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Biography

Tales of past enter into election battle

Guest author

The 2000 presidential battle belongs on “Biography.”

Bill Bradley takes us back to the basketball hoop he mastered out back of his Mississippi River home. John McCain cheers the heroes with whom he shared those harrowing years as a POW in North Vietnam. George W. Bush, the oldest son of a respected father-president and the beloved Barbara, sparkles in the legacy of a family that left the White House with no less honor than it came.

These are the stories that are selling in the country today. Tell us more, Bill, about what it was like to fight for position in Madison Square Garden against the likes of Chamberlain and Russell. Tell us, John, of what it was like to tap on your cell wall to a fellow American whose face you’d never seen, to feel the joy of such wondrous, daunting brotherhood.

Tell us, George, about that rousing “chimes at midnight” youth, that more rousing still conversion to manhood when you, like the grand Henry V himself, accepted the family call to duty.

I asked John McCain to explain this, why two three-term senators and a two-term Texas governor are saying so much of their biography, so little of their actual work in government. Caught off-guard, he said it may result from the way people view the impeachment proceeding, the “embarrassment” it caused. This may explain, he surmised, why Americans “want to examine people’s credentials a little more as far as their background is concerned.”

It may also explain why the only three candidates grabbing voter interest are the three with backgrounds apart from government, why the folks having the toughest time are those who have spent their lives in the cocoon of politics.

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Al Gore lives today in the vice president’s residence along Massachusetts Avenue, the same avenue where he grew up and went to school. Elizabeth Dole can point to her experience at the Department of Transportation but what red-blooded American voter would want to look with any interest, appetite or excitement at the Department of Transportation or Labor, for that matter.

Patrick Buchanan has spent his years working between the Old Executive Office Building, where he wrote snappy words for Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, and the TV studios where he snaps towels on “The McLaughlin Group” and the “Capital Gang.”

To most American voters such lives, spent in the world of Washington desk-jockeying and chit-chat, are at best a virtual existence, at worst a putrescent one. Who would they choose as their commander-in-chief: Bill Clinton’s teammate or Earl “the Pearl” Monroe’s? Which hotel would a hero-candidate most wish to claim as his formative residence: Washington’s grand old Fairfax where the Gores got room service from the Jockey Club? Or the “Hanoi Hilton” where McCain and his band of noble brothers spent their years in defiant solitary?

As McCain suggests, seven years with Clinton did nothing to make such decisions difficult. The 2000 contest is not to prove yourself so much a better man than Clinton as it is to show yourself, as early as possible, a straighter guy. If you once drank too much, as McCain and Bush both confess, so much the better. If you were the cause of a marriage to fail, as McCain admits, we can live with that, too. If you won’t admit to using cocaine as a young man, which George still won’t, at least refuse to lie about it. If you’re caught pandering to Iowa farmers, as Bradley’s been, at least don’t try to “spin” your way out of it. Besides, if Bradley says he wouldn’t quit practicing as a young kid “till he’d hit 25 set shots from five different spots on the court,” you don’t suspect him of taking those “Mulligans” a middle-aged Clinton uses to shave his golf score.

“Slick.” That’s what these candidates are running against: the slick talk “It depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is;” the slick ring that builds up around the bathtub. People want a breath of fresh air this time around.

That explains why guys like Bill Bradley, John McCain and George W. Bush are trying to position themselves as far away from this city and its over-exposed denizen as physically possible.

This campaign isn’t about performance. It’s about purification. (Chris Matthews, chief of the San Francisco Examiner’s Washington Bureau, is host of “Hardball” on CNBC cable channels. Copyright 999 Newspaper Enterprise Assn.)