When rational marries irrational

As in Philadelphia among the Republicans, my time in Los Angeles has impressed upon me how little I understand - even how little I notice.

Walking onto the convention floor with a couple of fellow journalists, or to put it differently, a couple of real reporters, they notice things that I don't. I see a stage set, a huge space, hundreds of people with cameras, microphones, silly hats, gripes, computers, credentials around their necks.

I notice a lighting guy yelling at a security guy that he just wants to do his job, OK?

The real reporters notice that Barbara Boxer is way over there on the left, and Tom Harkin is up on the platform and behind us on the right is Jesse Jackson. These journalists, who are very kind to me, probably understand why the kinds of spaces that used to bear the names of people, teams, or places, or bizarre names like "The Cow Palace," are now named after banks or office-supply chains. It's money, I know - but what changed? They may understand, better than I do anyway, why the exciting basketball team that plays here is still called "The Lakers" because there are many lakes in Minnesota, where the franchise played long ago. In truth, though I use the term, I'm not sure I could define "franchise."

My area of knowledge feels a little more germane at a breakfast for reporters with James Carville. He can barely sit still, he is so animated by politics and the coming campaign. He is like a hyperactive third-grader, and what he has to say reminds me of poetry.

Mr. Carville is talking about how vice presidents are strong finishers but always start off seeming wimpy or stiff or uninteresting. He says that all the current polls and questions are "clutter" that will fade when the American people come to know Al Gore, when his story emerges from the vice-presidential twilight. Like his opponent a child of privilege, Gore chose sacrifice over complacency, service over profit, active duty in Vietnam over a cop-out, the causes of the poor rather than the skyboxes of the rich.

As part of the many things I do not understand or notice, I have no idea if this presentation is wishful thinking or expert prophecy. What I do understand is that Carville's manic ebullience reminds me of my own mtier and its relevance to the presidential race, and to these elaborately bloated shows, the conventions.

Successful presidential campaigns resemble good poems: The rational part fits the irrational part. What is said matches the way it feels. Jack Kennedy said he wanted to get the country moving again and he looked and sounded vigorous. Richard Nixon said he knew how to get us out of the mess in Vietnam, and how to control the hippie mess on the streets, and he looked and sounded like a wily, ruthless lawyer. Ronald Reagan said that he could make us feel as if it were morning time in America, and he looked and sounded like a cheerful, reassuring TV anchorman or weather-person.

At this stage of the presidential campaign, one candidate is still all feeling and connotation, and the other one is all reason and policy. In poetry, the excess of form beyond content has been called "decadence," with the excess of content beyond form called "primitivism."

Governor Bush is affable, but no one knows what he is affable about; he wants to embody leadership, but he hasn't said where he means to lead. He is still rather like a somewhat "decadent" postmodern poem, with attractive and sophisticated surfaces, but seemingly about nothing.

Vice President Gore still seems to be all denotation: His effort still resembles a somewhat clunky, "primitive" 15th-century poem full of apothegms, proverbs, and maxims, but without much fluidity of style.

The one campaign is still like a poem that hasn't discovered its subject or content, and the other is like a poem that still lacks poetry. The victory may go to the composition that develops into something resembling a successful work of art.

Robert Pinsky recently completed three years as US poet laureate.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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