WASHINGTON — Presidential campaigns are like extended - this year, very extended - David Mamet plays. It's never really clear what anyone's talking about. Politicians may discuss "issues," such as education or gun control, but often they're actually talking about something else, such as middle- class hopes or National Rifle Association fears.
And usually we don't know what anyone was really saying until the show's over.
This is why politics seems so staged to most people - it is.
There are few moments - few true tests - in a campaign that actually reveal something real. So when one arrives, we should all take notice and smile a little at the notion that even in an age when campaigns are as spontaneous as a Super Bowl half-time show, candidates can't completely shut reality out.
We just had one of the first real tests of the 2000 campaign. It came in the form of a six-year-old Cuban boy. Both candidates failed.
The child in question is, of course, Little Elian Gonzalez (if "Little" isn't yet part of his legal name it will be by the time the press is through with him). Since his arrival in this country on the oh-so-media-perfect day of Thanksgiving, we hemmed and hawed over whether he should stay in the land of the free and home of the brave or return to his communist home with his dad.
This is a minefield for a presidential candidate for a number of reasons. Florida, with its large Cuban exile population, is a critical state in a presidential race. And even today, no one wants to be seen as weak on communism.
Still, when Elian first arrived, before the hype machine was operating at full spin, the nation's presidential aspirants handled the situation well. Most argued, correctly, that the boy should be returned to his dad with the caveat that he take custody of the child in the US, where, it was assumed, he'd be acting out of free will.
The rationale behind this, besides law, is reciprocity. If an American child was taken by one parent to a foreign country and that parent died, people here would, rightly, expect the child to be returned to the remaining living parent.
And it seemed for a short while that, on this issue at least, politics might be getting beyond vote grabbing and actually start focusing on what was right. Then, something happened.
It began when Al Gore broke with his own administration and said he wasn't so sure the child should return home after all, but maybe the whole thing should be decided in family court. There is nothing wrong with this idea except that Elian is not a US citizen, and neither are his father or late mother. Not to worry, that problem could be remedied by giving Elian permanent residency.
And all of a sudden we were in that familiar presidential terrain - the pander zone. Soon, George W. Bush jumped into the game and decided that Mr. Gore had a point, and a custody case wasn't such a bad idea. But as bad as this kind of anything-for-Florida talk is, it is minor league compared with what happened this weekend after Elian was forcibly taken back from his Miami relatives.
After the raid, George W. said he was outraged because this "is a country of laws, not guns. I am profoundly saddened and troubled that the administration was not able to negotiate a resolution and instead decided to use force to take a little boy from the place he calls home in the middle of the night."
But the raid was actually all about the law.
Negotiations had been going on for days, and despite the fact that Elian's Miami kin maintain they were close to a breakthrough - they say they were just stuck on that itsy-bitsy issue of custody - they were given a deadline to turn over the child and did not meet it.
What would happen on any other issue? Say the family had someone's car and failed to turn it over. Would the police negotiate ad infinitum, or act?
George W.'s words are nothing more than a pander to Florida's Cuban population and the antigovernment types who lurk on the far-right fringe of the GOP.
Still, as bad as W.'s response was, Gore's was worse. As America debated, he sat silent for two days after the raid. When he finally did say something, he spoke again of family court, but gave no indication of how he'd have removed Elian from a home that didn't want to let him go.
As awful as issues like this are, they are important in a presidential election because they offer a sneak peek at what may be coming down the road. After all, one of these two men will be president.
And now that the first test is behind us, the voters may be wondering if they can have a do-over on the primary season.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society