Is it really impossible these days for a person to be truthful and nice at the same time? Given the performance of former Senator Robert Dole in the first round of the presidential debates, you'd have to think so.
Now, I really am glad we can still watch two presidential candidates, after what passes for a debate between them, shake hands and make a little small talk instead of drawing their pistols for a duel to the finish.
Yet it would have been more impressive if we had actually had a debate. But candidates for public office these days seem terrified by the prospect. Those who should be truth-holders and truth-tellers more and more wimp out just when they're handed a grand opportunity to speak out.
Case in point: Moderator Jim Lehrer asked Mr. Dole quite directly whether there were any personal issues where he and Mr. Clinton differed. After squandering half his allotted response time with an opaque return to the previous question, Mr. Dole assured everyone that his blood pressure was lower than Mr. Clinton's but that no, he wasn't about to get personal or do anything low and mean like that.
On that pivotal question from Mr. Lehrer, Bob Dole took a called strike. He did it because he's scared to death that he can't speak the truth without being accused of also being harsh. It's a paranoia that pervades our culture-starting with parents' fear of speaking the truth to their children, teachers to their students, employers to their employees, churches to their members, and good friends to their friends. In every case, we're deathly afraid we'll be seen as unfeeling and doctrinaire instead of caring and flexible.
So, my wife asked me during the debate as I raged about Mr. Dole's caving in to such fear, what would I have said in response to Mr. Lehrer's question?
"Mr. President," I started (being polite is still OK, and it gives you a couple of milliseconds to think, even if only your family is watching), "there are indeed some important personal differences. The most important may be the issue of personal trust. That has never been a problem for me in my 35 years of public life. Nobody has ever gone around saying, 'You just can't trust Bob Dole.' But people do say that about you, Mr. President-and it isn't just your political opponents. Here's Maureen Dowd of The New York Times [and you pull the actual clipping from your vest pocket], a liberal like you on just about every issue, but she says right here that even your friends don't trust your word. That's standard talk among columnists-even those who back you. That's a big personal difference, and I would think it would concern you, Mr. President."
See, you really can say something like that, maybe even smile while you're saying it, and be civil in the process. Mr. Dole didn't even try.
Or how about Mr. Lehrer's wide open invitation for Mr. Dole to tell who in detail he was referring to in his San Diego acceptance speech when he spoke of those in the Clinton administration who were young and arrogant and far too ready to tell the rest of the country how they were to conduct their lives?
"Yes, Mr. Lehrer, I'll tell you exactly the people I had in mind. I would start with the Lani Guaniers of 1992-the parade of people you, Mr. President [I think it's important here to turn and start speaking to Mr. Clinton; it seems more gracious than simply talking about him]-the parade of people you tried to appoint to office but could not get confirmed because of their own personal background as lawbreakers-people you wanted on your staff but who had abused drugs or failed to pay their taxes. I'm talking about Craig Livingstone, the man responsible for checking out the drug backgrounds and other details of staffers for the White House, who had a drug background of his own. I'm talking about the fact that two years after you were in office, dozens of your White House staffers still didn't have official security passes simply because their own backgrounds wouldn't allow for such passes to be issued. There's enough cynicism in the land, Mr. President, about those of us in Washington. We don't need a presidency surrounded by dozens of such people, scoffing at the military, treating recreational drug use as a normal matter, and making light jokes in public-as you yourself have done-about personal morality and sexual issues. That's the kind of thing I had in mind, Mr. Lehrer. I think the presidency and the White House deserve better."
An answer similar to that, like a couple of clippings in your pocket, hardly take hours of practice and rehearsal. It's not, you see, that Mr. Dole didn't know these details, which are as public and easily accessible as is any daily newspaper. It is instead that candidates like Mr. Dole are scared, for some reason, to speak the simple truth. They've been so brainwashed in the doctrines of pragmatism that little else matters.
Nobody-not even his closest friends and associates-expected Bill Clinton to stake everything on the truth. If anyone at the big debate was going to do it, it had to be Bob Dole. But maybe we live in a day when even such a basic expectation for anyone at the highest levels has become too much.