Alan Keyes — We Hardly Got to Know You

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It warms the heart to see Alan Keyes break through in Iowa — or at least show up a strong third.

Keyes is the most articulate and passionate of the Republican candidates — and perhaps the most intelligent. A couple of his opinions — if broken loose from the old-fashioned but entirely coherent and tightly constructed edifice of his worldview — seem a little screwy. But his "Hear, O Israel!" is better political theater than anyone else has to offer on either side, Republican or Democrat.

At its worst moments, the rest of the Republican field — though it includes worthy men, especially John McCain — reminds me of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Clarence Thomas hearings: squirmy, discomfited, insincere, with furtive, panicky calculations going on behind the eyes. The impression is unfair: Forbes is very smart, for example; McCain is a fine man. Bauer says interesting things. Bush may work out all right in the end.

But Keyes, who is inner-directed and speaks in beautifully constructed paragraphs, usually leaves the others looking a little untogether — outer-directed, and, now and then, kind of dumb.

But the best political theater is about to be closing out of town. The race this year is all over, everyone agrees on the morning after Iowa. Bush and Gore have the nominations. (My guess is Gore by a nose in November.)

And it is only January, a week from New Hampshire. And it is a great pity. The point of a presidential campaign should not be to choose the winners before the game begins, but to develop candidates over time, like a slow Polaroid, in the public mind, over a period of months, and to persuade ourselves that one or another of them might, indeed, make a president. Or that the others won't do. A campaign is itself a form of presidential invention: We conjure up a president, sometimes out of what seems, beforehand, to be pretty second-rate material.

There can be something comic about the process through which a politician may go from seeming outrageously unacceptable (a B-movie Hollywood actor, let us say) to being somehow plausible and, occasionally, even inevitable.

Years ago, I watched a little Georgia peanut farmer climb onto a chair in a hotel suite in Atlanta so that he might be seen and heard in a room full of loud, beefy black men — back-slappers and labor organizers from the North. It was during the annual Urban League convention. Jimmy Carter, the man with a pale, splotchy face and glacial eyes, was almost completely unknown then, in April 1975. He told those professionals, in a soft southern voice: "When I am President...." When he said that, the men in the room rolled their eyes and rocked with mirth and nudged each other: "Heh! Heh! Heh! Who IS this guy??!!"

That's what everyone was saying when they first got a load of Alan Keyes, a right-wing black (Heh! Heh! Heh!) with his strutty and electrified body English and his intimidating clarity.

But the current, bunched-up primary system means we hardly get to know him. Scheduling practically all of the primaries up front is a disastrous idea — the race may be over by Super Tuesday, March 7. This is rotten civics: Who wants a presidential politics in which money ordains the outcome by Thanksgiving of the previous year?

The aborted campaign is also a disservice to politics as entertainment. With George W. Bush and Al Gore locked in by March, we will face a dispiriting slog to get through the spring and then through two pointless summer conventions. We will soldier on until November, gasping for air, so sick of Bush and Gore we will wish the winner were gone from our lives long before he is inaugurated.

Jesse Ventura and Pat Buchanan and Donald Trump may provide some diversion in next few months. But maybe we ought to start organizing a fourth party around Alan Keyes.