So It's Come to This

Our fair city is overrun by presidential contenders; plus, other St. Louis follies and foibles

Both appeared on a local college campus. Both spoke without notes or a TelePrompTer. Both came off better than expected. Neither of them said anything surprising or, in the end, worth remembering. One of them is going to be president. Oy vey.

Neither George W. Bush nor Al Gore is evil or stupid, just the lowest common denominator. As stated previously in this space, it's the battle of the fortunate sons: a president's son, Bush, the friendly frat brother who can be a bit of a brat, up against a senator's son, Gore, the well-intentioned overachiever whose ambition has outstripped his purpose. By the time both reached Missouri for supposedly Super Tuesday, they had honed their acts. Bush spoke last Wednesday at St. Louis University, a Catholic venue chosen in part to counteract the grief he got for speaking at anti-Catholic, anti-interracial-dating Bob Jones University in South Carolina. Gore spent Monday night speaking to a similar-sized crowd -- less than 1,000 -- at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Both crowds were tame and clearly made up of boosters: no hecklers, no tough questions. The one good thing that can be said about the UM-St. Louis gathering was that it was a more diverse, interesting crowd -- though, in a markedly nonegalitarian tactic, the crowd was divided into elected officials and VIPs in the bleachers behind Gore; the privileged, holding red tickets, standing on the gym floor in front of the podium; the not-so-privileged, holding blue tickets, in the bleachers nearby; and the truly disadvantaged, with white tickets, in bleachers partly obscured by a curtain. (Parenthetical aside: The Rev. Cleo Willis, who was hanging around the fringes of the red tickets, said he just got back from Decatur, Ill., where the good news was the Rainbow Coalition is providing him a lawyer to help with his bust during Jesse Jackson's protest of the expulsion of the fighting high-school students. Willis did not attend the Bush pep rally.)

Freeman Bosley Jr.
Freeman Bosley Jr.

What can be said about Gore? The Gore at UM-St. Louis appeared to be a body double for the Gore of old -- that, or someone had dropped some meth-laced Prozac into his barbecue. Gore seemed so happy, so peppy, so unlike Gore. If he once had a board lodged somewhere in his anatomy, it must have been surgically removed. First thing he did onstage was take off his sportcoat, revealing an olive polo shirt and pants. He talked about prosperity. Clearly the drum he planned to beat was the economy, promising bigger chickens for bigger pots.

At SLU, Bush was a bit more formal, keeping his tie tight and his suitcoat buttoned, but he has this habit of waving his arms outward from his side, palms facing the crowd as he speaks and bending his knees a bit as if strutting in place. He was glib and affable, and why shouldn't he be? He's rich, he's running for president and he's raised an eye-popping $70 million to fuel his run for the White House. His strategy? At SLU, he never mentioned Sen. John McCain by name, mostly passing him over. When Bush spoke of the presidency, it was in terms of the "fundamental question," which, he said, is whether or not he "would bring honor and dignity to the office." He said he would. He never mentioned Monica, or Bill, by name -- didn't have to.

In an inadvertently revealing remark, Bush referred to the late Bob Bullock, the Democratic lieutenant governor who was responsible for most of the legislation in Texas that Bush points to during his "reformer with results" pose. "Like my friend, the old lieutenant governor, said, "If we agreed with each other 100 percent of the time, one of us wouldn't be necessary,'" Bush told the crowd. Many in Texas would say that in that equation, Bush was the one who wasn't necessary.

But in the upcoming contest, which seems to be all that matters, both Bush and Gore are tuning up. Former St. Louis County Executive Gene McNary, who is running for Jim Talent's congressional seat, says that after hearing Bush speak he felt better about Bush's campaigning abilities. Still, the debates concern him: "Because I've watched Gore," McNary says. "I watched him debate with (Dan) Quayle, and I watched him debate with (Jack) Kemp, and there is no question Gore is a mean junkyard debater."

One of those debates will be back in St. Louis, at Washington University. That likely will focus more of a spotlight on the city than Super Tuesday did; Missouri was just one of 16 states holding a primary -- slightly larger than Minnesota, not as large as Massachusetts and nowhere near the size or importance of California or New York. New Hampshire it wasn't. What was perhaps the best one-liner of the abbreviated campaign here wasn't even uttered by a candidate but by Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). During a Monday-morning appearance on KMOX (1120 AM) to hype McCain, Graham sat by as host Charles Brennan started to shill for a telephone headset that allows the user to keep his hands free. Graham couldn't resist: "(Bill) Clinton would love that."

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