What's Better? His Empty Suit or Her Baggage?
By MAUREEN DOWD
There's only one reason I continue to brave Washington's dreary formal press dinners, which are so calcified they're a bad cross between a zombie movie and those little Mexican Day of the Dead sculptures.
I find it highly instructive to hear politicians make humor speeches. It's difficult, and few pols do it well.
It took Bill Clinton almost two terms to make a funny speech. He kept letting a petulant tone creep in. Even though W. would probably rather spend the night in Baghdad than go to a banquet, way past his bedtime, where he's getting lampooned by reporters still able to drink, he was a master right from the start.
Lynne Cheney is a practiced speaker, but a bit tone-deaf on humor. At the Gridiron dinner here on Saturday, she said of her husband: "He has a great sense of humor. Just the other day I asked him, 'Do you know how many terrorists it takes to paint a wall?' And he answered right back, 'It depends on how hard you throw them.' "
People laughed, but it felt creepy, the kind of humor that makes more terrorists.
Everyone was curious to hear Barack Obama, the Democratic speaker. He arrived last year as a star, then lapsed into a cipher, even getting punk'd by John McCain last month. In the capital's version of "Dancing With the Stars," Senator Obama won, turning in a smooth, funny performance that lifted him from his tyro track.
He tweaked fellow Democrats, telling the white-tie crowd: "Men in tails. Women in gowns. An orchestra playing, as folks reminisce about the good old days. Kind of like dinner at the Kerrys."
He mocked the president's unauthorized snooping, saying he'd "asked my staff to conduct all phone conversations in the Kenyan dialect of Luo." He advised W. to "spy on the Weather Channel, and find out when big storms are coming."
After saying he'd enjoyed the Olympic biathlon of shooting and skiing, he, deadpan, turned to Dick Cheney: "Probably not your sport, Mr. Vice President."
It may be true that Americans, as one Democrat told me, "will never elect a guy as president who has a name like a Middle East terrorist." And it may be true that Democrats are racing like lemmings toward a race where, as one moaned, "John McCain will dribble Hillary Clinton's head down the court like a basketball."
But the clever, elegant performance by Mr. Obama — who is intent on keeping his head down in the Senate until he, too, can be a tedious insider — underscored the Democratic vacuum. Not only do the Democrats "stand for anything," as Mr. Obama semijoked, but they have no champion at a time when people are hungry for an exciting leader, when the party should be roaring and soaring against the Bushies' power-mad stumbles. They should groom an '08 star who can run on the pledge of doing what's right instead of only what's far right.
The Republicans won with Ronald Reagan and W. by taking guys with more likeability and sizzle than experience. They figure they'll win in a McCain-Hillary duel by running a conservative beloved by the media and many Democrats against a polarizing Northerner who can't win any red states despite pandering to conservatives.
The weak and pathetic Democrats seem to move inexorably toward candidates who turn a lot of people off. They should find someone captivating with an intensely American success story — someone like Senator Obama, Tom Brokaw or some innovative business mogul who's less crazy than Ross Perot — and shape the campaign around that leader. Barack Obama is 44. J.F.K., who had a reputation as a callow playboy and lawmaker who barely knew his way around the Hill, was 43 when he became president.
With seniority comes dullness. And unless you can draw on it in desperate times, promise is merely a curse.
Democrats think Senator Potential's experience does not match Senator Pothole's. Much of hers is as a first lady who bollixed up chunks of domestic policy. They also suspect she may be more macho than he is. They fret that the freshman Illinois senator would wilt against the Arizona senator's foreign policy experience — and he probably would. But Mr. McCain, a big hawk on Iraq, has talked of sending more troops, and his mentor was Henry Kissinger. These are not recommendations.
W. had the foreign policy "dream team," and it shattered our foreign policy, ideals and self-image. Despite hundreds of years of combined experience, the Bushies rammed through cronies and schemes that were so destructive, it will take hundreds of years to straighten out the mistakes.
The Democrats should not dismiss a politically less experienced but personally more charismatic prospect as "an empty vessel." Maybe an empty vessel can fill the room.