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Politics and the lost art of art. The life of the politician turns in on itself, consumed with the business of power, and isolated from the mainstream of popular culture

BOB DOLE gets his exposure to the arts by ``driving past the Kennedy Center on his way to work every morning.'' The only time George Bush has rented a VCR at his Houston residence was when he wanted to critique himself on television debates. Jesse Jackson's wife says she cannot remember the last time they went to a movie together. The life of a presidential candidate may be many things, but it certainly isn't a crucible of the arts.

Or as a Bush campaign worker put it: ``Who has time for the arts?''

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This is not to say that people like Michael Dukakis and Albert Gore don't bump into the arts in their lives. Ann Hawley, a friend and artistic adviser to the Massachusetts governor, tells the story of how he attended a performance of Luigi Pirandello's ``And Now We Improvise,'' and afterward had an audience of campaign contributors in stitches by transposing the plot from Sicily to Cyprus. Mr. Gore's friend and former boss, John Siegenthaler, publisher of the Nashville Tennessean, likes to cite Gore's ``eclectic reading list'' and sensitivity to artistic perceptions.

But in a very real sense, those men who would be president seem to have been insulated from even the mainstream of American culture. Officially, they all support the arts. Michael Dukakis, for instance, bodes well to inaugurate a new Kennedy-style Camelot: His wife, Kitty, was a dancer; his father-in-law, Harry Ellis Dickson, a Boston Pops associate conductor; his cousin Olympia, an Academy Award nominee. And Mr. Dukakis himself has been a strong booster of the arts in Massachusetts.

We tried to contact Dukakis and the other candidates about their personal experiences with the arts, however, and were unable to get those currently campaigning to comment. Often, we were referred to prepared statements about the importance of the arts in American life. Most of the candidates have responded to surveys from places like the American Council for the Arts and the Chicago Tribune, giving a kind of public-arts opinion profile of themselves.

Public pronouncements aside, this season's serious contenders for the presidency turn out to be people who have been almost totally preoccupied, for most of their lives, with the quest for political office and the instruments of power that attend it. They may have seen plays; they may have played a musical instrument in school; they may have relatives in the arts. But friends and aides are hard pressed to remember a single concert, dance, or book that moved them enough to make them talk to someone about the experience.

In part, this is attributable to the rigors of political life. Bruce Babbitt, who ended his quixotic, intellectually charged campaign for the presidency in February, recalls that a campaign aide had strongly recommended that he ``read nothing but comic books for the duration of the campaign ... other stuff really dilutes your attention.''

EVEN if you dig far back in the lives of these politicians, however, you come up with almost no real contact with what has often been called ``the life of the mind.''

That's the picture that has emerged from conversations with those who know these politicians well - wives, college roommates, campaign workers - and from their own statements.

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It's a picture that Hugh Sidey, who has covered the presidency for Time magazine since the Eisenhower administration, finds disturbing.

``If you look at the current crop [of presidential candidates], you see that the profile of their lives is just grubbing for power,'' he says. ``A president needs some sense of why people respond in certain ways: their joys, hopes, sorrows. I think art defines that for us in very basic ways.''

The office of president has become an ever more isolated one; and Mr. Sidey's worry, shared by others, is that a president who has no life of the mind outside politics can become even more withdrawn from the things that make up human life. He sees it as ``a recipe for tragedy,'' the fruits of which, he says, can be gathered from Lyndon Johnson's and Richard Nixon's White House years.

``I felt one of Johnson's great failings was that he really never cared about one other thing than the pursuit of power,'' Sidey observes, adding that both Johnson and Mr. Nixon were too easily immured within the world of power politics.

Not everyone agrees, of course. Historian Daniel J. Boorstin pointed out in a recent interview that ``some of the best presidents have not been particularly reflective people; George Washington is an example.''

But the question raised by people like newscaster Robert MacNeil about presidential candidates, circa 1988, is: Have they lived in a kind of professional tunnel, unimaginable even a decade or two ago; do they, like Bob Dole, get their entertainment from riding an exercycle in front of television news shows and reading newsweeklies and talking politics; and has the accelerating speed of public life propelled them along a road that seldom even skirts the world most folks live in?

``All these guys,'' observes Dole biographer Richard Norton Smith, ``are just not plugged into popular culture.''

Just before the Iowa caucuses, Julia Turrell, director of the Des Moines Art Center, attempted to arrange a presidential debate on cultural issues (urban architecture, music, museums, urban design). ``No candidate accepted the invitation,'' says Ms. Turrell, ``except Dukakis, who said he would send his wife. I was disappointed in the response, because I think the candidates have a misconception about cultural issues. The public is interested, because the cultural health of a city or community has a lot to do with economic health. At the time the candidates were talking in churches, in people's homes, and debating all the issues except cultural aspects of life. And cultural issues have a wide-ranging impact on society.''

``It matters that [a presidential candidate] at least have encountered some of the monuments of our spiritual culture,'' says Mr. MacNeil of the Public Broadcasting Service. ``Has he taken the time to develop his own soul? Has he had a liberal arts education - either from his schooling or through his own encounters with some of the great works of the culture?''

``It's a hard question to say `No' to - to say, `No, it doesn't matter.'''

BUT that's the answer that comes through conversations with those close to the presidential contenders. Paul Simon has a reputation among political pundits for sensitivity to the arts. Yet an interview with his wife (see accompanying story) reveals that, although he has publicly supported the arts, Mr. Simon is seldom touched or moved by any art form.

Jack Kemp's former campaign director, Ed Rollins, describes him as an avid reader, then on further questioning adds, ``I don't think he ever reads any fiction.''

``It seems that candidates feel they have to use all their mental capital in the pursuit of political ends,'' observes Margaret Warner, who covers the presidential campaigns for Newsweek.

``Everything else just atrophies,'' she explains. ``Basically, if it doesn't have any utilitarian value, it doesn't matter.''

Ms. Warner describes the intellectual landscape of a presidential campaign as ``pretty barren'' and worries that ``if the only experience they have of life is what they personally have experienced, if they get none of the experience available from the great works of the culture,'' then they might easily lose contact with the human condition.

``It would have been very interesting, during the Democratic debates,'' Mr. Babbitt muses, ``if one moderator had turned to a candidate and asked, `Do you know the price of a loaf of bread or a dozen eggs?' Because you do get removed, you do get cut off.

``The larger judgments you have to make as president - whether it's on defense, balance of trade, nuclear arms - ultimately have to be illuminated by a cultural and historical perspective.''

Where does this perspective come from?

Mr. Dole asked Mr. Boorstin, librarian of Congress emeritus, for a recommended reading list - which turned out to be mostly biographies of presidents and wartime diaries - apparently in an effort to ``inject some culture into his life,'' as Newsweek's Ms. Warner describes it.

Sidey and others point to past and present statesmen, on the other hand, who had a passion for the life of the mind: Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, and in more modern times, Winston Churchill and the current French President, Fran,cois Mitterrand.

MAYBE America is in an age of political specialization, producing the kind of leaders described in ``Mosby's Memoirs,'' by Saul Bellow:

``Mosby the thinker, like other busy men, never had time for music. Poetry was not his cup of tea. Members of Congress, Cabinet officers, Organization Men, Pentagon planners, Party leaders, Presidents had no such interest. They could not be what they were and read Eliot, hear Vivaldi, Cimarosa. But they planned that others might enjoy these things and benefit by their power.''

Then, again, maybe it's more simple than that.

``Maybe it's part of the American machismo,'' says MacNeil, ``that big men who want to be tough don't want to admit they go to the ballet. They'd much rather say they went to the Super Bowl.''

Whatever it is, the times have served us up a spate of candidates who have little use for the often penetrating truths buried in the works of our culture. And, to many people, that makes us all the poorer.

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