- The Washington Times - Friday, October 6, 2000

Republican vice presidential candidate Richard Cheney, we are told, is "staid," "stolid," "serious" and "dull." The Washington Post even raised a question as to whether his "integrity, ability, dignity, resolve" are enough in a candidate these days. Indeed, Mr. Cheney apparently even raised doubts in the minds of some recently by his seeming awkwardness when invited to read the children's book, "The Very Hungry Caterpillar," to students at an elementary school.

As someone who regularly reads "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" to my 4-year-old, Ben, and my 2-year-old, Caroline, allow me this sigh of relief: at last a candidate for national office who is more comfortable defeating Saddam Hussein than feeling the hunger pains of caterpillars. Perhaps the era of therapeutic, paternalistic big government really is over?

Eight years of President Clinton have changed our culture in more ways than one. Mr. Clinton has been so busy feeling our pain that he seems to have made empathy the premier political virtue. Call it president as therapist-in-chief. The 1992 and 1996 elections were about domestic, not foreign or defense policy. The credit for this luxury goes in large part to the success of the Reagan and Bush administrations, including Mr. Cheney, in ending the Cold War and defeating Iraq. The blame for our excessive national inclination to ignore foreign policy, however, rests with Mr. Clinton.

Yet it is not all Mr. Clinton's fault. He is as much symptom as cause.

Our current primary-dominated, television-saturated presidential selection process places a premium on the skills needed for campaigning rather than those needed for governing. It helps to be good-looking, glib or at least willing to pander (remember Ross Perot?). It helps if you're a famous athlete or actor, an eccentric billionaire, or a star of big time wrestling. Apparently, broad-based executive and legislative governing experience count for naught. Is a candidate mediagenic? Can he give good sound bite? Has he mastered the soft demagoguery of populist pandering?

Apparently what makes one a Really Useful Executive today is fluency in the patois of "Thomas the Tank Engine." Forget policy briefing books and practical experience. They won't help you avoid "heffalump" traps. Perhaps nominees should study what happens "If You Give a Moose a Muffin." Future presidential candidates might want to begin brushing up now on "Make Way for Ducklings." If the aforementioned literary references are lost on you, apparently you're not up on children's literature, nor ready for the vice presidency.

Political scientists lament the tendency of our presidential selection process today to focus on image over ideas, and to emphasize the medialities of campaigning more than the realities of governing. Infotainment skills are paramount; gravitas and substance are seen as "boring." Former Vice President Walter Mondale's lament about our media-dominated presidential selection process has it about right: "Everyone involved is cheapened the candidates, the reporters, the voters."

Neither Mr. Clinton nor the media, however, bear all the burden of responsibility for the shift in our political culture which defines presidential virtue in terms of a willingness to pander to preschoolers. The therapeutic nanny state was not built overnight. Fortunately, we still have yet to fully embrace the notion that the president is our national school marm. Perhaps "compassionate conservatism" with its emphasis on returning responsibility to local schools, civic associations and families means enabling presidents and vice presidents to be, well, presidential, while allowing teachers to be teachers, and parents to be parents. Even the very hungry caterpillar eventually cures his junk food-induced tummy ache by going back to eating leaves.

Finally, as someone who knows Mr. Cheney I worked for him as a congressional fellow in the mid-1980s I will rest easy, confident in the knowledge that the country is in good hands if we elect Bush-Cheney in November. Having Mr. Cheney by the president's side in the West Wing will afford me the luxury of comfortably reading "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" to my children safe, snug and secure in their beds.

Mr. Cheney is no pander bear? Thank goodness. At last, the un-candidate.

William F. Connelly Jr. is professor of politics at Washington and Lee University. He worked in Richard Cheney's congressional office in the mid-1980s.

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