wary of those who want to make politics an index and test of “feelings.” Politics is about power. Every law imposes obligations on us, obligations backed by force. Law should therefore be fair, impartial, and dispassionate, designed by reason, not impelled by emotions.

The politician who professes to “care” about us — who offers a program in the name of “compassion” — is usually a cunning demagogue. He makes his appeal to unreasoning passions (passion being the root of compassion) rather than to calm reason. He is promising some voters benefits at the expense of others, usually on the pretext that only “the rich” will have to pay — which would be unjust even if it were true.

Since the days of Franklin Roosevelt this has been the Democrats’ game. They’ve portrayed themselves as the “caring” party, charging the Republicans with “lacking compassion” for the poor, the working man, the minority group, even for women as a sex. This strategy has served them well, since it keeps the Republicans on the defensive.

This year, though, George W. Bush is threatening to beat them at their own game by touting the benefits of “compassionate conservatism.” Gore, for his part, is reverting to the pre-Clinton politics of pitting poor against rich, the allegedly needy against the allegedly greedy. In Democratic parlance, need means wanting someone else’s money, while greed means wanting to keep your own.

But in a time of general prosperity (for which the Democrats claim credit), this appeal may be out of date. More people understand how wealth is really produced, and they realize that forced redistribution only imposes a drag on everyone’s efforts to produce it. Economies that increase dependency on the state produce only general poverty — a lesson of the socialist era that seems to have escaped Gore.

There are principles at stake in this election that deserve full debate. But it looks as if both Bush and Gore will stick to image-buffing and cultivating shallow impressions; any “debate” will be confined to a few inane barbs. In their different ways, both candidates will keep the campaign strictly personal.

Joseph Sobran

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