Politicians who 'care'

Posted: Aug 23, 2000 12:00 AM

MEDIA PUNDITS seem fascinated by the "bounce" in the polls that Vice President Al Gore got after his speech to the Democrats' convention. What should really be getting their attention is the reason for the success of his speech -- and what that says, not about Al Gore, but about the American public.

What Gore successfully sold to that public was an image of a man who "cares" about them. That political image has been sold to many publics, in many countries, by people who clearly did not care about their wellbeing, but only about their own careers and power.

Huey Long used the same populist appeals to build one of the biggest and most corrupt political machines in American history, and he was regarded as a serious contender for the presidency until his assassination. The Juan Peron dictatorship in Argentina -- as economically ruinous as it was brutally repressive -- used similar appeals to those whom Evita Peron called her "shirtless ones." Even the great mass murderers of this century --Hitler, Stalin, Mao -- all paraded their "caring" for their people and their determination to "fight" against the "enemies" of the people.

Ironically, the Russians today show far more skepticism about their leader's "caring" than many Americans do. At the same time when many Americans were impressed by the Al Gore convention show, Russians were angry at President Putin because they believe he initially refused the help of other nations, who offered to rescue the sailors in the sunken submarine, for political reasons.

Think of headlines around the world reading: "U.S. Navy Rescues Russian sailors." It would have been a humanitarian triumph for the trapped sailors and their loved ones, but a political disaster for the Russian leaders, who would have ended up with egg on their faces, for having to call on others to do what they were not capable of doing themselves. Better for the Russian politicians to stall around until it was too late and spare themselves this political setback at home and abroad.

Even leaders of democratic nations have shown a remarkable ability to concentrate their caring on their own political careers, even at the expense of other people's lives. How quickly we have forgotten Bill Clinton's bombing of innocent people in the Sudan on the eve of the vote on his impeachment. This was not just a "mistake," as so many corrupt actions of the Clinton administration have been called. Not only was there not enough solid information to justify killing people in the Sudan, those officials who deal in solid information were kept in the dark about what few facts and many uncertainties there were when this fatal decision was made.

Perhaps the most candid confession of putting naked self-interest above the lives of millions of people was made by British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin in the 1930s. Like other western leaders, Baldwin knew early on that Hitler was rearming Germany, in preparation for unleashing another war. But, like those other leaders in Britain, France and elsewhere, Baldwin also knew that the public was still so horrified by the catastrophe of the First World War that they did not want to hear about any need to rearm in order to deter Hitler or defend against him.

In Baldwin's own words: "Supposing I had gone to the country and said that Germany was rearming, and that we must rearm, does anybody think that this pacific democracy would have rallied to that cry at that moment? I cannot think of anything that would have made the loss of the election from my point of view more certain."

In other words, it was more important for Stanley Baldwin to be re-elected than to protect the lives of the millions of people who were looking to him for leadership. Many British fighting men around the world -- and many Americans -- lost their lives in the early years of World War II, when they were using obsolete equipment, because it had not been politically expedient in democratic nations during the 1930s to update and expand their military equipment.

As for Al Gore's "caring," the phoniness of this has been demonstrated too many times already for this to be taken seriously by people who are not suffering from amnesia. This is a man whose tiny charitable contributions from his own income contrasted sharply from his willingness to throw billions or trillions of dollars of the taxpayers' money at all sorts of problems. This is the slum landlord who let his tenants' broken toilet go unfixed for months.

This is the man -- but do the facts matter? Or is image all?