This past Sunday, while Ralph Nader unveiled his deja-vu candidacy on Meet the Press, the folks at much-maligned Fox News pulled off something much more impressive: they unveiled what could well be the future of American presidential politics. Or, at least for now, vice-presidential politics.
On the panel on Fox News Sunday were three governors said to be on the short list of possible running mates: Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Tim Kaine of Virginia, and Mark Sanford of South Carolina. As easily as their names trip off the tongues of handicapping Washington pundits these days, most people in the real world, even those of us who follow politics reasonably closely, know little about them. In fact, I'd never ever actually seen any of them before. Even now, as I write about them, I have to double-check two of their names and the spelling of the third. It's a dangerous quirk of the American system: one of these guys could be president in less than a year, and yet we now know virtually nothing about them.
Me, I was reasonably impressed, particularly with the baby-faced Pawlenty and the thoughtful-seeming Kaine. (Sanford I'd relegate more to the traditional Haley Barbour good ol' reactionary crowd, but that's only a first impression.) Mostly, what I felt was more of the relief the presidential campaign had already been providing me. At last, some new faces! No matter who wins in November, it will be a distinct improvement over what we've got. No matter who wins, we will no longer have to cringe at the thought that the man in the White House is actually representing us. And unexpectedly, at least to me, my relief is bipartisan. It took the apparent restlessness of the Democratic Party to make me realize that I, too, had enough of the Clintons.
Maybe it's just sour grapes. Twice in the past few years, I've tried to interview Bill. Particularly in the second instance, I thought my chances were pretty good: I was with a well-known national magazine and was working on a topic dear to his heart, one he wastes few opportunities to recall: the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School. Specifically, I was examining the life of one of the heroes of that drama: Elizabeth Eckford, the young black student in the famous photograph from September 1957, walking through a jeering mob after being turned away from the school. Clinton, a young boy in Hot Springs at the time it was taken, has credited that picture, and the trials of the Little Rock Nine, to kindling in him a sense of racial justice. Surely he'd like to say something on the subject, especially since it would take only a minute.
I tried Clinton's office, but having been stonewalled there once before, I knew I had to do more than simply go through official channels. I recruited one of Clinton's oldest friends from Little Rock, who put in a good word for me. So did two of Clinton's main fundraisers -- repeatedly. A member of Clinton's staff promised to help, and even requested that I submit some written questions. None of it helped. And I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. After all, for Clinton, time is money, either for himself for his wife. When you can get $100,000 a pop for your opinions, why give them away for free? But such fees, it turns out, are not free. He, like Rudy Giuliani, got fat on public appearances, but he also got flabby. All that lucrative adulation dulled their political skills; out on the hustings, each of them bombed.
When I watched those governors the other day on Fox, I felt some new blood finally coursing through the sclerotic American body politic. Whomever these guys turn out to be, we're all the better for it.