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Greene: Palin, Obama and the new guy effect

  • Story Highlights
  • Bob Greene, a CNN contributor, reports from the CNN Election Express bus
  • Greene: The idea of "change" is a powerful lure to voters
  • Time magazine once featured Richard Nixon as the new guy
  • Barack Obama is the new guy, Sarah Palin now the newer one
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By Bob Greene
CNN Contributor
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ABOARD THE CNN ELECTION EXPRESS (CNN) -- Sometimes it seems that the best thing you can be in a presidential election is the new guy.

The Time magazine cover featuring Richard Nixon.

The new guy represents, almost automatically, that magic word: Change.

Sen. Barack Obama was the new guy when he launched his run for the presidency, and change was his calling card.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, when she joined Sen. John McCain's ticket, suddenly became -- gender notwithstanding -- the newer new guy. She talks almost every day about how she and McCain are the real agents of change.

But if there is anything that is traditional and abiding in presidential politics, it is the promise of change. It's like the word "New" on boxes in grocery store aisles: As a promotional tool, the allure of change is old-shoe.

So, in this election season of new guys and declarations of change -- this season of Obama and Palin and their sudden ascents -- it may be instructive for us to step away for a moment from the frenzy of the final weeks of the campaign, and to remind ourselves that everyone, in presidential politics as in life, was at some point the new guy.

With that in mind I looked for a copy of the first Time magazine to feature Richard Nixon on its cover. Nixon would go on to appear on Time's cover on more than 50 occasions, some happier than others.

But for every new guy, there is a first time (and for every presidential new guy, there is a first Time) -- and Nixon's first was the edition of August 25, 1952. He was 39 years old, on the Republican ticket as Dwight D. Eisenhower's vice presidential nominee.

In the artist's portrait, he beams from the cover, wearing a light-gray suit. Behind him is a rendering of a speeding train -- still the icon of travel in those years -- with the letters "GOP" carved into the engine. Beneath Nixon's portrait are the words:

"Running Mate Nixon. His Message: Change Trains for the Future."

Change. As powerful a lure to voters then as it is now. New guys, by definition, can always dangle it. It's a staple of their sample cases.

The cover story itself was classic new-guy (and classic old-style Time). It bore the headline "Fighting Quaker," and the lead paragraph:

"'Step right up, folks,' the barkers were calling. 'Hurree, hurree, hurree!' The Ferris wheel was turning, the roller coaster swooped down its artificial abysses, and the piccalilli was waiting to be judged. But the most up-to-date attraction at the Illinois State Fair last week was a good-looking, dark-haired young man with a manner both aggressive and modest, and a personality to delight any political barker. He seemed to have everything -- a fine TV manner, an attractive family, a good war record, deep sincerity and religious faith, a Horatio Alger-like career, which had led him into notable accomplishments on two major campaign issues: corruption and Communism. He was Richard Milhous (pronounced mill house) Nixon, Republican nominee for Vice President."

There were the meet-the-new-guy personality nuggets: "Nixon is a hard worker, never goes to the movies, rarely allows himself a weekend trip. Once, when he promised his two daughters (Patricia, 6, and Julie, 4) a picnic on a hot day, they wound up in his air-conditioned Senate office. Nixon just misses being handsome (he has fat cheeks and a duckbill nose), but he is what women call 'nice-looking'; he gives an impression of earnest freshness."

That freshness, of course, was what was for sale: "Nixon's main theme will be the main Republican theme: the need for a change. He will ask Americans to stop traveling the Democrats' route, and get on another train where the engineer has a firmer grip on the throttle, clearer ideas of where he is going."

Change. That one paradoxical constant. As long as there are elections, and as long as there are new guys, its come-hither enticement will always be with us.

Someday, when the campaign of 2008 is a distant memory, Obama and Palin may look back and try to remember what the feeling was like.

It's the one thing you can never retrieve.

Being the new guy, although you often don't realize it at the time, is a fickle gift, and it's only there for a moment or two.

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