- The Washington Times - Monday, October 16, 2000

If Al Gore and George W. are aiming their considerable charms, if not their sharpest barbs, at the ladies as the experts say they have to do, the Texas "playboy" is finally getting it right.
George W. is not a playboy at all, of course, but that's the media perception, so as wrong as it is it's the only perception we've got. He's running with it. He's threatening to run away from Al with it.
Their debate the other night is a case in point. There was so much smilin' and huggin' goin' on you might have thought they were warming up for another session with Oprah. Gone were George W.'s smirks and Al's sighs, and what we were treated to was enough Little Lord Fauntleroy behavior to make a nanny gag.
This kind of behavior by a candidate, any candidate, is outrageous condescension to "the ladies," but it's what "the ladies" have asked for. We're so determined to take politics out of politics, to take debate out of debate, to take controversy out of controversy, that we can't blame the politicians now for taking us at our word.
Once upon a time a presidential debate, in fact the entire presidential campaign, was regarded as the necessary trial by ordeal. Everyone figured that if a candidate couldn't stand up to a little roughhousing and hazing by the other guy, maybe he wouldn't be tough enough to stand up to the tough guys from other less-inhibited and less-mannerly places that he would have to deal with once ensconced behind that big desk in the Oval Office.
For most of their debate both Al and George W. couldn't be themselves. In the description of Dick Morris, the campaign guru who more or less invented Bill Clinton in those long-ago Little Rock days, Al was "bound and gagged and under the table." A man (if not a lady) might have likened the candidates to a couple of cautious boxers retreating into clinches, too wary of each other to try to land a punishing blow. My father, who promoted heavyweight championship matches a long time ago, would have scoffed that "you don't attract customers with loving clinches, because the customers come to see a fight, and the more knockdowns the better." A little blood on the floor of the ring never frightened away anybody.
But boxing metaphors are out, and pundits search for metaphors from the no-contact sports. (Soccer comes to mind.) We've decided that we have to clean up our presidential campaigns, sanitize the speech of the candidates and even fumigate the punditry. Otherwise, we might offend "the ladies," for whom the current euphemism is "independent voters." Could this really be what Susan B. Anthony had in mind?
It's clearly what George W. is smart enough to have in mind, and why not? When the campaign is cleansed of issues and sharp elbows, that leaves humor, self-deprecation and the easygoing likability that are his most attractive attributes to win the day. Al and his handlers have pushed the canard that George W. is not exactly bright, a 40-watt bulb eager to fit into a high wattage socket, but this carries considerable risks with it.
Affable, likeable George, merely by displaying his good intentions and a cool manner, bested Al on Democratic issues holding his own on health care, disarming him on guns and one-upping him on education by calling it "the ultimate civil right." Al was even reduced to saying, three times, that he isn't trying to take away the guns of "hunters and sportsmen."
If George W. is the cool smoothie that every girl covets but is a little wary of taking home to show ol' Dad, all the smoothie has to do is show that he's bright enough. Charm, personality and basic decency will always carry the day, and if he shows a little fiber and toughness as well he's on his way to getting both the girl and the farm.
On the other hand, the bright bully doesn't wear well because if the other guy turns out to be bright enough, brash aggressiveness a nice euphemism for overbearing rudeness is all the bully's got. If he changes his behavior as easily as he changes his earth tones, as Al tried to do the other night, and nice doesn't work, he'll pay a high price if he goes back to bullying. That's because that's what everyone (and most of all "the ladies") expect the overbearing bully to do.

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