- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 31, 2000

CARMEL, Calif.

Political conventions and campaigns are inevitably microcosms of the manners and morals of the larger society. In a country as large and diverse as ours, they offer snapshots of what the American people will and won't accept.

The speakers push the envelope of their different constituencies with appeals to ideals and aspirations at the same time they expose the vulnerable underbelly of the nation's flaws and failures. The candidates offer glimpses of the sociological and psychological changes in the political landscape.

Or so a columnist, attempting to unwind and debrief herself after the bread and circuses of the August political season, thinks. The gorgeous California coastline from Los Angeles north to San Francisco, with its black rocks, white sand and turquoise sea, provides the perfect backdrop for such rumination.

Philadelphia, the city in which the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, the symbolic city of brotherly love, is not nearly as far from Washington in habit and urbanity as Los Angeles. Philadelphia was the cradle that Walt Whitman saw as "endlessly rocking."

California was the last stop, the end of the line for the pioneers who crossed this expansive country. The City of Angels lies at the water's edge, the point of no return, the make-it-or-break-it for those who get this far. It was a fitting, symbolic spot for Al Gore and his band of Democrats who entered Los Angeles behind in the polls and emerged "within the margin of error."

George W. Bush and his wife Laura presented themselves in a traditional context of marriage and family. She's the bright, understated schoolmarm whose impact on her husband's life is to provide the intelligent love that made him want to curb his flamboyant ways.

Al Gore, who never needing curbing, had to show his flamboyance, placing that much remarked-on passionate kiss on his wife Tipper, to call attention to his image of manhood. It was pure Hollywood.

George W. appealed to diversity from a white male base in the Republican Party. He showed how the Grand Old Party had grown in appeals to inclusiveness. The starring supporting roles were played by Condoleeza Rice, the black woman who would be his national security adviser, and Colin Powell, who would be his secretary of defense.

Al Gore had to capitulate to Maxine Waters, the radical black California congresswoman who doesn't like his running mate's views against affirmative action, and Jesse Jackson, who doesn't like a lot of things about the moderate New Democrats. The party that dominates the black vote follows the black leadership rather than lead it.

In these dramatic convention fests blacks rather than black issues took center stage and show how far theatricals can camouflage the black reality. One of the most disturbing facts to emerge post-convention week is the widening disparity of reading abilities between black and white students. The average black 17-year-old reads at the reading level of the average white 13-year-old, according to national test scores described in a federal report. Even more shocking, the gap is the widest among those children whose parents are the best educated. Is this what George W. means by the "soft prejudice of low expectations?" Black I.Q. has not gone down, but the quality of black education has.

By all accounts, the most crucial issue in America is that of education. One of the most promising approaches for getting at the failure of public schools is the use of vouchers, enabling parents whose children are stuck in bad public schools to take a voucher to a better school where they can pay (with some of their tax money) for an education more like the education available in the private schools Al Gore and Bill Clinton chose for their children. Joe Lieberman understood this, and said so, before he became Al Gore's running mate and hostage to the teachers unions.

George Washington, in Philadelphia, sat in a chair before a painting of the sun. The delegates debated whether the sun was rising or setting. After the constitution was signed Benjamin Franklin declared that it was definitely a rising sun.

Driving up the California coast, a visitor observes a remarkable light, provided by a golden rose-bright setting sun. Art and nature, east and west, connect the country with rising and setting suns, metaphors of possibility and closure. Soon we'll decide again whether that sun is rising, or setting, from sea to shining sea.

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