It's that time again - school's out, barbecues are in, and early signs of the election season are turning up in the mail. "PERSONAL & CONFIDENTIAL," it said above my name, underlined, to grab my attention. And it did, this white envelope with its urgent edge of stripes in patriotic red and blue. Nor did it go unnoticed that this emphatically private mailing was bulk-stamped - a sure sign of something amiss.
Just how "personal & confidential" are we talking?
Well, about as personal as one gets with a complete stranger.
"Dear Friend," the letter begins, "For as long as I can remember, news organizations have routinely been asking voters, 'Do you think America is ready to elect a woman to the presidency?'"
The question is posed by my new penpal, Elizabeth Dole. And since she's asking, I'll try to answer.
One theory is that, in a good economy, the incumbent party wins. With this line of thought, Al Gore can drone his way to the White House, running unopposed.
Another theory is that it's still the economy, stupid. It probably is. Considering the economy of words in politics today, inflation is at an all-time high. As this "personal" letter from Mrs. Dole suggests - and may I call her Liddy? - we're heavy into bogus political-speak. Not to mention bogus mailing lists. I don't know how my name landed in Liddy's Rolodex. This, in itself, is worrisome. Apart from an occasional primary election, I'm not now, nor have I ever been, affiliated with a political party or campaign. I can only hope I'm not representative of the "friends" Dole is seeking out. If I am, it'll surely put the lid on her campaign.
Consider the solicitation: I've been offered membership on the advisory board of Dole's exploratory campaign. Nor will I be just any old member. By answering her questionnaire and sending a check - $50 to $1,000 are the parameters stated - I'll have serious status.
"Yes, Elizabeth, you can count on me!" it says next to the box I can check to support her. "I will serve as key Advisory Member of your exploratory campaign for President."
Though I'm not signing on just yet, I'd like to offer a few suggestions. Elizabeth Dole has long been a trailblazer, dating back to her years as a student at Harvard Law School. According to her letter, she was one of 24 women in a class of 550.
She quotes a male student on the first day of school: "What are you doing here? Don't you realize there are some men who would give their right arm to be in this law school?"
Granted, "to give one's right arm" is a common expression. But it's also what Bob Dole did in the war - a reminder not lost on some readers. A cynic might consider this reference entirely deliberate, an attempt to benefit from her husband's heroism. But even the suggestion of a link between Mr. Dole's war injuries and this common phrase is tacky enough to warrant its deletion.
The letter then describes Mrs. Dole's experience, commitment, and her need to raise at least $25 million to win the party's nomination. It closes with a postscript about her recognition factor: "Confidentially, all the signs look very favorable. More than 92 percent of all Americans say they know me and my record of service to our country."
Not to be a stickler, but there's nothing "confidential" in that disclosure. It's the sort of thing one might share with a million or so of one's closest friends.
Like the use of "personal & confidential" on the envelope, or the instant paid ascent to "key Advisory Member," Dole's words are detached from their meanings. They float in some ego-bolstering zone that preys on false flattery.
When words mean so little, what hope is there for political promises?
*Joan Silverman is a Boston-based writer. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Dallas Morning News.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society