- The Washington Times - Monday, October 2, 2000

This is the year we're getting it right in the kisser. Politicians have always given mere lip service to the tough issues, but never have the two presidential candidates put so much stock in the proper pucker.
The kisses just keep on coming.
When George W. Bush went through a hospital nursery the other day, smiling at the squalling newborns, he winked at the cameras and quipped, "So many babies to kiss." When he arrived on the set with Oprah Winfrey he strode manfully on stage to plant a surprise peck resolutely on her cheek. Asked a little later to name the greatest gift he had to bestow, he replied: "A kiss for my wife."
He had clearly upstaged the absent Mr. Gore. When Mr. Gore visited Oprah and omitted the customary kiss, with not even an air kiss for the queen of touchy-feely, Oprah asked: "What, no kiss?" Perhaps Mr. Gore, who said he had been so overcome with an "overwhelming surge of emotion" at the Democratic convention that he just had to plant that big one on Tipper, figured that was enough already.
We've clearly entered a new stage of sexual politics. A man has to lunge for the women's vote with body language. Feminism promised us that women could be as tough as men, but now the candidates, trying to prove they're as soft as women, affect feminine sensibilities to appeal to women. You can't argue with what works: Since his soft and cuddly appearance with Oprah, Mr. Bush. has cut so deeply into Mr. Gore's appeal to women that he has surged back to a lead in most of the public opinion polls.
We've come a long way from way poor Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro didn't know whether to hold hands or wrap them around each other's waists. They felt awkward with each other, and it showed. Fashions in body language, like fashions in hem lengths, change.
Can anyone imagine George Washington passionately kissing Martha? Harry Truman was a "man's man" who wrote wonderful love letters to Bess, but both were careful not to show passion in public. That would have shocked both men and women of their more modest time, and Harry and Bess most of all.
Once upon a time I wrote a monthly column for Vogue magazine called "Mental Health," cataloging the latest dispatches from the front in the war between the sexes, really deep psychological stuff for women to read under the hairdryer. I discovered a fascinating academic study explaining why the Latin lover was such a delicious mystery to American women. The Latin male, according to certain cultural experts, nurtured a different sense of space than the American male, and he found it only natural to get close to a woman's face, even in conversation. American women found that romantic and sexually charged. My Vogue editors thought the item too explicit (read too exciting) to run. They probably wouldn't run it today because it wouldn't be explicit and exciting enough.
The loosening of sexual images and public displays of affection subtly affect how we interpret a candidate's behavior. We expect more intimate revelations about their personal lives, so we allow them more physical contact. Bill Clinton is a big hugger of both men and women, and his most famous hug was of Monica on the rope line. We watched it over and over again until the television networks all but wore out the videotape. Such candidate-groupie behavior seemed innocent enough and would have remained so if we hadn't subsequently learned that the rope-line hug was only what met the public eye.
Women, as we all know, have been gloriously liberated, but the old sexual images still work best in the clinch. Rick Lazio was only treating Hillary as an equal in their first debate, but her handlers cleverly exploited a perception of Rick as "unchivalrous." Attila the hen became Hillary the hurt.
The public demands softer images Mr. Gore telling those heartbreaking whoppers about his family; Mr. Bush bringing a tear to his eye when he talks of the birth of his twin daughters because that's what works best on television. Spontaneity takes practice, and a candidate has to work at looking sincere in good visuals. Ed Muskie was bounced out of the presidential race in 1972 when the television cameras caught a tear on his cheek as he denounced an attack on his wife. He tried to say it was a snowflake, but we knew better. He was a man ahead of his times.
"Television," says Ted Koppel, who should know better than almost anyone else, "is an illusionary medium." Nevertheless and like it or not, it is the intellectual and emotional illusion that our culture has become. Nobody can kiss that away.

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