- The Washington Times - Monday, June 19, 2000

Politicians have a hard time being spontaneous. Gone are the likes of a brilliant wit like Adlai Stevenson (who couldn't get elected) or even a practiced storyteller with good punch lines like Ronald Reagan (who could.) Bill Clinton does OK as a standup comedian at the White House correspondents' dinner, but his lines are always written by someone else.

Too soon Pat Moynihan, the smartest man in the Senate, whose historical memory deepens knowledge with a scholar's incisive drollery, will be gone, too.

However you may feel about Al Gore, he's got to be the stiffest and stuffiest politician to read from a teleprompter in living memory. George W. is more relaxed, but you don't always have the confidence that he's mastered either the medium or the message, however entertaining and persuasive he may be.

"Current Events," a play that just opened on Broadway to bad reviews, casts an aspiring politician as the protagonist. The critics say it fails because the author can't rise above his idea that politicians are generally shallow, and shallow isn't dramatic. (Does life imitate art, or what?)

Ben Brantley, the New York Times critic, suggests that the play's problem spills over from real life "because politicians are so widely perceived as existing entirely on the surface, scripted and unsurprising creatures best considered in comic monologues on late-night television."

Don Imus, the I-Man on MSNBC, has created a kind of raunchy litmus test for any politician who dares to go on his program for an interview. If the politician can engage in give-and-take humor with Mr. Imus, the take-no-prisoners interviewer, he gets a seal of authenticity, if not necessarily of approval.

So we have to give Rick Lazio, who is running against Hillary Clinton for the New York Senate seat, a thumbs-up for spontaneity and maybe even authenticity. He went into the I-Man's lion's den last week and won over one of the toughest critics on morning television. In a series of questions (written by Pete Hamill), Mr. Imus grilled Mr. Lazio with a pop quiz on New York minutiae. Unlike Hillary Clinton before she went on David Letterman's show, Lazio didn't get an advance peek at the questions.

Mr. Imus asked Mr. Lazio if he knew the old blues song that closes out each episode of a popular Manhattan interview show with porn-star guests who appear without their clothes on cable TV in the early morning hours. Mr. Lazio, reluctant to repeat the title of the song, obviously knew it and offered a cleaned-up paraphrase. (We couldn't tell if he blushed because he wasn't on camera.) The I-Man, who is hard to please, gave him a thumbs-up for being a New Yorker in the real world.

No one suggests that every candidate pass the I-Man test, but Lazio contrasts starkly to Mrs. Clinton, who has yet to work up the courage to go on the tough Sunday-morning television interview shows. Mr. Lazio has, often.

It used to be that anyone who wanted to be elected to office knew he had to go before the public and take all kinds of questions from all kinds of reporters. The test of a campaign is not only what you say, but how you say it and where you say it.

Today presidential campaigns are so media-driven that a spontaneous gaffe (is there any other kind?) travels faster than a speeding bullet and is heard by millions of voters from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Ore., before the commercial break. Caution can enable a candidate to stay out of the line of fire; it also keeps him below the radar. But figuring out what may sound right can sometimes be deadlier dumb than merely stating the facts correctly.

Al Gore, having gone through incarnations of Cardboard Man, Alpha Male, Pit Bull and Man-in-Hiding, seems to have been bitten with his own venom, and can only speak not in mere sentences but in whole paragraphs that obfuscate rather than educate. In answer to a question posed by the editors of the New York Times, about whether he used his campaign time as well as his opponent has, he sounded like Chauncey Gardener or Charley Chan, reading from the Farmer's Almanac: "When you plant seeds you don't know what the crop will be like just by the way the planting has occurred."

Asked whether he would characterize himself as prudent and cautious as an ant, and George W. as wasteful and profligate as a grasshopper, he replied: "I choose not to attach any elegant epithets to my opponent."

What the vice president needs is a few of those ants in his pants. That would lighten him up in a hurry.

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