It’s probably a little early to make this direct a comparison, but yesterday I reread a favorite story of mine, Michael Lewis' New Republic article “The End” (Available, unfortunately, only on Nexis). In it, Lewis travels with senator and then-presidential candidate Bob Dole during the last four days of the 1996 election, watching as the GOP standard bearer succumbs to irrelevancy and frustration. As McCain criss-crosses the country today attacking Barack Obama, and his aides futilely spin the press about their chances of winning, there are certain similarities:

Mainly what is noticeable to the naked eye is how much less pleasant the Dole campaign has become -- which is saying something. The crowds flip the finger at the busloads of journalists and chant rude things at them as they enter each arena. The journalists, for their part, wear buttons that say, “Yeah, I’m the Media. Screw You.” The artillery aimed at Clinton gets heavier by the hour. ” I never saw an FBI file,” former President Bush tells the crowd. “But then I never had a barroom bouncer right there to look them over for me.” Five hours later Bush’s barroom bouncer has become President Ford’s bartender. A few hours after that Dole himself picks it up and describes Clinton’s bartender looking through files: “He looks at a FBI file, then has a beer. Looks at another file. Has another beer.”

…One of Dole’s better-known strategists, Charlie Black, [now he works for McCain] rides in the press plane. Black was the brains behind Phil Gramm’s presidential bid, which set new records for dollars expended per vote. … Joylessly Charlie announces that we are all deluded in thinking that Clinton is ahead in the polls; the true poll numbers show that Dole is gaining in popularity three percentage points a day and there is nothing Clinton can do about it. “They’re in a desperate gambit to turn out their base because they see the election slipping away from them—and it is,” he says, with total certainty.

This sort of behavior has become routine in the Dole campaign; indeed, from the beginning the Dole people have preferred to insult your intelligence than to craft more plausible lies. The disjuncture between the persona of the candidate (straight talker) and the behavior of his campaign (big liars) dates back to the very start of the primaries. At the same time that Dole was presenting himself as a force for decency his campaign was spending millions of dollars on push polls. When asked about them, the Dole campaign told reporters that Forbes and Buchanan were hiring pollsters to slander themselves, so that they could accuse the Dole campaign of dirty tactics. They kept this up for several weeks, even after they were told to stop by the Republican National Committee. Dole’s attitude seems to have been: whatever these people I’ve hired do in my name is not my responsibility. He never seems to have realized there’s a problem with selling honesty dishonestly.

History runs in circles, apparently, but we knew that, right? The piece also mentions McCain, who cleared his schedule to spend Election Day commiserating with Dole during his loss. Lewis, a McCain fan in the nineties, appreciates his passion for lost causes. Lewis ends the story in a VFW hall, observing that Dole is the last of the World War II generation politicians. On the day of Dole’s final defeat, Lewis writes, “Tonight in Russell, Kansas, World War Two finally ended.”

Which is a poignant reminder of what everyone in my generation fervently hopes as the last weeks of this election approach: On November 4, 2008, whoever wins, can the Vietnam War please come to a conclusion?

—Tim Fernholz

You may also like