- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2000

How is a presidential campaign like a seduction? Well, in the primary candidates woo voters with promises of gifts (health care, education, tax breaks). On election day they pop the question and the voter must answer either "I do" or "I don't." The wedding takes place on Inauguration Day when the new president promises to love, lead, honor and sometimes obey. That's why the first 100 days are called the honeymoon.

After that the bridegroom must stand and deliver. No starry-eyed bride ever expects to get all that she's promised, but the courtship can tell her a lot about what she can expect to live with.

In a recent poll conducted by Frank Luntz, George W. was the man among the candidates who most men would choose as best man and most women would choose to marry. Al Gore was considered the "brainiest"; he was also the winner in another category: men and women who "would rather kill themselves than be stuck alone with him for a week."

Of course, George W. wasn't a laugh-a-minute on David Letterman. "But I'm not running for 'comedian-in-chief,' " he said. "I'm going to be commander-in-chief." A good thing, too.

Political campaigners have always made appeals to masculine and feminine images. But just as "masculine" and "feminine" aren't as clearly defined as they used to be, neither are the political parties. It used to be that Republicans (as late as Ronald Reagan) reveled in belonging to the masculine party and the Democrats thrived in the feminization of their politics.

The macho award goes easily to Al Gore this time around. His pugilistic transformation gave him a new identity and distance from Bill Clinton. But macho in the post-modern vernacular smacks of caricature rather than authenticity. Although the vice president employs more combative verbs, he's still the guy who hides behind weasel talk about "no controlling legal authority." Nor was it so brave of him to meet Al Sharpton surreptitiously, and at his daughter's Park Avenue apartment, where he used a grandchild as his beard.

John McCain shows no such ambivalence in his masculinity. After Gov. John Engler of Michigan complained that the senator had merely "rented" Democrats to win the Republican primary in Michigan, Mr. McCain told him to "be a man." Only a war hero could exploit such language to elevate himself.

But what does it mean today to "be a man"? If we believe with the ancient Greeks that "man is the measure of all things," what exactly is the unit of measure? Does it relate to personal morality or public conduct? Policy or character? Ideally, all of the above.

We don't live in an ideal world. We mortals can merely listen closely. Republicans who once prided themselves on thinking with their heads rather than their hearts now have a candidate in George W. who talks of his heart and of "compassionate conservatism." That doesn't necessarily reduce his masculine appeal. When he campaigns with Elizabeth Dole or Christine Todd Whitman he demonstrates how his party cares about women's issues.

In a fascinating new book called "Campaign Talk: Why Elections are Good for Us," Roderick Hart, a professor at the University of Texas, uses a computer to analyze the language of candidates to see how their vocabularies work. Specifically, the professor shows how a candidate is or is not in touch with his times. Statistical examples of the different vocabularies of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole in their 1996 acceptance speeches tell him a lot:

Bill Clinton referred to people 21 times; Bob Dole only twice. Bill Clinton stressed neighborhoods, fellow[s], children, home, parents; Bob Dole used inside-the-Beltway words such as administration, Congress, party, policy, compromise, unions. Mr. Clinton talked about jobs; Mr. Dole talked about wealth; Mr. Clinton refers to mother, peace; Mr. Dole refers to father, war.

Professor Hart concludes: "Bill Clinton ran as an ideological, and rhetorical, New Democrat and Dole as a near-caricature of the Old Republican." Neither Mr. Clinton nor Mr. Dole referred to race, class, religion, region or gender, and both emphasized their reverence for America, 45 times between them.

Language offers insight but not always illumination. Language can also deceive, which is one reason why Plato kept poets out of his ideal republic. But you don't have to be a poet to delude or seduce. Politicians are quite good at it, too.

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