INSIDE THE BELTWAY: Positive first impressions often overshadow even some of the worst subsequent behavior

First impressions, it is said, are usually the lasting ones. November 7 will tell us if this is true for American presidential elections.

First impressions, it is said, are usually the lasting ones. November 7 will tell us if this is true for American presidential elections.

First impressions, it is said, are usually the lasting ones. November 7 will tell us if this is true for American presidential elections.

There is a lot of data to tell us that this old saw may be more accurate than we like to think. Hardly a year goes by without at least a few books chipping away at John F. Kennedy. Examples include stories of JFK's alleged womanizing and his father's dubious maneuvering to keep us out of World War II.

There are even some clearly bogus accounts now of Kennedy's seeking (and getting) the mob's help to win the West Virginia primary in 1960. When you think about it, Mafia influence over elections in West Virginia was probably close to zero 40 years ago, and it hasn't grown since.

So the result of nearly 30 years of these exposes is that the first impression of John Kennedy's thousand days remains almost undiminished. He stands - as he has since he was killed - very high in any public ranking of our presidents.

There is now a bestseller by a well-known writer seeking - apparently with good evidence - to dent (if not crumble) our esteem for, of all people, Joe DiMaggio. The Yankee Clipper, we are told, was tight with a buck, alarmingly close and even beholden to the mob, and endlessly seeking fame and adulation.

But unless some new book can come along and prove that DiMaggio did not hit safely in 56 straight games, or once made the wrong choice on throwing to or taking the extra base, his place in our pantheon of heroes will be safe.

Gretta Garbo, Scott Fitzgerald and even FDR have come in, and are coming in, for some wild revisionist storytelling. But Garbo remains the gold standard of beauty and mystery even after 60 years of hype for other movie stars. Fitzgerald is still the literary exemplar for the Jazz Age, according to academics and scholars. And FDR remains the victor over the Depression and Hitler, even if some modern types continue to suggest he was only helping out the capitalists and didn't really care about Hitler's victims.

What does this 'we know our heros, don't bother us with your facts' American attitude tell us about this year's election? Roughly 45% of Americans see Governor George W. Bush as the latest Republican to help the rich and powerful keep their advantages; another 45% see the more experienced Vice President Al Gore as a big spender and a coddler of minorities. And the other 10%? As one TV anchor said, 'Americans must decide between their high school principal and their high school coach.'





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