When Politicians Get Prissy

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It was the gentlest of pokes. "we as a nation can't afford to make Barney Rubble investments in a George Jetson world," Joe Lieberman said last week. But this oblique comparison between George Bush and a cartoon caveman was too much for Bush to let slide. "Americans," he huffed in response, "are tired of the name calling."

Name calling? This is the same Bush who helped persuade his father to label Michael Dukakis a "bozo" in 1988. Yet he acted hurt again last week after Gore, chatting on Air Force Two, said Bush should "put up or shut up" on prescription-drug benefits. Bush ignored the substance of the remark, saying, "That doesn't sound very presidential to me." His communications director added that anyone who would make a "playground challenge" with "that kind of bitterness" shouldn't be President.

Candidates have always tried to catch the other guy going negative as a pretext for going negative themselves. But now it seems that the party of John Wayne is becoming the party of John Tesh. Bush wails like a cheap car alarm over the most minor incursion — and attacks at the same time. Last Friday he was the first to unleash a frontal-attack ad. And for a year, he's laced every speech with rhetoric aimed at Gore's integrity and concluded most of those speeches with a pledge to "restore honor and integrity to the White House." What's that if not personal?

Bush couldn't get away with crying foul when Gore asks him for his plan for Medicare Part B if the media refs weren't acting prissy too. After Monica, the press is now aiming for a campaign that merits a Junior League seal of approval. Gore was labeled "martial" by the Washington Post last week for saying "I hope that my opponent will also present to you specifics of how he would address the problem of children who do not have health coverage today." Viewer discretion advised.

By going on the air first with an ad that essentially attacks character, Bush opens himself up to the charge of violating his own lofty standard. Described by Republicans as humorous, but at best only sarcastic, the ad mocks Gore for exaggerating his role in creating the Internet and for fund raising at a Buddhist temple. Acting shocked that Bush would do such a thing, Gore and Lieberman look as phony as Bush wincing in pain over the Flintstones reference. Does anyone think if Gore were 10 points behind we wouldn't see an ad about Bush gaffes? In fact, Democrats had to put their issue-attack ads on hold last week to allow time for their own righteous indignation.

Ironically, Gore, who has always relished a fight, is more likely to confine his attacks to issues, while the genial Bush is more likely to get personal, despite vowing to "raise the tone" and avoid "the politics of personal destruction." Bush benefits if the election is a referendum on personality. In a contest for Mr. Congeniality, odds favor the college cheerleader. In a battle over substance, the guy with 24 years' experience has the edge over the one with five.

Last Thursday, a day before Bush's attack hit the airwaves, the Republican was telling an audience that "politics doesn't have to be ugly and mean." But it does — a little — or we won't know what makes one candidate better than the other. They should just all stand up and take — and make — their hits. But Bush wants to have it both ways. When asked in a TV interview whether he'd gone negative, Bush said it depends on what the definition of negative is. Where have we heard that kind of sophistry before?