The Cynic Speaks

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CBS
With just a few days to go before the election, I decided it was time once again to check in with my old friend Joe Cynic and get his take on what promises to be the closest presidential race in 40 years.

Cynic is not his real name, of course, but I call him that because he has a rather derisive view of human nature and that naturally affects the way he looks at politics and what he calls "our so-called democratic process."

Back in 1992, for example, he chose to fixate on the fact that the three major candidates for our highest office – President George Bush, Governor Bill Clinton and Texan tycoon Ross Perot – were all left-handed. He then would gleefully point out that the word for left in French is gauche and in Italian sinistra – as in sinister.

In more recent years, Joe Cynic has been deeply involved in the campaign to persuade aging baby boomers to smoke at least two packs a day. He subscribes to the theory that the more premature deaths caused by cigarettes the better our chances of warding off the Social Security crisis that looms as an inevitable byproduct of excessive longevity.

When I caught up with him a few days ago, I soon discovered that his primary obsession this election year was with the time-honored tradition of the secret ballot.

"That's a privilege that should be confined to private citizens," Joe insisted. "Everyone in public life – and especially elected officials – should be required to disclose whom they vote for."

"But why?" I asked.

"Well, first of all, why not? We've come to the point where political candidates have to reveal, in detail, everything else about themselves – their financial statements, their health records, even their adulteries and other sexual adventures. So why should their votes be so sacrosanct?"

Before I had a chance to reply, he was charging on to his main point.

"But the real reason for having full disclosure of how politicians vote is that it would put them on the spot – where they belong. The way things are now, they can easily hide behind the hypocrisies and deceptions that are their stock in trade. Take this Gephardt, for example."

"You mean Dick Gephardt," I asked, "the distinguished congressman from Missouri and the House minority leader?"

"Yeah, him. If he had to cast his ballot in a public forum, he would have to bend to the pressure of party loyalty and vote for Gore. But in the privacy of a voting booth, he can follow the dictates of his selfish interests and personal ambition and pull the lever for Bush."

"But why would he do that?" I wondered.

Joe's first reaction was a deep sigh reminiscent of Gore's supercilious exhalations during the first debate. He then explained: "If you've been paying any attention at all to this election, then you know that the Democrats have an excellent chance of regaining control of the House, eve as the Republicans hold on to their edge in the Senate and win back the presidency.

"And if we do end up with a Democratic House sharing power with a Republican Senate and Republican White House, then Gephardt will be the most powerful Democrat in Washington."

"And," I asked, "you think that incentive is enough to push him to vote for Bush and against his own party's candidate?"

"Of course," said Joe, his voice crackling with scorn. "If it comes down to a choice between loyalty and ambition, loyalty will lose every time. If you're naïve enough to think that Gephardt will vote for Gore, then you're naïve enough to think that Jeb Bush will vote for his brother."

I gulped at this latest heresy. Then, after regaining my composure, I said, "Oh come on, you don't really believe that Jeb Bush intends to vote for Gore, do you?"

Joe now looked at me with an expression that hovered somewhere between pity and contempt. "Well," he said, "this obviously is another situation you haven't thought through very well."

"How so?" I said, bristling.

"Now, now, don't get edgy. All I'm saying is that more than anyone else, except perhaps their doting parents, Jeb has intimate knowledge of just how trite and shallow his older brother is.

"Did you happen to notice what Jeb said when the two Bushies were campaigning together in Florida last week? 'He's my brother,' he shouted to a cheering crowd, 'and I love him more than life.' Now that's a classic example of what we call fulsome praise. Nobody, but nobody, loves anybody more than life. Only someone who is completely insincere would make such a preposterous statement.

"And remember, for years Jeb was touted as the one with all the political smarts. He was the son who was supposed to carry the family banner through the crusade to put another Bush in the White House. "

"Okay, okay, you have a point," I conceded. "But I still find it hard to believe that Jeb Bush would vote against his own brother. What about blood being thicker than water, and all that?"

"Well," Joe shot back, "it depends on the blood, doesn't it? Look at this way: Can you imagine Jimmy Carter voting for his brother Billy for president? Or Bill Clinton voting for his brother, Roger?"

I had to admit that he had me there. After a pause, I said, "You really are a cynical S.O.B., aren't you?"

"It comes with the territory," Joe replied with a shrug. "You want cynical? Here's cynical: the Republicans taking out ads urging independent liberals to vote for Ralph Nader. Or the Nader camp piously claiming that there's no real difference between Gore and Bush on environmental issues. Now that's cynical."

"Or," I responded, "Gore's reluctance to align himself with a president whose policies helped to launch the greatest economic boom in American history, and whose job approval remains at record levels."

b>"No, that's not cynical," said Joe, "that's just stupid. And here you guys in the media keep telling us that Bush is the dumb one."