- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2000

In politics, as everywhere else, change like everything else is a double-edged power tool. Every candidate tries to turn the deadly blade to his advantage without cutting himself.

Nothing illustrates the risks of change better than the results from the Michigan primary. It may be too soon to tell who won that one, as we shall see as the campaign moves on to Republican primaries restricted to Republicans.

Observing change, the voter is ultimately left trying to figure out why. Was it for political reasons? Is it authentic? Can we trust it to continue? What insight does it offer us about the candidate?

George W.'s transformation from hellraiser to sober Methodist church-going man came about through his faith in Jesus Christ. That made it natural for him to cite Jesus Christ as the "philosopher" most important to him: "He changed my heart." Voters who don't like any kind of religion talk in their politics didn't like his answer but few could doubt its authenticity. George W. stopped drinking and shaped up at 40, giving him the opportunity to earn eight years as governor of the second largest state.

His critics, naturally, cite the change as a little late and costly to the man. They scorn him as lacking the right kind of life experience and intellectual heft to be president. Yet it was precisely such change that Shakespeare weaved to demonstrate King Henry V as fit to be king. The young prince Hal, ye Shakespeare lovers recall, took to hanging out with his buddy Falstaff and his low-life companions at the Boar's Head Tavern in Eastcheap, learning about the common life from those less privileged and less powerful in the kingdom.

Change for John McCain is of another order. No one questions his bravery, his heroism and his patriotic stamina as a prisoner of particularly vicious enemies of his country, but his critics question whether that experience, followed by his experience in the Senate, best qualify him to lead the nation.

While the senator's campaign-finance reform spells out change for future campaigns, the senator can relish the delay, enjoying the luxury and largesse of the corporate money he decries. He reminds me a little of St. Augustine once he had seen the error of his hedonistic ways, but who wasn't quite ready to change. In "The Confessions," he denounces his indulgent lusts, and prays to change but just not right away. He pleads: "Just a minute." "One more minute." "Let me have a little longer." Nevertheless, he confesses, "… these minutes never diminished, and my 'little longer' lasted inordinately long."

No one expects John McCain to become a saint, but some of us wish he would show by example the change he wants others to make.

Al Gore hasn't so much changed as become transformed in personality, dress and policy. His supporters defend it, but his critics see it as a little too fast and opportunistic, like his shameless pandering to black audiences in Harlem, his obeisance to the likes of the odious Rev. Al Sharpton.

First the dress. After he was told to loosen up in boots and earth tones he overdid the macho-istic wardrobe. His rhetoric got bolder with his commanding verbs of "fight," but was this the same guy we once thought of as, in contrast to his boss, a straight arrow? We're still left with the question posed by Elizabeth Dole: "Where was Al Gore when his partner, Bill Clinton, robbed the Oval Office of its moral leadership?"

There's the matter of his stand on abortion. It isn't so much that he says he changed his opinion of a woman's right to to choose, but that he lied about his previous votes on the issue when he represented conservative, evangelical constituencies in Tennessee. Maybe he learned from his boss that lies can pay when nobody's paying close attention.

Bill Bradley hasn't changed so much as gone into reversal. After flying above the fray he's indulged in a little semi-nasty campaigning, too. The semi-nasty stuff began to work for him, but it was too little too late. Voters say they hate negative campaigning, but it works and in politics that's what counts.

In his book of quotations of successful leaders, arranged alphabetically by topic, William and Leonard Safire insert change between "capabilities" and "character." Not a bad position, because a man's capabilities and character are the best measurements for interpreting change. The most potent words to succeed by are taken from Machiavelli (who else?): "Whoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times." But the smart guys might take Bernard Baruch's advice to FDR as a cautionary footnote: "If you have made a mistake, cut your losses as quickly as possible."

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