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The slippery game of character

Last week in Madison Square Garden, Bill Bradley summoned 5,000 friends to announce that he had captured the endorsement of the 1973 New York Knicks.

He also garnered the support of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Patrick Ewing, thus ensuring a White House with tremendous shot-blocking ability.

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In other news, George W. Bush released a book telling us what a nice guy he is, emphasizing that he really did feel bad when he sent Karla Faye Tucker to the electric chair - despite his joking about it in Talk magazine.

And Al Gore told the world he really liked journalism when he worked as a reporter at the Nashville Tennessean in the 1970s, but public service eventually called.

What does all this mean? That's not yet clear. It may be that after a few months of serious talk the candidates are "reintroducing" themselves to the American people as we near the first primaries - an odd choice of words considering most sane voters slept through the original introductions.

But in Washington these Hallmark moments are cause for great celebration among the nation's cultural hand-wringers.

These events signify something big.

After eight years of moral bankruptcy in Washington, it appears the 2000 campaign is going to be centered on character.

And that kind of good news should be enough to make any voter ... run for cover. Because if this thinking is correct, we are in for 12 months of a whole lot of nothing.

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Journalists love campaigns focused on character. Writing profiles and digging for dirt is a lot more fun than reading policy papers. But the problem with campaigns based on character is they don't really exist.

Character is a slippery thing that can be difficult to divine. Finding out the character of your neighbor is hard enough. Try finding out the character of a man who is surrounded by advisers telling him which baby to kiss in the crowd and which word to punch in the speech.

In truth, a campaign based on "character" is really a campaign based on "personality" - a campaign that becomes a wholly owned subsidiary of People magazine. Next week: John McCain on his life as a POW and why he loves dogs. But sadly, this may be the campaign people are asking for.

When you take a good hard look at the four men with a legitimate shot at the White House, can you really find serious differences?

Sure, there's campaign-finance reform and there is some debate about school vouchers. But - in truth - campaign 2000 is shaping up to be the "don't rock the boat" tour.

It's not that people are completely opposed to change or discussing ideas.

As things stand right now, polls show the GOP is in danger of losing control of the House and Senate - largely for its handling of issues like their tax-cut proposal and the impeachment proceedings.

But even this dissatisfaction is not about voters wanting change. It is about their anger with the Hill Republicans for trying to make change when things are going well. In congressional races, a vote against the GOP is basically a vote against change.

Or as George W.'s father might say, Message: leave things alone.

Which brings us again to the presidential race.

Since the four big contenders - and particularly Mr. Gore and George W. - are relatively close in most policy areas, they are left with trying to distinguish themselves in other ways.

It may be hard to name specific policies with which these guys are associated, but the personality traits are simple. Backslapping George W. Studious and eager-to-please Al. Intellectual and athletic Bill. Honorable, tough-talking John.

And none of those identities, largely generated by the campaigns, have anything to do with the lofty concept of character.

They have to do with creating characters, compelling personalities for the unfolding story.

The problem is that a story with all personality and no plot is not much of a story at all.

The hope is that we are just in a temporary lull in this race.

Because a campaign on character may be full of characters, but in the end it's unfulfilling.

When times are good we should be talking about what direction we go next, not about who has got the best smile or the best outside jumper.

* Dante Chinni writes political commentary from Washington.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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