Notes from different corners of the world.
Oct. 18 1996 3:30 AM


       Reports leading up to the final debate portrayed the Dole campaign as painfully divided between those wishing to use the "character" issue against Bill Clinton and those advising against. Dole's part was apparently that of Hamlet, or perhaps Faust, torn between worldly desires and his immortal soul. Ted Koppel put it more or less that way on Nightline a few days ago, asking Dole if he faced a choice between winning ugly or losing with dignity. As with the question of whether to offer a supply-side tax cut, of course, one knew which side would inevitably prevail. The only questions were how much and how soon. There was a gun on the table; dramatic logic said it had to go off.
       As with the tax cut, however, Dole turned out to be a fainthearted hit man. He came out blasting away at "ethics" issues at the beginning of the debate, failed to hit his target, and then seemed overcome by doubts and regret. By his closing statement, he was practically apologizing, pleading mitigating factors--his long-standing decency, his disability, and so on. There was a strong feeling of pathos to the whole performance. Going negative was a kind of quack cure promoted by the press; Dole tried it, and now his campaign is sicker than ever. In the course of assaulting Clinton's character, he implored the president to debate with him again, or perhaps spot him 10 points in the election. He will not go gently into that good night. When Dole said he and his wife and daughter had prayed before the debate, the cameras cut to Elizabeth, who seemed to be tearing up. She, at least, seems to realize that it's hopeless, and that her husband, who has served his country well, can expect to be treated as brutally as the country usually treats its losing presidential candidates.
       Perhaps because he was so focused on his attack, Dole's wit failed to flash. What humor there was, was unintentional, as when Dole boasted about not boasting about raising money for disabled people. He tried to be Clintonesque, repeating the questioner's name. But then he would turn away and address his answer somewhere else. There was also a bizarre mismatch between the questions and Dole's answers. Asked about moral education by the first questioner, he went after Clinton on the FBI files. Asked about health care, he talked about pardons. Asked about his economic plan, he attacked on affirmative action. He repeated mantras--"17 new taxes, 50 new bureaucracies"--that had no bite. He also dwelt on points that simply made no sense, such as his assertion that the administration is devoid of ideas. Too many bad ideas, sure, but no ideas? Hardly.
       Clinton, as usual, was all over everyone like an affection-starved golden retriever. He looked his questioners in the eye, and got closer as he spoke, occasionally overfilling the TV screen. The most hilarious bit was at the outset, when he said he wanted to clap at Dole's first answer. The president's empathy seemed even more parodic in the press filing center, where the audio and video portions of the broadcast were slightly out of synch. As in a badly dubbed movie, this had the effect of making his acting even more prominent. With Dole, he was patronizing--the better player congratulating his inferior one on a nice try. He didn't bother to return Dole's ethics shots, choosing instead to call them out of bounds. Clinton erred only once, when he said Dole's ideas were too old, even though Dole wasn't. This sounded mean, even though it's a perfectly reasonable point to make.
       After the debate, the Dole aides hung around the bar at their hotel, where a big Mexican feed was set up for the traveling press. "Great night," "GREAT night," they assured each other. It being overwhelmingly obvious that Dole had not had a great night, or a great week or a great month or a great year, one was forced to wonder what to make of these professions. They might have been for press consumption, though there were hardly any reporters there. Rather, I think the Dole camp's irrational optimism expresses a necessary illusion--the lie you need to believe in order to get up at the crack of dawn and work your butt off for 19 more days, for the sake of a losing battle.

Jacob Weisberg is SLATE's chief political correspondent. His column, "Strange Bedfellow," appears weekly.