Stern – 2000 National Meeting
James Y. Stern
Harvard University/The Harvard Crimson
The Philadelphia Society
Grand Rapids Meeting
But I can say that I must begin to approach his encyclopedic knowledge of
this race since I’ve been glued to my computer in anticipation of every twist
and turn in this very strange campaign for the better part of the last two
years. I may not have had Mr.
Rove’s acuity, but I bet I rivaled him in diligence.
Now that fact
alone makes me a somewhat unworthy choice to address you this morning since I am
supposed to let you know what is on the minds of the young generation of voters
ñ the vast bulk of them did not find this slate this year particularly
compelling. Nonetheless, I would
contend that a significant number cared about the outcome, if not the process,
of the 2000 presidential campaign and it is worth posing the question,
especially this year, “Did considerations of character count in the minds of
those who voted for the first time last Tuesday?
And if so, how?” We must then attempt to see what the
answers to these questions portend for the future of the American democracy.
Supposedly I am
qualified to speak on all this because I am an editor at a college newspaper,
but since that paper is the daily journal of Harvard University, I understand
that my credentials are again somewhat suspect.
But I do think that there are some national trends that are
plain enough, even to Harvard folk, among young voters where character is
To put it
succinctly, character does count. It
counts among old voters, medium, voters and young voters and the evidence for
this is pretty clear. Both Al Gore
and George W. Bush seriously attempted to lay claim to the prize for virtue, and
each charged that he was the man
upstanding enough to be president; they both knew that the trustworthiness of a
candidate is a crucial consideration
for today’s voters in America. Whether
or not it’s the decisive factor remains to be seen, as does the constitution
of political virtue, but the fact remains that in national exit polls, voters
ranked the “honesty and trustworthiness” of candidates as their number one
consideration—followed by competence, and then followed by leadership.
To a Bush fan,
that sounds like great news. They’ve
got the competence man, but we’ve got the character candidate.
But ascribing great virtue to George W. Bush and withholding it from Al
Gore has some problems.
Character was, at least somewhat, a muddled proposition in
this election. We often assume
young voters to be more sympathetic to the left, but in an interesting study in
the Los Angeles Times this summer, Ron Goldstein, that paper’s chief political
writer and one of the best out there, showed that the young don’t vote left.
They vote, as a steadfast rule, for the winning candidate.
Young voters, without a history of party identification and
unaccustomed to the consequences of their votes over time, have essentially
gotten caught up in the national tide and have voted for the candidate whom the
nation prefers in every national election in recent memory.
So if young people are a reliable bellweather, which is partly true, it
is especially worthwhile to ask what they thought about character in this
The nation is fed up with President Bill Clinton.
The economy is humming along, more or less, but that prosperity does not
outweigh the tawdry spectacle he forced on the country.
George W. Bush, his beloved father having been vanquished by the wily
Clinton eight years earlier and himself a somewhat fervent Christian, yearned
for revenge. He would restore, he
declared again and again, “Character and dignity to the White House.”
Bush was dedicated to his family, respected his wife, made use of his
conversion to stop his drinking problem, and spoke from outside the nest of
corruption that the nation sees in Washington, specifically in the Clinton
Yet many Americans didn’t buy Governor Bush’s pitch.
They had their reasons.
On the eve of the presidential election, the supposed paragon of virtue
was busy defending himself following the revelation that he had been arrested
for drunk driving.
that the whole affair was pretty friendly, presidents don’t get drunk and
don’t get arrested.
It conjured images of police with sirens and sobriety tests
and handcuffs. It was not a scene,
George W. Bush explained to us, that he wanted his kids to hear about.
Well, for good reason—it was not a scene any of us wanted to be hearing
And of course there were other problems: The governor seemed less than
forthcoming about his war service. Certainly
his time in the Texas National Guard is not the stuff purple hearts are made of.
He refused to deny that he had ever used cocaine.
Cocaine. In his
interview with Tucker Carlson for Talk Magazine, he apparently mimicked the
desperate pleas for mercy of a death row convict.
He was caught cussing on camera. He
had strong ties to the oil industry, a group who seemed especially sleazy in
light of the high gasoline prices the country experienced over the summer.
And he smirked, constantly, giving Americans the sense of a smug child of
privilege, exactly the kind of lowlife his opponents said he was.
Bush seemed almost to use his Christianity as an excuse and a shield:
When damaging facts from his past surfaced, he simply wrote them off as the old
George. But the new, Christian
George W. Bush didn’t seem to do anything to prove his virtue.
Now, none of these things necessarily makes him a sleaze and certainly
not a crook. But they undermined
his claims to be the upstanding man in the race who would get us off the Clinton
track. They eroded his credibility,
especially among the novices of the younger generations, as the most decent man
available for the presidency. That
he was a racucus college student was one thing—young voters certainly didn’t
want to see the equivalent of their own Class President as Commander-in-Chief.
But Governor Bush seemed so often to lack the gravitas and the strong
conscience of a great leader, not just among Harvard students, but among members
of the younger generation around the country.
The young are very independent and very idealistic.
And then there was Al Gore. Mr.
Gore proved himself a loyal number two through some rather trying times. He
served in Vietnam, albeit as a reporter. He
raised a healthy-looking family that was obviously devoted to him and was
married to a crusader against Hollywood violence and degeneration.
He attacked Big Tobacco companies, generally disliked across America.
He named as his running mate one of Bill Clinton’s most visible
detractors and a man who made a small sidecareer out of doing the kind of work
Mr. Gore’s wife did, working with Bill Bennett to pass out “Silver Sewer”
awards. He was for “the people”
and not “the powerful,” he proclaimed, and pulled all-nighters in order to
make his point. He seemed like an
upstanding enough man, a principled advocate for the concerns of Americans.
Like Governor Bush, the Vice President too had some flaws, minor ones
that had the potential to open up into chasms.
There was the Buddhist temple business, the “no controlling legal
authority.” Though he was let off
the hook by Janet Reno, it did introduce the notion that he was overeager where
power was concerned. There was the
association with Clinton—Gore delivered the unforgettable speech on the
“Greatest president in American history”—and though it is true that it was
not Al Gore who was fooling around with Monica Lewinsky, he did not express,
Americans seemed to think, enough distaste for the actions of his boss.
He reinvented himself constantly and appeared to be obsessed with his
image. He lived his whole life in
Washington, D.C., and sold out his own party on issues like Elian Gonzalez and
the death penalty. He condescended.
He made statements about himself that lie somewhere between exaggeration
and lie. He played to class envy
and generational envy and at times played the demagogue very well.
I’m sure almost any college student, asked to name the worst president
in history, would immediately point to Richard M. Nixon.
Regardless of the legitimacy of this complaint, he is perceived as an
intelligent administrator who built his career around the quest for power and
was willing to cut corners, big corners, in order to achieve it.
He was certainly not very good to the principles of his party, as in the
example of AFDC.
Yet many voters, given a candidate with a similar pathology,
do not recognize its symptoms as such, and this was the case with Mr. Gore.
His particular character flaws were less the type to ring alarm bells,
especially with the young.
Where American parents might see a man who prevaricates and
overreaches, young voters, especially at Harvard, see the model of success they
know and respect. Mr. Gore is
condescending. College students,
fresh from the classroom, are eager to lecture on their newfound wisdom in just
the fashion Gore did two days ago regarding the electoral college.
In a contest framed as the decision between a goofy candidate who
emphasizes Christian virtue and an ambitious candidate who emphasizes competence
and will skirt some rules in order to be effective, may students, particularly
those driven to succeed, will choose the latter.
As I say, I think this is particularly the case at HArvard, but in
general, since the young don’t have as much acquired wisdom—they don’t
raise children, don’t pay taxes, etc.—they are willing to accept a candidate
who claims to know more than they do.
George W. Bush certainly has his positives and in the end he did drive
home the message that he was more virtuous than his opponent.
But not by much. The
young found characters like John McCain and Ralph Nader the most attractive:
Here were men who did not succumb to the powerful interests that drive the two
American parties. These were men
who fought blindly for what is right; to the young, the egoism implicit in their
style of one-man campaigns is entirely lost.
George W. Bush understood this: Asked why the young should vote for him,
he responded that they should because he would end the “cynicism and
partisanship” that Washington government, epitomized by the Clinton attack
The exit polls don’t seem to say much, at least yet, about this most
confusing election. Certainly,
the Harvard population overwhelmingly endorsed Al Gore in polls conducted by The
Crimson. And, among papers that are
members of the “University-Wire,” not only Al Gore beat Bush in
endorsements, but so too did Ralph Nader. The
U-Wire includes not just ivy-type schools, but other leading undergraduate
papers like the University of Texas at Austin—which endorsed Gore.
I wouldn’t say these are necessarily representative of the whole of
young people’s thinking about character: Other issues, such as the elimination
of the national debt, were crucial determinants for the young.
But none of the other questions exists without regard to character:
Frugality with the budget and taxes demands a character who is responsible and,
probably, willing to take on the leaders of his party.
Did character count? Of
course it did. With the face of
Bill Clinton leering at all of us, it would be impossible to ignore the question
of character. But was it the
determining factor among the young? Certainly
not as a clear-cut matter of choice. The
young, in their idealism, will take all or nothing: If they can’t have a Nader,
they’ll take a Nixon. Their
notion of virtue is so strong that it almost precludes political success,
especially since many of them want to see an expression of secular virtue.
Ultimately, despite the historical moment, this election was
a very difficult one to lay out in terms of character because both candidates
appeared to have a mix of strong strengths and weak weaknesses.
Will my generation always think this way?
Of course not. They will in
time grow more conservative on issues of character and simultaneously less
idealistic and simplistic in their conceptions of political leadership.
But still they point to some changes that are underway.
A generation raised under prosperity, as was in case in the 1950s and
60s, will come to take some of these basic understandings of character for
granted, not entirely disgusted by the Lewinsky affair and having observed
President Clinton ride his horse into a glorious sunset, his place in Washington
secured by his wife. A virtuous
president—a man dedicated to his family, committed to an agenda for the
country, and pledged to tell the truth—may not be so important in the long run
for a generation too cynical to believe in the possibility of these things in
political life in the first place.