- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2007

Whether we think it is too early or not, the 2008 presidential campaign is now underway in full force. There is no going back. Everything, it would appear, has been moved up, including the primaries.

Not all the major and not-so-major candidates in both parties are perhaps declared, and in spite of an incessant parade of polls both nationally and in individual states, we have little if any idea which aspirant will be the choice of his or her party. This does not prevent certain commentators from declaring each new microbe of campaign news to be dispositive and world-shattering.

In fact, the earliest preliminaries may now be concluded, and we enter the next phase, the season of political warts and pimples. Pundits, opposition researchers and consultants will try to make us believe they have a degree in political dermatology and will diagnose ad nauseum every flaw in each candidate’s resume. Of course, virtually everyone had acne in their youth, and could be pictured before and after as they do in commercials, but the political dermatologists now will try to make “before” to be forever, unless their treatment is applied.

I think cartoonist Berkeley Breathed had it about right the other day in his comic strip featuring Opus, the disingenuous and lovable everyperson penguin. Opus is sitting on a park bench with a middle-aged matron in her curlers reading the latest gossip magazine. Opus is minding his own business, but the matron begins to talk about the latest gossip about a Hollywood celebrity.

Opus says to her “Hold that thought,” and disappears for a few minutes, returning with a device marked “home taser” and as soon as she restarts the conversation, he zaps her off the bench and she lies dazed in a pile of her curlers now strewn about her on the ground. The final frame has Opus looking at us and saying, “I hope this is legal!” Alas, it only works thus in a comic strip.

We have such a thing as free speech in America, and, my goodness, you cannot shut up those who make a living out of talking too much.

The best antidote, I think, was the kind applied recently by Mitt Romney’s wife, when, after repeated questions about the non-issue of Mormon polygamy (asked only because her husband is a Mormon and not because it has anything to do with his candidacy for president), replied that her husband was the only major candidate in his race who had been married only once. Zap! Thank you, Mrs. Romney. End of issue.

But this is only the beginning. Most of the “revelations” will be trivial or mistaken. Some will have only a little relevance. A few may be “serious.” Smart candidates will get the gossip items out of the way early, as “nondeclared” Newt Gingrich recently did, not because it is germane to the political office at stake, but because it would almost certainly preoccupy a certain class of pundits who are looking for endless occasions to declaim and preen in the public eye.

Republican frontrunner Rudy Giuliani is now bracing for the heat he would take if a former colleague is indicted, and Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton is married to a sure thing for the cover of National Enquirer. The tribulations of family illness, something that besets every family in America, become objects of ethical debate for the families of presidential candidates.

Aren’t we glad now that we didn’t know all about JFK’s peccadilloes? (But we should have known that he had a chronic, distracting and eventually fatal disease before he ran for president.) Needless to say, every presidential hopeful wants to look good, and will do almost anything to avoid looking bad. Consultants surround them to advise them to evade any situation (such as a genuine political debate with an opponent) that might cause the latter, and spin doctors are always close at hand to get them out of unattractive situations.

But I complain too much. This season of warts and pimples is supposed to be followed by serious hand to hand combat in which the nation’s most important problems and issues will be discussed at last, and the public will have the opportunity to judge the candidates on their merits.

Not only that, but real solutions to public policy problems, foreign and domestic, will be put forward that can be implemented by the winning candidate, our next president. The skin-deep-only phase of the election will therefore be followed by a phase of substance.

Don’t bet on it. We can be at least grateful that those who promote and revel in the current phase of exploiting gossip and idiosyncrasy only imagine themselves to be political dermatologists.

They could imagine they are political proctologists.

Barry Casselman writes about national politics for Preludium News Service.

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