'Amazing Grace' in the Garden

Posted: Sep 02, 2004 12:00 AM

Politics is theater and politicians are merely the performers. Candidates, like Hollywood stars, seek the best writers and scripts they can afford and we judge them on how they play their roles. To the winners go the trophies of office.

Candidates have always had to appeal to a variety of audiences - we call them voters - but now that everything must be entertainment first, every candidate must show versatility in different kinds of performances, often playing against type. Why else would John Kerry, a stiff New Englander (no matter what his multicultural antecedents are) go on cable-TV's Comedy Central to make fun of his Vietnam heroics?

In a convoluted attack on George W. Bush, the show's host, Jon Stewart, interrupts the senator with a deadpan question: "Were you or were you not in Cambodia?" The two spar nonsensically until the host gets to ask what we really care about: "Is it true that every time I use ketchup, your wife gets a nickel?"

The newest rite of a politician's passage is to show that he can press the pedal to his mettle and be ha-ha funny. This runs counter to what we want or expect from a leader (or what we should want), which is to express well-thought out ideas about something serious, a vision for the future, stated with logic and reason. Spontaneous quips can be entertaining, but tell us little about a person's ability to lead. Can anyone remember a joke by Harry Truman or a racy quip by Dwight Eisenhower?

In an election year, the serious voter tries to establish the authenticity of a candidate's character, the depth of his understanding of problems and the imagination he could apply to finding solutions. Conduct of a war is a serious matter. Comedy should be left to the serious professionals.

Michael Moore, for example, can be a funny man and his mockudramas can entertain us, but we shouldn't take what he says seriously. The Republican delegates to their convention understood this loud and clear, roaring their applause of John McCain's observation that a certain "disingenuous film-maker . would have us believe that Saddam's Iraq was an oasis of peace."

Hollywood celebrities flock to Democratic conventions. Democrats are star-climbers, often mistaking artistic talent for intelligence. The celebrities who prefer the president have considerably less twinkle power than John Kerry's celebrities. Country music and Christian Rock do not inspire bicoastal groupies. But that doesn't say anything serious about the choice in November.

Erika Harold, Miss America 2003, is a Republican delegate from Illinois. She arrived in New York with a message, but it's not a message to capitalize on the beauty of body or voice. She spent the year she wore the crown talking to teenagers about sexual abstinence before marriage and the perils of alcohol and drugs.

This is a little heavy for Hollywood. The twinklies would have squirmed uncomfortably the other night when a choir of delegates at Madison Square Garden spontaneously joined with Daniel Rodriguez, the singing policeman, in the final verses of "Amazing Grace."

The actor Ron Silver doesn't make the hearts of teenagers of all ages go aflutter like the sight of Ben Affleck or Leonardo DiCaprio, who celebrated with John Kerry in Boston, but he warmed the hearts of the seriously concerned with his speech welcoming the delegates to his hometown, explaining how and why he sees the world differently from his liberal colleagues.

"Even though I am a well-recognized liberal on many issues confronting our society today," he told them, "I find it ironic that many human rights advocates and outspoken members of my own entertainment community are often on the front lines to protest repression, for which I applaud them, but they are usually the first ones to oppose any use of force to take care of these horrors that they catalogue repeatedly."

He compared the murder of 2,605 of his New York neighbors at the World Trade Center as a defining moment for the future of freedom and democracy, and reprised the benediction spoken by Douglas MacArthur at the ceremonies concluding World War II aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay:

"It is my earnest hope - indeed the hope of all mankind - that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past, a world found upon faith and understanding, a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish for freedom, tolerance and justice."