- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 25, 2000

Iowa's over, but the attempted purification of American politics continues.
But will it ever be safe out there for virgins?
The big issues lie still unresolved: What must we do with the Confederate battle flag, so offensive to the motormouth pols who are either ignorant of, or contemptuous of, the true history of the nation? Is John McCain too attentive to the wrong constituents? What must we do with those folks who keep throwing money at George W.? Will Bill Bradley run out of money before he runs out of sanctimony? Does Al Gore have enough shirts in the new earth tones to stuff through South Carolina?
But the biggest question of all, on this cold morning after, is whether we can grow up enough to have a real presidential campaign. We haven't seen so many hurt feelings since the Thursday Evening Ladies Literary Society, meeting at the Baptist church, ran out of Miss McKee's famous oatmeal cookies before the Methodist preacher's wife got her first cup of chamomile tea.
Andrew Ferguson catches the tone of the aborning campaign in the Weekly Standard:
"A question was selected from the audience (always a mistake): 'Will you propose and agree,' asked an earnest young college student, 'not to run any negative ads against each other?' The front-runner for the nomination, George W. Bush, put on his most serious face absolutely smirkless. 'I'll run positive ads,' he said. 'I don't mind debates. I do mind Republicans tearing each other down.' At that, his closest rival, John McCain, crossed the stage, extended his hand, and said grimly: 'I'd like to shake hands right now. We will not run negative ads.'"
The audience, knowing what was expected of it, erupted in applause, and the two men did a bad imitation of a soul-brother handshake, of the kind, as Mr. Ferguson notes, "that many middle-aged white men have seen during televised sports events, but have never quite mastered themselves." (White men can't jump, and real white men ought not to try.)
And not just nice Republicans. Al Gore has sulked because Bill Bradley noted, correctly, that Al had once voted in favor of tobacco companies, which was only right because it was the tobacco companies that bought the tobacco raised on the Gore farm in Tennessee. Mr. Bradley, rebuked by the Gore camp as "the professor of petulance," sulks because nobody saluted the racial epiphany he had while naked in the shower with his teammates of the National Basketball Association.
Well, enough tears already.
How could a television commercial, even a "negative" one, frighten a man who endured an eternity in the hell of a Vietnamese prison camp? Why would a man who roughnecked in a Texas oil field even notice a barb thrown his way by Gary Bauer or Steve Forbes? Didn't Bill Bradley learn to take a few elbows in his face in the dribbling wars of his youth? You might think Al Gore had seen enough combat in the White House, caught in a cross fire of the flak of flying lamps and soaring ashtrays, to toughen him up enough for a presidential campaign of his own.
Campaigns are meant to be mean and nasty (which is the way the media like it). That's why we spend so much time on our political campaigns. Anybody can be a wonkmeister, writing position papers and arguing the fine points of policy, but only real men whether male or female can survive the ordeal that bloods a president.
The successful politicians groove on the mean and nasty, even when the negative stuff hurts. It gives them the incentive to return the fire. One such pol of my acquaintance, running for state attorney general, found himself the target of a shameless attack when his opponent accused him of failing the bar exam three times.
He let the charge, inaccurate though it was, go unanswered. "I failed the bar exam twice, not three times," he explained to me later. "But how would saying that have helped? It was one of the most beautiful pieces of negative advertising I've ever seen." (He went on to a successful career on the state Supreme Court.)
The very term "negative politics" is redundant, because politics by definition is adversarial; hence, all politics is both negative and positive. Everyone in the game knows this, but it's impolitic to say it. Most of us are propelled to the polls in the first place because we want to vote against the jerk running against our man. I've never enjoyed voting quite so much as in the days of the paper ballot when, in my state, the voter was instructed to mark through the names of the candidates he didn't want, leaving only the name of his favorite. Ah, the satisfaction, after enduring a campaign, of taking an Eberhard Faber No. 2 and putting heavy black lines through those names.

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