Past Elections

Boston Globe
Mike Barnicle
October 8, 1996

Riding across eastern Massachusetts, it is easy to see one of two big reasons why this presidential election was over before it began: The number of kitchens and bathrooms being added to existing homes in town after town.

Nobody is going to fire Clinton when the economy offers enough solace to so many with the confidence to retain a builder. It’s as if the voice of the electorate is saying: “He hasn’t screwed up that badly, so he can stay.”

The other reason took place Sunday night when Bob Dole, a good man wrapped in a sad campaign, caused such anxiety that millions felt relieved whenever he came up with a verb to complete a whole sentence. It was as if Clinton were starring in a movie called “Driving Mr. Dole.”

The retired Kansas senator stood there, sometimes mumbling, always gracious, his thoughts falling off the edge of a time-imposed cliff, and the whole scene was like taking dear old dad for a ride in the country on a beautiful fall afternoon, giving him one last look at the leaves along with a chance to ramble incoherently about . . . whatever.

Think about it: Dole kept referring to votes made in 1965 and things that happened in 1945. He did this while the other guy spoke about 2005.

As Miss Dowd of the New York Times wisely observed, this race is between an incumbent who means nothing he says and a challenger with nothing to say. It is not a pretty picture.

Bob Dole attracted some affection Sunday, but that’s not what he has to pick up. The man needs votes, and there are none to be had in a country currently operating in a comfort zone that is both unreal and barely defined.

There are no wars collaring kids out of high school and using them as cannon fodder in some distant place. There are no big-time foreign threats from Russia or anywhere else.

There is no recession, no crash on the horizon, only acquisitions and mergers that swallow huge numbers whole, but even that horrific bite doesn’t damage the economic product and, in many cases, actually causes profits to be made by the few who forever capitalize on the misfortune of the many.

Dole might be the better man. He might be more truthful, stronger, the guy with character and the courage of his convictions. But he’s also the nowhere man. He aged before our eyes Sunday, became less glib with each passing minute up against the perpetual candidate, Clinton.

The president is an interesting fellow; smart, too. But he clearly is also a guy who needs a campaign to survive. Never great at governing, he throws himself onto the stump, gaining energy, emotion and strength from the physical act of shaking a hand, moving through a crowd, giving a speech.

But what are the speeches about? Race? No. The state of public education in America? Hardly. The employment future for 43-year-old professionals suddenly tossed to the street when their company disappears? Uh-uh.

Most often it is about cigarettes, dirty movies, school uniforms, curfews and the death penalty. Those are some of the “critical” issues discussed by the leader of the free world.

And guess what?

In this, the last presidential election prior to the turn of the 20th Century, the candidates of both major parties have stolen politics from us. In terms of what is being said and the impact these words have on voters, more people are disengaged from this contest than any other since 1964.

Thirty-two years ago, Barry Goldwater ran against Lyndon Johnson. An advertising guy in New York by the name of Tony Schwartz sat one day in his office and came up with a commercial depicting a little girl gathering flowers in a field as a voice-over counted down from 10 and the TV screen suddenly filled with the sight of a mushroom cloud. Goodbye, Barry.

After that, nobody cared about the election because everybody figured Johnson was golden. Very few paid attention to what was being said, and hardly anyone inspected the horizon where Vietnam loomed larger than life itself.

Now, years later, we have another romp and even more voters tuning out, disinterested because we figure there’s nothing to fear and the family room will be completed by Christmas. Once again, we are so obsessed with the present, and so immersed in instant gratification, that we don’t want to hear about reality, potential pain or sacrifice. And because this election is over, we won’t hear it, either, until bad news is on the doorstep.