Recovering from political gaffes

Posted: Feb 13, 2003 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- What numbskull in the Kerry for President campaign allowed Sen. John Kerry to be filmed by the TV crews wearing a bombardier jacket as he dashed into the hospital for surgery the other day? Yes, he looked reassuringly gung-ho in this time of imminent international hostilities. Still, wearing a leather jacket with an obscenely furry collar is bound to imperil his prospects with what has become a key constituency in today's Democratic Party, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Sure, an agile Kerry aide has already telephoned the nuts over at PETA national headquarters -- cleverly located at the heart of things in Norfolk, Va. -- to assure them that the jacket was not made of actual leather but rather of leather's enlightened substitute pleather, plastic leather. But explaining away that fur collar is going to take the terminological legerdemain of a Bill Clinton, and Bill is already committed to the presidential ambitions of Hillary, lest another lamp or ashtray be hurled at his big fat head. Another campaign gaffe like that and the Democratic presidential nomination will be Dr. Howard Dean's for the asking. You laugh, but I actually know Dean, and political observers who are calling him a fruitcake are underestimating his political savvy. For several years, Dean and I did a television show together taped in Montreal. It was called "The Editors," though Dean was not an editor. He was the governor of nearby Vermont. Every month during the fall, winter and early spring, he would motor up to Montreal (I envisaged him riding the Greyhound surrounded by plump country girls eating sandwiches, some carrying chickens in cages). On the show, he held down the liberal end of a panel while I held down the conservative end. Actually, it would be more accurate to say he held down the Democratic end, for never did he wander from the Democratic party line, even when we of a more philosophical caste of mind brought up a nonpolitical topic -- say, Aristotle or the death of the novel. "The novel would never have died if we had adopted the single-payer health care model," he might have responded, or, "Did you know Aristotle was the first gay-rights activist?" Dean has recently taken a very bold position on war with Iraq. He will be the George McGovern in this Democratic field and oppose war -- while insisting that Saddam disarm. If Saddam does not disarm, Dean will raise his voice. Possibly he will stomp his foot. Yet, it is a mistake to believe Dean is a glassy-eyed idealist. He is a thoroughly professional Democratic politician. That is to say, he is well practiced in the art of contradicting himself without betraying a hint of embarrassment or even awareness. Every week he would tape several shows, and always he had the Clinton agenda and spin down pat, as if he had been reading talking points sent to him directly from George Stephanopoulos at the White House. Was Clinton lying about fund-raising efforts made in the White House? "Absolutely not; that is the kind of thing you Clinton haters make up." Did Clinton have ties with shadowy Indonesian bankers? "There is not a shred of evidence." Would Clinton lie his way into an impeachment? "Just the kind of thing you Clinton haters want to believe," and then surely Dean would throw in something about sex being a private matter or everyone having a thing or two they are not proud of. Well, Howard, neither you nor I have had a woman step forward and accuse us of rape. Yes, I think Howard Dean is going to make an excellent Democratic presidential candidate. He can intone the party line whatever it is ... and if he makes it into the White House he will be the first Democratic president since Jimmy Carter not to be accused of rape. My thoughts about these Democratic presidential contenders and the ethical standards that the last Democratic president upheld while residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. were interrupted by the untimely death of a White House figure from years past, Ron Ziegler, age 63. He died of natural causes, though a decade short of what might have been his life expectancy. Ziegler, of course, was President Richard Nixon's press secretary, and it fell to him to explain away Watergate's ongoing presidential lies prior to the resignation. The ordeal obviously took its toll. After Watergate, the political community's public judgment was that Nixon fell because "a president cannot lie to the American people." In Ziegler's New York Times' obituary, the paper noted that while he was press secretary "a study team from American University and the National Press Club" reproved him for having "misled the public and affronted the professional standards of the Washington press corps." After George Stephanopoulos did the same, ABC made him heir to the Sunday morning talk show of Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts, scene of some of George's most implausible deceits. The next time you tune in to "This Week," see if you can envision Ron Ziegler seated in George's place.