Memo to Joe and Dick

Learn from those who've gone before you: Smile, show grace under pressure and grease up those biceps!


Heather Havrilesky
October 5, 2000 9:59PM (UTC)

As Joe Lieberman and Dick Cheney prepare for their big night, they had best take under consideration the examples set by their predecessors this week. Sure, there were Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush, but let's not forget the fine examples set by those chiseled, greased-up contestants preening for our approval on the "Sexiest Bachelor in America" contest. Fox might not have broadcast the debates, but it did, as has been pointed out, give us this mother of all man-titty pageants, televised before a live audience of screaming women and a naughty-girl hostess, Caroline, who submitted them to her leering scrutiny, seemingly just as anxious to demean and objectify each contestant as we were, while we sat at home on our couches, grinning ear to ear.

While we certainly weren't grinning ear to ear throughout the course of the mind-numbing hour-and-a-half debate, we did note a real similarity between the two much-awaited contests.

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Americans are rightfully focused on shallow traits. After all, we share the painful memories of having an awkward, unpretty president in office (Lyndon Johnson), a sweaty one with beady little shifty eyes (Richard Nixon) and one with a really inappropriate, unattractive tendency to stick to his ideals and tell the whole truth (Jimmy Carter). We want a president we could take to a cocktail party, knowing he could hold his own, keep up a light conversation, smile and wink, and fetch us lots of strong drinks. Maybe we'd occasionally find him chatting up the cocktail waitress with a little too much drooly enthusiasm, but hey, look how cute and flushed he gets when we catch him in the act.

The men who have flounced and winked, giggled and sighed, before us this week have helped us to understand what we really, really want. Here are some lessons so far:

The Unfrozen Caveman Trick

In response to a head-swimmingly intelligent remark by Gore, Bush told us, in a down-home, "just between you and me" kind of way, "Look, I fully recognize I'm not of Washington. I'm from Texas." Ah, yes. Exactly!

Mr. Virginia, Tom Gill, found himself in a similarly difficult spot when Caroline demanded, "Where's the most provocative place you've ever had sex?" Gill smiled a tight-lipped, nervous smile before replying, in a subtle "I'm above all this nonsense" ploy: "As a Southern gentleman, we try not to talk about where, or what, or when, but Caroline, let's put it this way, it's always provocative." Like any good politician, Gill knew full well that the only thing America loves more than an outsider is a tease.

Keep Your Head

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Moderator Jim Lehrer asked Gore, "Can you point to a decision, an action you have taken, that illustrates your ability to handle the unexpected, the crisis under fire, etc.?" Gore managed to deal with this crisis by spewing out something about handling the situation in Kosovo by inviting the former prime minister of Russia over for tea, along with the head of Finland (why him?). This was impressive -- when things got crazy, he kept his head and threw a tea party!

Mr. Missouri, Stephen Seebeck, told a similar story of handling a crisis situation. He told us how, this one time, his friend started choking on a piece of candy, and "the day before in class we had learned the Heimlich maneuver, so I kinda just sporadically jumped out and gave him the Heimlich maneuver." The audience squealed and applauded -- he kept his head and saved his friend's life, and he did it all looking just like Matt LeBlanc, only a little bit better!

Deliver Us From Temptation

Gore proclaimed, "I believe it's important to resist the temptation to squander our surplus."

Mr. Idaho, Billy Jeffrey, wore a similarly earnest face when addressing temptation in his response to the tough policy question, "Is there such a thing as bad sex?"

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Jeffrey, tilting his head and squinting slightly so we'd know he was serious, leveled with us thusly: "I'll tell you what, when you have a sexual relationship with somebody it's very important and it's very private, and I think that you should really think things through before you get to that step, so that anybody that you're planning to have a sexual relationship with ... you should be definitely for sure before it even happens that it's for real."

Lie Blatantly, Repeatedly and BaldFacedly

Crucial is the ability to lie, and continue lying, and to never, ever second-guess your lie. A candidate's lies must be consistent and baldfaced, and these lies must be so thoroughly embraced by the candidate that eventually they start to feel more true than the truth -- to the candidate, and to the public. We really don't believe that President Clinton inhaled or had sexual relations with that woman, or that Ronald Reagan recalled much of anything about arms or hostages or which crazy Arab nation we were even discussing. Meanwhile, we consider Carter an adulterer for burdening us unnecessarily with the knowledge of his lecherous thoughts. The full, terrible truth is not just unsavory, it's downright un-American.

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Bush tells us, "This man has outspent me. The special interests are outspending me." Records show Bush spent all of his record-breaking $100 million in funding to win the nomination, while Gore spent a little more than half that amount -- but Bush kept a straight face and looked so convinced that ... well, so were we!

This courageous falsehood was mirrored by Mr. Louisiana, Blair Dickens, who was presented with a hypothetical fantasy: "Your girlfriend of a few months tells you that she wants to start sharing your physical intimacy with another woman. Do you go for it?"

Dickens didn't flinch, or giggle. Instead he calmly replied, "I have to say ... there are certain things that I could not go for ... that's just something that I can't do." We're almost convinced that he's the one straight guy in the universe who would turn down hot girl-on-girl action. But then we notice he has one hand behind his back, presumably with fingers crossed. Nice!

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Rinse, Repeat

The lies must go on and on, become more wide-sweeping and make room for even more lies. When asked if he'd make pro-life appointments to the Supreme Court, Bush responded, "Voters should assume that I have no litmus test on that issue or any other issue." This false statement made us voters comfortable with our decision to assume that Bush will do whatever it is that we want him to do on every issue.

Similarly, when Mr. Virginia was asked, "What's the best excuse you've ever given to get out of a date?" he smoothly excused himself, saying, "Uh, really, I would never use an excuse, I would be honest as much as I could." Knowing we wouldn't completely buy this, he covered with flattery: "Women have an amazing ability to find out everything, so you never lie." Gill got three perfect 10s on his interview, toppling the previous sexiest bachelor world record of one 9.9 score. Did this guy consult Dick Morris?

Originality Is a Liability

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One might assume that, eventually, the candidates would shy away from long-repeated clichis in order to appear more original, to stand out from the crowd. But every viable candidate knows that Americans are down with clichis, so why not go there? These two don't need John Anderson, Ross Perot or Ralph Nader to tell them that originality spells certain defeat.

Gore is clearly an understudy at the Clinton school of worn-out political prose. After his third or fourth down-home, real-people tale, we almost expected him to illustrate his stance on abortion with a grisly, pre-Roe vs. Wade anecdote involving a girlfriend back in the '60s (who's here with us tonight!). Bush, on the other hand, mastered simple sentences and empty platitudes even a first-grader could understand. Calling to mind the ever-salient words of world-renowned team player Big Bird (here with us tonight, all the way from Sesame Street!), Bush told us that getting things done in Washington is "going to require a new spirit -- a spirit of cooperation." Can you say co-op-er-a-tion, boys and girls?

Similarly, when asked, "What do you consider the most difficult part of being in a successful relationship?" a staggering four out of five of the finalists for the sexiest bachelor crown cited "communication" as the key to success in relationships. In contrast, Mr. North Dakota, Matt Funk, replied, "I'd have to say ... keeping it going. The lovey stage wears off after a while and, you know, if you love the person you gotta still get along and work it out." No truer statement was uttered during the entire event. Needless to say, this disastrous combination of honesty and originality earned him the title of Third Runner-Up in the Sexiest Bachelor in America contest, an accolade one notch above "Clean Plate Club Member."

Act Vulnerable

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It's important for any contestant to know when to act powerful and when to trot out that learned helplessness women find particularly endearing. When Bush was asked if he'd try to overturn the FDA's approval last week of the RU-486 abortion pill, Bush ignored his earlier statements on the issue and, like a little lamb, responded, "I don't think a president can do that."

In a "What can you do?" gesture befitting a New Jersey native, Mr. Garden State, David Danho, responded to the question of living together before wedlock with a shrug: "In today's society I feel it's happening already. I mean, I know my parents would say no. But ... I know if I love the person I can't stay without 'em, I have to see them every day, so in my honest opinion, I say go for it."

When in Doubt, Divert or Pout

When asked about character issues, Bush attacked Gore on fundraising affairs. Gore conveniently refocused on positivity: "I think we ought to attack our country's problems, not attack each other."

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In a similar move, Mr. Missouri fielded this hard-hitting question: "A female friend offers you sex. Do you risk changing the friendship or go for it?"

Seebeck blurted out, "No, 'cause if she's my friend I don't feel that that's an appropriate question. So, if she's my friend that's not an appropriate question."

A Winner Never Loses

Finally, after these breathtaking contests, comments from all the contestants were decidedly upbeat.

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Bush: "I got to speak from my heart."

Gore: "I think it was a great chance to speak directly to the American people."

First Runner-Up, Mr. Illinois, Matt Thomas: "You don't feel like a piece of meat as much as you thought you would."

Eat a Little Humble Pie

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Unlike Bush or Gore, the Sexiest Bachelor in America, Gill, actually did win his competition, and so he had every right to claim victory. Furthermore, he was quite atypical in his humility, claiming on the "Early Show": "There were some screaming women, yes, [but] I don't think they were screaming as loud for me as they were for most of the other guys."

Proving, surprisingly enough, that nothing is less American, yet more appetizing, than humble pie. And he didn't even have to wear massive amounts of makeup or say hello to old people in the audience to win.

If we could vote right now, we'd vote for Gill. But a lot could change over the next month, so we'll continue to call ourselves "undecided." After all, in the immortal words of Mr. Idaho, "You should be definitely for sure before it even happens that it's for real."


Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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