Before all the schmooze

Just with his voice and words he quieted our fears and renewed our hopes. I'm speaking of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the president who brought us through the Great Depression and World War II. Historians now are rating him among our greatest presidents. And what a masterful politician he was. Our main tie with FDR was the radio, and, through his talks with us, we got to know him and trust him and keep reelecting him. Had he lived, would there have been a fifth term or even a sixth?

A mystique - a kind of mystery and reverence - had built up around Roosevelt over the years he occupied the White House. He was so very remote; my only glimpses of him would be in still photos or on the Pathe News silent shorts when I went to the movies.

In those pictures he was always looking so vital. In my world back in the Midwest, we hadn't even heard he was an invalid - or that he had to be held or braced up when we saw him standing. And it had never been mentioned in the papers.

We began to hear rumors. But his cheery voice would convince us that these must be stories planted by adversaries. So only late in FDR's terms in office did it sink in that here was a paralyzed man who simply had resolved never to let his disability show. So then we praised him for being so valiant.

I hadn't started out this column by intending to write this much about FDR. I was thinking about how today's presidential candidates needed to schmooze with the voters and members of the media and, if they weren't good at this, they probably wouldn't go too far. Or, at least, this would be a decided political disadvantage.

I had been watching on C-Span a personable George W. Bush move through a crowd, smiling and shaking hands. A pat on the shoulder here, an embrace there. Always, it seemed, he was having a warm, often joshing, exchange with someone in the audience.

Boy, was he good at this. And then I thought of Roosevelt. He certainly was physically detached from the voters. And there was no television to make us at least think we are getting close to our candidates. Yet he kept winning, again and again - a dignified father figure who, although remote, had soon become a presence for all Americans.

I don't know when schmoozing became the fashion for those seeking the presidency. Ike certainly was no schmoozer. And while Harry Truman related so very well to the common man and to many members of the press, he always kept people (except his cronies in Congress) at arms length. I should know: I had a half-dozen interviews with the former president, three at his office in Kansas City, Mo., and three at his library in Independence, Mo. I don't know when schmoozing became such an essential requirement. The problem has been growing with the years.

But Bill Clinton perfected the art: He is the quintessential schmoozer. What's his special quality? "He's one of the guys," is the way one of my colleagues explained it the other day. He's able to make press and public alike feel he's one of us. And this quality, more than any other, has elected Mr. Clinton twice and kept him afloat in the face of scandals that would have wrecked a silent and very remote Cal Coolidge.

But I've also been watching Al Gore on TV as he works a room and chats, and it's very clear to me that mixing with people isn't his game. He tries very hard - oh, does he try. But press people will tell you that he's certainly not one of the guys. So the trying shows through.

Now should it make any difference whether George W. is a good mixer and Mr. Gore is not? Is a good mixer going to make a better president? No - to me - this is a quality that has little relevance to the presidency. Except for this:

To be perceived as a fellow with such social skills does help a candidate become president. Just look at the polls today. Mr. Bush has pulled out front. Sure, a lot of this relates to his position on the issues and his experience as a governor. But polls show that the public likes Bush better than Gore. And that's no small thing.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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