When Glamour Was Primary, We Got Harding

Ultimately this process is not a personal popularity contest

IT is of abiding fascination that would-be nominees for the highest American office tend to be judged on their appeal as candidates, not on whether they'd make good presidents.

This tendency by the political establishment to look for nominees with glamour rather than political ability probably dates back to the 1920 campaign. That year the Republicans chose - and elected - the handsome, empty-headed Warren G. Harding. Harry Dougherty, Harding's campaign manager, said, "He looks so much like a president!" Indeed he did.

Harding's administration was the most corrupt since Grant's. The GOP immediately abandoned glamour as a criterion for high office. Calvin Coolidge resembled a thoughtful parsnip, Herbert Hoover a large, genial baby.

As Sen. Bob (he used to be Robert) Dole trudges his way toward the Republican nomination his critics bemoan his dullness, his inability to articulate, his tendency to refer to himself in the third person, his lack of charm. To a certain extent all of these criticisms are as valid as they are irrelevant.

The point of primaries is to elevate a nominee who can (a) defeat the opposition nominee and, (b) be a competent president if he does defeat his opponent.

Whether Mr. Dole can defeat President Clinton is unknowable at this point. Recent polls have the president beating the senator handily - if the election were held this month. But it won't be. It will be held 7-1/2 months from now. A good deal of stumbling, shooting oneself in the foot, blurting the wrong thing too many times (as Barry Goldwater did in the 1964 campaign when, in a speech to a group of retirees, he questioned the value of Social Security) can take place between now and November - on both sides.

If, however, Senator Dole does win the 1996 election, he will be a good president, even to those of us who don't share his views. (I have achieved that state of grace where one can disagree with my political opinions and still be considered virtuous). Dole's long experience in Washington assures us of his understanding of the federal political process. Most of this applies equally to Bill Clinton as a practitioner of the presidency - even to those who disagree with his policies and politics.

The majority of Republican voters appear to know something that the flacks and spinmeisters don't know - namely, that this process is, ultimately, the search for a chief executive, not a personal popularity contest or a strut of Republican archdukes. That majority can envision Dole in the White House - but not Pat Buchanan with his bizarre bravado, nor the former candidate, Steve Forbes, forever smiling his muskrat smile as he explained flat taxes and other notions of those who think the government is a business.

Still, the modern propensity to exclude the ungainly from presidential primaries lingers. If a lanky Republican with big ears, ill-fitting suits, and a high voice ran in 1996, precious few people would vote for him. But enough did in 1860 to elect Abraham Lincoln president of the United States.

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