"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 12 September 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

The Colossus of Ceylon, Minnesota



American political ages — short, brutish, and nasty though they may be — can be defined by their most influential figures, many of whom step briefly onto stage several years before their influence is felt. Other times the cameo comes from the players themselves: Franklin Roosevelt foreshadowing the hopeful New Deal in a vigorous nominating speech for the "Happy Warrior" and doomed soldier of Rome Al Smith; John Kennedy's better-than-expected speaking ability and all-that-was-hoped-for physical presence at the 1956 vice-presidential balloting; Ronald Reagan's uncanny good fortune in being given blameless carte blanche to rally survivors of two rapidly sinking ships (Barry Goldwater's and Gerald Ford's) before being airlifted to a much more amenable 1980 with its double-digit inflation and downed desert helicopters. Just as often, a future political age can be seen in the never-weres. The Republican party nominations in 1856 and 1860 may have gone to men who still smelled faintly of the frontier, but Salmon Chase and William Seward prefigured the kind of big-state established and vaguely distinguished party regulars who dominated both parties for decades. William Jennings Bryan stands out as perhaps the only presidential candidate whose unsettling presence and novelty-song repetition of his "Cross of Gold" speech forecast a run of success for the other political party.

Despite attempts of varying levels of sophistication to align present-day politicians with past electoral kingpins such as Roosevelt, Kennedy, Reagan, and even Harry Truman, neither of this year's major presidential candidates are likely to invoke memories of past presidents as much as vague promises to one's self to look into parliamentary systems of government. As the American people limp toward November in the midst of an escalating battle of television commercials, commentary about television commercials, and lack of charisma wielded as a weapon, the shaper of this political age slowly reveals himself. We are all of us living under the shadow of the tailored gray suits and inordinately large eyeglasses of Walter Frederick Mondale.



Like George W. Bush and Al Gore, Walter Mondale was the creation of electoral conditions brought about by Jimmy Carter's jaw-dropping 1976 primary win. By following the ebb and flow of previous elections — and by looking at a calendar — Carter and his team correctly identified Iowa and New Hampshire as contests with enormous potential influence on the rest of the race. By concentrating his time and energy in those states, Carter built the political momentum necessary to win more hotly contested, delegate-rich contests in the weeks following. Because all candidates have since aped Carter's basic strategy and several states have adopted earlier primaries in order to enjoy their version of Iowa and New Hampshire's reflected glory, the nomination process has become a vaudeville-style opening act, featuring a well-financed party regular slapping at various challengers tugging at his pant leg until they tire and return to their platforms, paws up.

One doesn't define a political moment by being the beneficiary of changes in strategy; what distinguishes Walter Mondale and makes him the exemplar of our political times is the way he carved space for himself in the general election against Ronald Reagan. First and foremost, Walter Mondale changed the presidential campaign. After a week of speeches from Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson so compelling that people watched them on television, Mondale used his speech to recast the presidential campaign not in terms of issues, not in terms of competing ideas of America, but as a long-winded job interview aimed at an ill-defined, middle-of-the-road everyman. If the limited choices sometimes offered American voters can be defined as choosing among different models of the same car, Mondale took it one step further. He offered America the exact same car — strong defense, no taxes on private business — just with a better mechanic looking after the warranty. Even the name of Mondale's approach, "New Realism," could be offensive to traditional members of his own party. No one better underlined the need for nominees to wall off the faithful extremes and play to the center of the room than Mondale that evening, and that particular torch has been taken up by every serious challenger since — from the centrist governors Dukakis, Clinton, and Bush to the kinder, gentler career politicians who've served as their opponents — none of whom repeated Mondale's mistake of mentioning the new car's service fees up front.



Mondale felt free to mention future taxes in part because he felt himself a craftsman well worth the asked-for price. By emphasizing his comparative skill as a manager, Mondale did more than anyone to recast the presidency as less bully pulpit or moral center than as a vehicle for effective (or in the terms of his book, responsible) governance. The highlight of the Mondale campaign was the candidate's looking much less senile and addled than Reagan at the first debate. And the best-remembered commercials featured full-on face shots of the former vice president speaking to America, which was more like a stern talking-to from the dean of students than the soft-lensed, Technicolor mini-movies offered by the Reagan campaign. Mondale's campaign was all about Mondale in a way that can only be appreciated in hindsight. Although voters rejected Mondale and re-embraced Reagan, hints of Mondale's approach can be seen in the hardworking public servant Dukakis; the over-talkative genius, Clinton; and even the curious 1988 take on Bush Senior as the real-life wildcatting, war-hero version of the movie-made Reagan. Mondale is the answer to the question of why we hear about Bush Jr.'s record in Texas at all.



Mondale added any number of specific political moves that remain in every current (and likely, future) candidate's repertoire. Mondale gave us the best stunt vice presidency ever in Geraldine Ferraro, the original Gore daughter in Eleanor Mondale, and the now-common maneuver of whining about the power TV has over the political process while using its inanities ("Where's the Beef?") to pulverize your closest rivals. Ever since 1984, candidates run for office as envisioned by Walter Mondale, aggressively pursue the voters targeted as crucial by Walter Mondale, and use the same techniques to promote themselves as Walter Mondale did. The advantage this year's candidates have is that neither of them is Walter Mondale. But "I'm incredibly dull and possibly corrupt" and "Tilt your cup or you'll get a head on it" are slogans flexible enough to cover the personalities created by those who have held office since Mondale stepped offstage 16 years ago. Both candidates, in the final analysis, would make fine special envoys to Indonesia.


courtesy of 40th Street Black


pictures Terry Colon

40th Street Black