White House Wag: Political Hot Air

Is the weather making some politicans crazy from the heat? ABCNEWS' Josh Gerstein analyzes some curious comments coming from our political leaders in the last week.

By Josh GersteinABCNEWS.com

M A R T H A’S V I N E Y A R D, Mass. Aug. 6 — As President Clinton golfs, eats and fund-raises his way through a four-day vacation, reporters covering him are assigned duty stations in a stuffy, muggy elementary school gymnasium — which can lead a journalist to wonder if the summer weather has taken its toll on politicians of all stripes, provoking them to produce more hot air than usual. Here are some recent statements from our nation’s politicos which might have benefited from more cool-headed consideration:

“You know, they’ve gotten in a lot of — at least a little stir lately because Mr. Cheney, was he was in Congress, voted against letting Nelson Mandela out of prison … Thank God, nobody listened to the vote that was cast by the Republican nominee for vice president.” — President Clinton at a fundraiser Monday in Palm Beach, Fla.

Nothing obviously silly about that, at least until you know a bit more about the venue. Clinton was speaking to a fundraiser benefiting Bill Nelson, a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Connie Mack. The president helped Nelson raise more than $1.2 million that day.

According to White House aides, the president was totally unaware that Nelson, who served in Congress along with Cheney, also voted against the resolution calling for Mandela’s release. (Nelson’s vote was first reported by National Review Online at about the same time as the president’s remarks.) Nelson’s explanation for his vote is essentially the same as Cheney’s, namely, that Mandela’s party were still communists and had refused to renounce violence.

Asked if Clinton was equally “horrified” to learn of Nelson’s vote, spokesman Elliot Diringer said the president was “not as horrified to learn of Nelson’s record” on apartheid. The White House says Nelson generally supported sanctions against the South African regime, while Cheney did not. But Diringer made clear, the president thinks Nelson’s vote on the Mandela resolution “was the wrong vote.” And so, what some has seen as a rare point of moral clarity in the political arena, descends into the usual muddle.

“And then you cross the Potomac on approach to the Pentagon. And just before you settle down on the landing pad, you look out upon Arlington National Cemetery, its gentle slopes and crosses row on row.” — Republican vice-presidential nominee Dick Cheney speaking Wednesday at the GOP convention in Philadelphia.

With this emotional, Peggy Noonan-esque vignette, Cheney actually managed to do the impossible: convince Republicans that there can be something noble about modern Washington. But, as a United Press International dispatch pointed out, accuracy was sacrificed for the poetry. The rows and rows of grave markers at Arlington Cemetery are not crosses but plain marble slabs rounded at the top. (Families can request that a cross or star of David be engraved on the headstone.) Cheney (or his speechwriter) may have drawn inspiration from Flanders Fields, a poem about the soldiers killed in World War I.

“A couple of years ago, I visited a juvenile jail in Marlin, Texas, and talked with a group of young inmates. They were angry, wary kids. All had committed grown-up crimes. Yet when I looked in their eyes, I realized some of them were still little boys. Toward the end of the conversation, one young man, about 15 years old, raised his hand and asked a haunting question, “What do you think of me?” He seemed to be asking, like many Americans who struggle: Is their hope for me? Do I have a chance? And, frankly, do you, a white man in a suit, really care about what happens to me?” — Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush speaking Thursday at the GOP Convention.

Fair enough, but Bush doesn’t appear to believe such compassion for young people who have lost their way extends to sparing teenagers from the death penalty. In June, the State of Texas executed Gary Graham, who was just 17 years old in 1981 when he allegedly murdered a man in a Houston supermarket parking lot in 1981. Despite please from human rights groups, Bush gave no indication of any qualms about putting to death a man who was not legally an adult when he committed his crime.

“Chelsea has her own life....I am a strong advocate for young people leading their own lives and certainly not being taken advantage of by people in the public arena.” — First Lady Hillary Clinton when asked by reporters Thursday why first daughter Chelsea Clinton was absent from the campaign trail after spending Wednesday stumping with her mother.

A baffling remark, in part because it’s not clear which “people” Mrs. Clinton is alluding to. One interpretation: she’s referring to her opponent, Rick Lazio, who frequently appears at campaign events with his daughters. (Although, if one were to make a list of young people who have been taken advantage of by people in the public arena, the first name that comes to mind isn’t Lazio.) In any event, this seems pretty far off-message given President Clinton’s frequent refrain that Democrats needn’t attack their opponents personally in order to win.

“The wait is finally over.....SUE!” — Banners hanging in the streets of Chicago during the recent American Trial Lawyers Association conference at which President Clinton spoke last Sunday.

At first glance, this appeared to be a unusually brazen call for litigation. But instead of shameless fawning over the trial lawyers, it turned out to be an advertising campaign for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. In May, the museum put on display the fossil specimen of a Tyrannosaurus Rex now known as Sue.

“Chelsea, that girl with the special smile. That’s you. Growing up in the spotlight is what you had to do. We’re all so proud of you.” — Composer and entertainer Marvin Hamlisch, delivering a musical tribute to the first daughter during a political fundraiser in Nantucket on Friday.

No analysis required, but you really have to hear Hamlisch sing it, medley-style, to get the full effect.

Josh Gerstein has covered the White House for ABCNEWS since 1997.