NEW YORK -- A Greek political consultant named Plato came up with the idea of "the noble lie." This was his definition of that lie:
"While all of you are brothers, yet God in fashioning those of you who are fitted to rule mingled gold in their generation, for which reason they are most precious -- but in their helpers are silver, and iron and brass in the farmers or other craftsmen."
In less elegant language, he was telling his clients that the first rule of ruling was to convince people and yourself of the lie that you are somehow better than most everybody else. You are gold and the mass is brass. The word Plato used for what we call "noble" was "gennaion," an adjective that implied both good breeding and a certain high-mindedness.
Holding that thought may explain a good deal about what has happened so far in this year's race for the White House. The conventional wisdom has been that "character" was the issue of the year 2000 election. But as the current issue of George magazine tells us -- under the cover-line, "Will the Biggest Liar Win?" -- Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush got to be their party's presumptive nominee by lying about their opponents.
Assuming that truth-telling is a test of character, then character was a loser issue. John McCain and Bill Bradley were certainly the more honest choices in the primary elections -- and they both lost. So perhaps lying was not the issue; breeding was.
"This was not an election about character; it was about class," said Rahm Emanuel, who was "senior adviser" to President Clinton before returning home to Chicago to be an investment banker and teach a class on the presidency at Northwestern University. In that class, where I was a guest lecturer last week, Emanuel offered the theory that most presidential elections are referenda of sorts on the conduct and persona of the incumbent, whether the incumbent runs or not. Voters react to what they are fed up with.
I think that is generally true. The "innocent" Jimmy Carter became president because Richard Nixon was not. The affable and optimistic Ronald Reagan became president because Carter was neither. The empathetic Bill Clinton became president because George Bush seemed detached and aloof.
In that line of thinking, then, a person of character was destined to follow Clinton, who has some problems in that area. So what happened? Why did Bradley and McCain go down -- rather quickly at that? Because, posits Emanuel, Americans thought Bill Clinton was a low-class guy. Trailer trash, like his mother and his brother -- hell, the whole state of Arkansas -- and his wife's tubby brothers. (Emanuel, the most loyal of loyalists, did not use those words.)
So, Platonic voters turned back to the golden aristocracy, the American upper class, the son of a president and the son of a senator, two men who could not find a public school without an advance man. That is not to say that Bradley and McCain -- respectively the Princeton-educated son of a small-town banker and the son and grandson of top brass, two admirals -- were low-class guys by any definition. Suffice to say, they were not quite in the same class as the two golden boys.
One of the best anecdotes on the campaign trail this year, then, has deeper meaning. Newsweek columnist Howard Fineman annoyed Gov. Bush by asking another question about his grades, and Bush turned and snapped: "I suppose you're one of those guys who got all A's?"
"Yes, I did, Governor," said Fineman. "But I couldn't get into Yale."
Yalie Bush and Harvard man Gore, their names presold as Ivy gold, are in a grand American tradition -- almost the definition of class in America. A statistic that has remained quite constant from 1789 to now is that a quarter of the country's high officials -- from governors, top judges and members of Congress to presidents -- have come from three schools: Harvard, Yale and Princeton, in that order. That is the old American class system -- and among its products is the next president of the United States.
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