Political pollution: sanctimony on the campaign trail


WASHINGTON -- The disagreeable incense of sanctimony is permeating presidential politics. The principal sanctity-mongers are Sen. John McCain, Bill Bradley and Vice President Al Gore.

Mr. McCain, the Savonarola from Arizona, is the favorite Republican of those (e.g. the media) who regret that there are Republicans. Two supposed proofs that he has cornered the market on virtue are his insistence that his campaign-reform legislation is necessary because everyone in politics, himself emphatically included, is corrupt, and the fact that his tantrums demonstrate his authenticity and noble intolerance of sin.

I plead guilty, he says in a guilty-plea-as-self-congratulation gambit, to getting angry when I see gross injustices take place such as I see happen quite often in the Congress of the United States. But do I insult anybody or fly off the handle or anything like that? No, I dont.

Atlantic Monthly, December 1985: Just after the July 4 recess, as freshman Joe Barton was walking down the center aisle of the House to cast a vote, he found himself in the middle of an angry cross fire of epithets between Democrat Marty Russo, of Illinois, and Republican John McCain, of Arizona. Seven-letter profanities escalated to twelve-letter ones and then to pushes and shoves before the two were separated.

Boston Globe, Aug. 6, 1993: McCain came across the Senate floor and while mocking Kennedy, told him to shut up, according to observers in the chamber. A stunned Kennedy returned the comment, telling McCain to shut up and act like a senator.'"

Various current Republican senators, who say many of Mr. McCains outbursts are not about matters of policy (gross injustices) but about personal pique, speak off the record with astonishing asperity about Mr. McCain, expressing doubts -- if not conviction -- that his temper is evidence of a temperament unsuited to the presidency.

Holier than thou attitude

The disqualifying flaw, they say, is characterized by a righteousness that makes Mr. McCain disdain the motives of those who differ with him.

And actually it is kindness, not, as some McCain supporters imply, cowardice, that causes these senators to speak only off the record. They expect Gov. George W. Bushs strength in the primaries to obviate the need for more open criticism of their colleague.

Mr. Bradleys low-voltage campaigning -- call it the charisma of Morpheus -- is a reprise of Eugene McCarthys style during his 1968 meander against President Lyndon Johnson. (Remember Mr. McCarthys drollery: Running for president is like coaching football -- you have to be smart enough to understand the game and dumb enough to think it is important.) And before Mr. McCarthy there was Adlai Stevenson, supposedly so exquisitely thoughtful that asking him to mix with less worthy politicians would be akin to sending Henry James to a NASCAR race.

Mr. Bradley began his campaign talking incessantly about his unique sensitivity to, and unique bravery in talking honestly about racial problems. Mercifully, he seems to have concluded -- for the moment; recidivism would not startle -- that he has worked this pedal on the organ quite enough. But for months he practiced something Richard Brookhiser, writing in the New York Observer, says we have seen before:

Mr. Bradley practices a special form of guilt-inducement, which also [sadly] became a technique of Jack Kemps: the athletes sneer. Because Mr. Bradley played games with prosperous black men in the 1960s and 1970s, he thinks that only he, out of all the white race, has enlightened sentiments on questions of race and poverty, and he wont let the pale faces forget it.

As Mr. Bradley is learning, Mr. Gore is a ferocious partisan who constantly detects the defect of partisanship, meaning a lack of honorable motives, in those who disagree with him. He denounces opponents of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty as reckless (Sen. Richard Lugar? Six former secretaries of defense?) and partisan (two former CIA directors appointed by President Clinton?).

And he says that Senate opposition to his pride and joy, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol for allocating among nations duties for dealing with global warming, is partisan. Partisan? Five months before the protocol was signed, the Senate said that in the shape it was taking (and in the end took), the protocol would be radically unacceptable.

Losing cause

By a vote of 95-0, the Senate passed a resolution conditioning ratification on substantial changes in it. Having ignored that vote, the administration now does not dare to submit the protocol for ratification. Mr. Gores multiplying accusations of partisanship reflect a mentality unable to accept that honorable, intelligent people can differ about most things. The name for this mentality is: fanaticism.

For Mr. Gore, as for Mr. Bradley and Mr. McCain, the politics of sanctimony involves denigrating the motives, and hence the character, of opponents. Which is why the incense dispensed by the sanctimonious smells sulfurous.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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