Flushed with his win in New Hampsha, Tsongas was laboring under the delusion that he'd have the same appeal for everyone in the country. It was in Florida that he went into his panda-carrying phase, and he flopped. He would go into a union hall or Rotary Club or farmer's market or whatever, and say, "Hah-ee! Ah'm Porl Songas, fommah sennidah from Massachusetts. Bill Clinton couldn' be heeyah tonight, so I brought diss." And then he held up the stuffed panda and grinned hopefully out into the audience, looking for a laugh.
The assembled farmers and factory workers and businessmen looked at him with knit brows and slack mouths, as if to say, Let me get this straight. Your leading rival for the Democratic presidential nomination is absent, so you're holding a children's toy.
Tsongas, a little discomfited, held the toy out in front of him and said, "Dissa pee-yanda! Dissa pee-yanda bay-uh!"
Now the silence was even more tense. You could hear coughing, and people were looking nervously at one another as if to say, "Yuhh... ? So... ?"
"Dissa pee-yanda bay-uh!" Tsongas repeated, waving the thing excitedly. "Panda! Like Bill Clinton!"
But they still didn't get it. Tsongas, of course, was trying to convey that Clinton was apt to pander (get it?) to voters. He dropped that little visual stunt once it became apparent that those who knew what "pander" meant didn't understand his accent, and those who understood his accent didn't know what "pander" meant.
Elian Nation And why should they have? Who cares if a politician's a pander? Particularly now that the biggest complaint about Washington is that it's "unresponsive." Responsive is what panders are. To accuse someone of pandering is to say: Hey, watch out for this guy! He'll vote for exactly what you want!
But there is a new twist. Pander has become such a generic term of calumny that it now gets applied to those who strike out on an unpopular course. Last week, Al Gore did something brave and honest. He pointed out that it was wrong simply to hand Elian Gonzalez over to Cuba. He was the only prominent Democrat outside of Florida to suggest that, before we sent the kid back to the totalitarian hellhole his mother had drowned trying to escape, we deserved a few answers: How did we know Elian's dad hadn't wanted the boy to take that rickety boat to the States? Why'd the guy call Miami to tell his family Elian was on his way? Why was it Fidel Castro and not Juan Miguel Gonzalez who was most exercised about getting Elian back? "What's right is to make the decision on the basis of what is in the best interest of that young child," Gore said, "and not allow Castro to intimidate the central players in this drama." Gore did the right thing, and the entire political establishment?conservatives and liberals, journalists and pols?set to work tearing him a new one.
What they accused him of was pandering. Thomas Friedman, that most egomaniacal of lightweights, called it "sickening." Katharine Seelye, writing in The New York Times, implied that Gore was saying different things to different people, claiming it was "not entirely clear what he had meant to convey." That was?for once in Gore's political life?false. Gore had simply responded to three different what-if questions, concerning three different scenarios: (a) if the status quo continued, (b) if a court ruled Elian should be sent back, (c) if Elian's dad showed up in the States. Deborah Orin in the New York Post was no better, snickering at "Gore's naked pandering." Paradoxically, the Bush campaign parroted the liberal Times (spokesman Ari Fleischer found it "increasingly hard to understand what Al Gore believes in or what he thinks should be done") while the Democratic establishment echoed the conservative Post (Maxine Waters warned that Gore's pandering could cost him her support).
The consensus among all of them was that Gore had changed his views to keep Florida competitive in November. But, first, it's not Gore who has changed his views. Even at the time of the Bradley debates he was saying he thought Elian's father should come to the United States to reassure authorities that he was not acting under duress. And, second, none of the people who accused Gore of selling his soul for Florida professed to give him a snowball's chance in Daytona of actually winning there. Not everyone in Florida is Cuban, after all, and the polling evidence is that non-Cuban Floridians are just as disgracefully eager to send Illegal Elian back home as people in the rest of the country.
The Bush campaign even took it as an opportunity for trash-talking. "I remember the Dukakis campaign made a big deal about Florida, they had four highly seasoned paid people," Dubya's brother Jeb, the Florida governor, said smugly. "By September we were saying goodbye to the Dukakis campaign."
Bush may indeed take Florida, but Gore is absolutely right to contest it. Up to now, there's been a complacent bipartisan consensus that the two candidates will split the four biggest states?California and New York for Gore; Texas and Florida for Bush?and that the campaign will be fought out in the Midwest. If any of them ever eluded the candidate who thinks he's got it in the bag, the results would be catastrophic. Of the Big Four, Florida is the state most likely to be a stunner. Considering that Bush pere squeaked by Clinton by less than 100,000 votes there in 1992; and that Bill Clinton gave Bob Dole a substantial pasting in Florida last time out, it might be worth entertaining the possibility that the place has changed politically since 1988. But don't expect that to happen: like those Washington Democrats who in the 1980s could entertain you with one Barry Goldwater story after another from happy hour till closing time, Republicans just love to talk about Michael Dukakis, even as he fades into a Jeopardy!-question level of obscurity.
Mississippi Burning Rubber Troy Brown won Mississippi's Democratic senatorial primary, and now will face Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott in the fall. In an acceptance speech marked by an almost total absence of policy, Brown stressed that policy wasn't important. The important thing was that...well, that he's black. "People still have this archaic view of what Mississippi is like," he said. "We need to send a message to the world that Mississippi is going to share decision making with all of the population, not just one segment." What progress. From Vote for Me, I'm White to Vote for Me, I'm Black.
If Brown had stopped to think for a moment, he would have realized that a lot more than race goes into the rest of the country's impression that the state is a bit...archaic, to use his word. It was in Mississippi in the 1980s that Democratic Attorney General Bill Allain was accused by three transvestite prostitutes of having sex with them at the height of a gubernatorial campaign (which he won); and it was only last year that the sexagenarian Republican Kirk Fordice ditched his wife in the governor's mansion to pursue a romance with a junior high school sweetheart he'd run into at a reunion, after not having seen her in 40 years.
Then, just last week, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported that C.A. Dodson, a big Mississippi Democratic Executive Committee member in the 1980s, had been arrested for possessing marijuana, cocaine and several guns?after a chase that started outside a hookers' bar. Dodson is a Gore 2000 donor, but he has kind of faded from the political scene since he got busted on a drug rap in 1984. "I haven't seen him in a long time," said Morgan Shands, the head of Mississippi's Democratic Party, after hearing of the arrest. "This might explain why."