The View From The First Chair

I STOPPED in Larry's barbershop Saturday to check on the election and, while I was at it, to get a haircut.

The election's doing fine.

Rep. Nick Mavroules, a local Democratic congressman just indicted on various accounts of corruption and bribery, was to hold a fund-raiser that night; former senator and presidential candidate Paul Tsongas, among others, had just said, Sorry, can't make it, Nick. There was much laughter about a discounted ticket price for the dinner affair.

"The stiff, he had it made," was the judgment from the first chair. The trial would be put off until January; by then accusations and the campaign would be forgotten.

Larry is a contrarian Republican. A small-businessman (though he wouldn't usually refer to himself as that), he's run a barbershop in Wellesley since a little after the big war. He remembers when they used to cut ice from what once was a pond across the way, now filled and paved over for a small suburban shopping center. His customers are contractors, a banker or two, some old-timers, and the high school teams that want crew cuts ($12 on Saturdays). He roots for the Boston Red Sox, the New England Patrio ts, and the Boston Bruins - to lose.

He has little use for the Kennedys and Cuomos. He can't abide women in politics. (That's a shameful position to take, I protest; but although I've been going to the shop for 10 years, without fail, I'm still not a regular.) He believes in one-term limits. He reads the newspapers religiously, although he doesn't like the media. He doesn't want to talk about abortion, which he considers a private matter. He likes George Bush and Dan Quayle.

Sometimes when the shop gets a little wild with laughter and political banter, I'm uneasy about Larry's focus as I get into the chair. But he's a professional, and Republican, Democrat, or newsman gets the same haircut - "about a medium," which is short, but not as short as the high school swimmers' shavedown.

The Democrats could win, Larry acknowledges. But he still thinks it will be Bush. The others, who think of the ups and downs that life brings rather than of the poll standings, agree that it is close. The majority, for Clinton, show no deep confidence.

So Clinton will create 8 million jobs. Are politicians aware of the humor, if not derision, their exaggerations prompt where the election - in the minds of the everyday American citizen - actually occurs? Granted, operating campaign theory calls for stirring up the base vote. Still, the candidates shouldn't try so hard. Bush has been doing better now that James Baker has taken control at the White House. Bush may have reacted tardily on the Florida storm tragedy, but he's retreated to the White House, ac ting more as his own spokesman at decision times. He's running more as a working administrator and less as a hyperactive campaigner. Bush needs to disavow the cynicism of his political operatives, who admit they say untrue things about Clinton because "it works," and enforce it.

Even so, this is not a bad election. It is a good election.

Both Clinton and Bush have shown themselves to be durable, relentless campaigners. There may be intimations that Bush should not push his endurance too hard, and the Clintons and Gores as couples will have to stay comfortable-looking to reassure Americans who see family and personal values in trouble.

One choice is between generations, with Bush the senior.

More fundamentally, the candidates represent well the competing forces in the American political psyche. Clinton and Gore represent the Democratic worker, professional, and liberal coalition; Bush and Quayle the Main Street and conservative Republican coalition.

Mine may be a minority view, but I don't think an election comes down to a choice between two individuals, unless the two are notably flawed. Otherwise, whatever the theater of the election, voters respond to philosophies and pocketbooks. The parties are less potent, yes. Here higher education has been a factor: Education is eroding the extremes of life experience still evident in the multi-generational customer base of the local barbershop.

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