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Jewish Journal

Questions of Character

March 2, 2000 | 7:00 pm

Looking at our cover and our lead story by J.J. Goldberg, a stranger or even a casual reader is likely to assume that The Jewish Journal is a Republican Party newspaper. Not so, although we, like the rest of the country, have been intrigued with the spin McCain has produced on the presidential campaign: among Republicans, Democrats and Independents; and among Jewish voters, who fall in those three categories.

But there is another party running in the elections this year, the Democrats, and it seems only fair to give them a voice in our pages. The two Democratic candidates, Bill Bradley and Al Gore, would probably attract the interests of Jewish Californians, whatever the election. Their views on the Mideast, for example, generally will find favor among Jews in the Golden State.

Here is former Congressman Mel Levine, a leader in the campaign for Al Gore in California: "I have worked closely with Vice President Gore on issues involving Israel's security and peace in the Middle East. I have witnessed firsthand both the depth of the Vice President's commitment and the history of his leadership on these issues. He has long been in the forefront of numerous fights on behalf of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, Israel's security and a secure and lasting Mideast peace."

Not to be outdone, the California staff of Bill Bradley offered these words: "Bill Bradley believes that the security of the United States and the security of Israel, the Middle East's only democracy, are inexorably linked and that the U.S. has a strategic and, even more so, a moral imperative for supporting Israel. Bradley... as a Senator, challenged Presidents of both parties when he felt their actions jeopardized Israeli and U.S. security."

On domestic matters, again, the policy preferences of Gore and Bradley -- on education, health care, separation of church and state -- resonate favorably among most American Jews. The two men differ, but more in terms of process than goals; of means than ends. They each favor federal support for education for more children, particularly among the have-nots; and more and better health care and coverage for more people (and especially the elderly); and they can be found drawing a firm line between separation of church and state.

During the course of this somewhat fierce campaign, each of the Democrats has developed a distaste for the other, issues aside. At the moment their speeches are directed against one another, rather than focused on their differences with the Republicans. And inevitably character and personality have begun to cast issues into the shade. This is perhaps more a by-product of primaries in our national election process than willful behavior on the part of the two candidates and their respective advisers.

Gore seems to have remade himself and his campaign from an early unsuccessful start. He has dumped the image of the earnest, plodding, sincere but dull candidate, and distanced himself physically and in every other way from the president. Today he projects an image of someone who is a fighter: fiery, aggressive, knowledgeable about politics and issues. A man with a record, and one with whom Jews particularly can identify.

Bradley has changed in the course of the campaign, but not as dramatically as his opponent. In some ways, Bradley offered himself as a candidate in the tradition of Adlai Stevenson, the Democrat who ran against Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. He projects an image of someone who is his own man, somehow outside of party politics and political machines.

But there are telling differences. Stevenson was witty and had a feel for language. He often wrote his own speeches and delivered them with great flair. Bradley's speeches and responses to questions often are flat and project little in the way of charisma. He knows the issues and has done his homework, but until recently he has generated little heat.

Then he became angry. He accused Gore of changing the facts to suit the audience. He lashed out at him for lying. And he kept control of the campaign and the political decisions in his own hands, not always to his own advantage.

It is fair to say that on issues alone either one of the Democrats would attract considerable support among Jews. But the campaign has shifted from issues to personality, character and image. The blame -- if that is the correct word -- lies not entirely with us. The political process, and the length of the contest, almost dictates it.

We, in the national and local media, must report the story; but we also need to make it fresh. It is only a quick jump to converting a political campaign into political entertainment. Not a soap opera exactly; nor a docudrama. Somewhere in between. And so character -- Who is Al Gore? Who is Bill Bradley? -- imperceptibly becomes part of the decision we finally make when it comes down to the wire and we cast our vote. -- Gene Lichtenstein


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