Truman show on campaign trail

Forget icons like Reagan or FDR. This year, candidates are aspiring to be most like Truman.

Wouldn't Harry Truman be proud.

That iconic Regular Guy politician and haberdasher-turned-president might just burst a few vest buttons for all the homage that's being paid to his style of campaigning this year.

Al Gore on a paddlewheeler. George W. Bush on a whistle-stop train. Mr. Gore on a school bus. Both men on "Oprah." All scenes of common men connecting with common folks.

Of course, they're the kinds of things all White House wannabes have done since Truman's famous 1948 back-of-a-train campaign. (Even Richard Nixon showed up on "Laugh-in.")

But this year, the buoyant economy and lack of pressing foreign-policy issues allow for a less formal campaign. And in the first post-Clinton election, there's a premium on honest talk. Also, in a society fixated on reality TV and searching for "meaning" amid materialism, there's a hankering for authentic connections. So this year, especially for two blue-blood candidates - one from Harvard, one from Yale - connecting with commoners is key.

"It's all a play on the Truman train of 1948," says Republican strategist Allan Hoffenblum. "Variations on a theme."

Just yesterday, Gore was boarding a yellow school bus to rumble through Ohio touting his education plan.

Mr. Bush, after losing his longtime lead in the polls, is retooling - adding more stops that dispense with formal podiums and stump speeches so he can interact with the audience.

"Go much further, and you're campaigning out of cardboard boxes," chuckles Robert Thompson of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University in New York.

Professor Thompson explains there are two utterly contradictory things candidates must prove if they're going to be president.

First, they have to show they're not full of themselves. "There's this notion in America that if you have too high an opinion of yourself, you're no good," he says.

Second, they have to prove they're the best person for the job. Far from just inheriting the job like a princely heir, candidates have to show their mettle. That's especially true this year - when both men are from wealthy, political families.

"You've got to be both Regular Guy and Superman," says Thompson. Along with Truman, President Eisenhower did this especially well. "He was the big World War II hero - and the man from little Abilene, Kansas."

In their quest for Regular Guyness both candidates are scrambling away from pointy-headed confines of political TV shows. Instead, Bush and Gore are paying homage to Oprah Winfrey. It's the first time the talk diva has had candidates on her show, which draws about 22 million viewers a week.

This week's Oprah segments include back-to-school makeovers with supermodel Tyra Banks, "Dr. Phil" doling out advice to couples about kids - and the vice president.

On Monday's broadcast, Gore referred to his wife as a "soulmate." Big applause. He quoted Bob Dylan: "Those who are not busy being born are busy dying." And he high-fived Oprah over her red boots. Bush chats with Oprah Sept. 19.

It's not as if big issues have been ignored amid all the reach-out-and-touch-someone campaigning. The past few weeks have been full of meaty discussions about prescription-drug benefits, taxes, and education plans.

But there's a different tone to this year's campaign. Part of it may be economics: "There's just a sense of great nonurgency because of the great economy," says political scientist Nancy Snow at the University of California, Los Angeles.

This sense of nonurgency may be why Bush's very serious pitch about beefing up defense hasn't resonated widely. "It's just not where the cultural mind-set is right now," Dr. Snow says.

What seems to work better is a more casual, loose approach - as shown in the success of Joseph Lieberman as Gore's running-mate pick. "If Lieberman gets any looser, he's going to start leaving behind body parts," she jokes.

Senator Lieberman's style also has undertones of the ethical probity many voters are looking for, says Thompson. "There's a sense that his just-plain-folksness can translate into ethical soundness."

Likewise, Bush has been playing up his Texas roots, and pledging to "restore honor and dignity" to the White House.

Indeed, an ethical tenor is key, says Sam Popkin, a Gore campaign consultant. "After Clinton, people want to make sure you're a real person" and not just spinning or saying what people want to hear. "It's just like 1976 [the first election after Watergate]: They're saying, 'Let's get outside the mud pile and see who can be like us and understand our problems.' "

Finally, there's a broader cultural shift that may be in play here. In the era of reality TV, of "Survivor" and "Big Brother," there's a deep desire for connection. Shows like Oprah, and campaign vehicles such as school buses, help fulfill that desire, says Mr. Hoffenblum. "They help to humanize the candidates."

Or perhaps Trumanize them.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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