Carnivorous Prophets

Posted: Jan 02, 2004 12:00 AM

There is a great flurry on the question, should competing presidential candidates speak about the weaknesses of other contenders? Howard Dean is at the center of the controversy because he chewed out Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic chairman. He told McAuliffe he should have used his good offices to get the other candidates to shut up about him and how he couldn?t win if nominated. Everybody is now mad at everybody else but mostly at Dean. One mostly gets mad at front runners.

I contribute an experience: In July 1987, I brought together in Houston all the Democratic candidates for president, for their first joint appearance. I enlisted as co-host Robert Strauss, who was the most revered, fair-minded (and humorous) Democrat on the national scene. We sat down surrounded by attentive and nervous courtiers and inquisitive members of the press. One of the following men would be nominated in 1988 to challenge the Republican successor to Ronald Reagan.

I had questions written for our Firing Line guests. They were Bruce Babbitt of Arizona, Joe Biden of Delaware, Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, Dick Gephardt of Missouri, Al Gore of Tennessee, and Jesse Jackson and Paul Simon of Illinois.

One of my bright ideas was to begin Hour #2 by asking each candidate to enumerate a weakness of the other candidates. As in, "Senator Biden, Governor Dukakis is contending for the same position you are and there are months ahead in primaries for all of you. What is a singular weakness of Senator Dukakis in winning those?"

My co-chair Robert Strauss leaned over and whispered into my ear, "Brother Bill, you?re not going to get anywhere doing this, you watch." Well of course, seasoned politico Brother Bob was correct. Senator Biden was not about to say anything that drew attention to the weaknesses of Senator Dukakis. Even if he had suspected, back then, that Dukakis would look silly wearing a helmet while riding in a tank, he didn?t say so. Nobody during the entire hour would say anything derogatory about anybody else, stressing only his own superior qualifications and inchoate appeal to the primary voters.

Nothing of the sort in 2003! Howard Dean?s spurt to the head of the line using childlike magic-toy solutions to such questions as the containment of terrorists, the reform of the tax code, and the plight of education at first astonished such onlookers as Lieberman, Gephardt, and Kerry; and finally drove them quite mad. To share time in national forums with the thaumaturgist from Vermont, who with a bright and engaging smile waves his hand eastward and proclaims an end to the problem there by simply shipping our boys home, does two things to the other contenders. They want to say: Stop! stop! stop! The world doesn?t work that way! There are terrible, ridiculous complications! etc. etc.

Their first defense against baby-talk political solutions was to carry on as they did in a half dozen debates. But their frustration has led them to criticize Dr. Dean straight-out, and to enumerate and express contempt for his weaknesses.

So that for two weeks, Dr. Dean read the papers in the morning and turned on television at night and saw himself criticized trenchantly by the only candidates he cares about: Gephardt, Lieberman, and Kerry. So what did he think to do? Call Bob Strauss?

But Strauss, after a long life of public service, has retired, and probably wouldn?t welcome getting into this line of fire. So he called Democratic party head Terry McAuliffe.

What is happening is that Howard Dean?s exhilarating nostrums have got the headier members of the young Democratic population absolutely carried away with enthusiasm. Is there any sound on earth more pleasing than END WAR? Or, ELIMINATE POVERTY? And the First Amendment guarantees free speech even if it is hypnotic.

It is, to be sure, easier to take in that kind of thought with deep draughts of toke, but I don?t think Bob Strauss would have permitted us to ask that question in the company of Democratic contenders who are trying to find out why this sudden enthusiasm for Peter Pan. Probably Strauss would say what McAuliffe pretty well has to say. Nothing can interrupt the scheduled train of events. Reality may just decide to sit it out. Until November '04.