Cool candidates - hot summer

ACCORDING to the political analysts, the long, hot summer is going to be spent deciding which candidate has the warmer personality - Michael Dukakis or George Bush. Whew! Pass the fan, Mabel.

Well, not to get too hilarious about this. Still, a lot of complainers find both men as hard to snuggle up to as a couple of snowballs. And those shivering folks are just the voters, it seems, who will make their critical choice on the basis of which fellow thaws first.

A Democrat consultant has already suggested that Dukakis is freeing up his body language nicely - making chummy little gestures and eliminating those hostile orator's karate chops.

Noting a famous occasion on which Bush came unfrozen, one Republican strategist has recommended that, from now until November, the vice-president should surround himself with Dan Rathers.

All this ``Be warm and win'' wisdom has its confusing side, since the same consultants advise that elections are now won or lost on television - a ``cool'' medium.

Here Ronald Reagan becomes the success model of warm - but not too warm. For warmth in politics is like porridge to the three bears - you really don't want to burn your taste buds, do you?

Reagan warmth is a movie actor's art. The twinkle in the eye, the genial dip of the head, the lilt of optimism in the voice, even when just saying ``Well-l-l . . .'' - these mannerisms come across as a brilliant charade spelling friendly. Despite a social policy widely criticized for indifference toward the poor, the man himself expresses a solicitous charm that appears to be directed, one on one, to the humblest American in the audience.

What else warms the cockles of the voter's heart? There's the rather mysterious alchemy according to which the President's preference for anecdote over fact - ``Reagan being Reagan'' - translates as a lovable eccentricity, while the precision of Dukakis, for example, translates as computerlike coldness.

Give us Uncle Ronnie every time, bouncing the voter on his jolly knee with all those ``Once upon a time (maybe)'' stories, rather than Uncle Mikie, teaching us how to use a calculator - with fiscal responsibility.

Can either Dukakis or Bush take the chill off with a warmer vice-president? Jesse Jackson and Elizabeth Dole might serve this purpose, though their fire could just accentuate their running mate's ice.

In any event, John Glenn - not exactly a meltdown type - is a more likely choice, while the cooler Dole, Robert, may have the edge on Dole, Elizabeth.

Dukakis and Bush (and the consultants they've hired) understand that the voters wish them to be ``human.'' But they also know that if they're ``human'' in the wrong way, we'll turn on them and make them pay a far worse price than they've paid for being businesslike, competent - cool.

Warmth can be perceived as weakness. Reagan gets a tear in his eye, and it's taken as a sign that he's all heart. If Bush ever went moist, the shout of ``Wimp!'' would blow his dabbing handkerchief right out of his hand.

A gradual warming trend, as the weathermen say, might be the best strategy for both candidates. Robert Kennedy, the nostalgic hero of the moment, made the transition from ruthlessness to compassion, or so it is now being perceived - there goes that word again.

Just as a cold drink is perceived to be cold in a TV ad by the beads of moisture on the glass and maybe a waterfall in the background, so politicians are perceived to be warm by little signals of affability.

If everything to do with a candidate's personality - including warmth - is a matter of packaging, then we might as well vote for the candidate's sincere necktie and get it over with.

Neither hot nor cold but something lukewarm and inoffensive in between - is this what we're really looking for?

Is the definition of a winner the man with the lowest negative rating in the latest poll, a shadow politician to preside over a shadow government?

The candidate as a TV performer - that zaniness we're getting used to after almost 30 years. But this business of warm-and-cuddly threatens to turn candidates into cartoon characters of themselves, crossing the border in the Steven Spielberg manner. One November morning, after a vicious contest in lovability, will we wake up to the headline, ``Who Elected Roger Rabbit?''

If that horrifying fantasy doesn't drive us to demand real politicians with real issues, what will?

A Wednesday and Friday column

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