09/29/2005 02:00 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Elvis Impersonators

Bill Clinton's Secret Service code name was “Elvis,” and Democratic leaders these days are Elvis impersonators, hoping to become King by imitating the hits of yesteryear. Kerry's more like James Taylor and Hillary's the Carole King of public policy, but somehow they keep putting on that sequined jumpsuit and making those karate moves. Come 2008 they're gonna be all shook up.

I used to play guitar for an Elvis impersonator, and I saw my share of night clubs and Bar Mitzvahs looking at his tuchas. So I know one when I seen one, OK? With Howard Dean's new reluctance to denounce Iraq, and Harry Reid's emphasis on poor war management in his recent statement, the strategy is obvious: criticize the GOP on competence, not choices or ethics. Play to the mythical “middle” - mythical because regarding Iraq there is no “middle,” just a majority who believes we were deceived into war and a minority who ardently support it.

Be Republicans, but the competent version: it's an old tune that won't sell platters anymore. Why? People know it's not the real thing, and nothing succeeds like reality. When I compare Kerry to Sweet Baby James, or Hillary to the woman who wrote “Up On the Roof,” I'm flattering them but also making a point: James Taylor is elegant, refined, precise, and yet deep and soulful. But picture him shaking his hips to “Jailhouse Rock:” No sale. Instead he “became more fully who he already was,” to paraphrase Nietszsche, and became a star.

Kerry can be brilliant and effective in the Senate, where he was brave enough to oppose Gulf War I and visionary enough to take down BCCI. Hillary, like Carole King, is a sensitive yet rough-and-ready crooner with a big heart. But she doesn't have what it takes to fake sincerity, and it shows on her face when she's faking it. Sharp policy wonk that she is, she may be more songwriter than superstar, and the Senate may be her studio. (I'm not sure who Joe Biden is, though – suggestions, anyone?)

Elvis Presley, like his Presidential descendant, took risks that look reasonable in retrospect but were beyond daring at the time. He wore pink pants and eyeliner in 1950's Memphis and Tupelo, and sang black music for white audiences. For his part, Clinton tapped the zeitgeist of the early 1990's, offering a moderate text in his speeches while his nonverbal presentation – the subtext – was youthful, black-inspired, 60's, rock'n'roll. The combination of the times and his personal style made it work. Their impersonators, on the other hand, are trying to play it safe. In so doing, they guarantee their own failure.

These are different times. This Administration has been far more extreme, and the shocks to our lives far more radical, than any we had experienced in 1992. More than anything else, people want a leader they can trust – one that will lead. Impersonators won't cut it, and people know insincerity when they see it. Nobody will ever believe that Hillary Clinton or John Kerry thought invading Iraq was a good idea. Like a fat guy in a pompadour wig, it's an easily recognizable act.

People trust a singer when they know he believes in his song. As a teenager in 1968, I read with confusion that some Bobby Kennedy voters switched their allegiance to George Wallace after his death. I get it now. Red Staters who didn't follow politics or policy felt that both men believed in what they were saying. That was more important than their positions on Vietnam or civil rights. Like the country-music loving hillbillies who became fans of the R&B-singing Elvis, what mattered most was sincerity.

That's why triangulation is a fool's game today. Sure, it was an Elvis Clinton song, but not even his best - more “Do the Clam” than “Good Rockin' Tonight.” Like his predecessor, his biggest hits were sincerity and passion.

Hey, Dems! You want to win moderates, or swing voters? My guess is that you should, as they say, be real. Learn from Elvis and the other superstars and be who you are. Come from the heart. Tell the truth about Iraq and everything else. That's your only chance. Otherwise you'll be stuck in the dingy bars with the other impersonators, doing your act before small, bored audiences.

That's all, ladies and gentlemen. Goodnight. Thankuverymuch!

A Night Light