Only now that the Republican primary has been decided, only now we all know that barring death or illness Bob Dole will be the party's presidential nominee, has some light been finally shed on the true character of the candidates, on the issues of substance that define and divide them.
Tomorrow is "Super Tuesday", the sweep of primaries across the southern United States which should finally set the seal on Mr Dole's challenge for the White House.
But ahead of this momentous occasion came an invaluable report in Saturday's Dallas Morning News, under the headline "Texans' Guide to the Candidates", telling us the favourite desserts, movies, songs and books of Mr Dole, Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes and the man they are each presuming to displace, Bill Clinton.
The dessert list is the most telling. Mr Dole - dour, ancient, unimaginative - goes for chocolate ice cream. The fabulously rich Mr Forbes, battling to shrug off his quiche and croissant image, says he is an apple pie man. President Clinton, a glutton in his food as in his women, went for Peach Cobbler, a rich and creamy fruit tart.
Mr Buchanan's choice was the biggest surprise. Populist, demagogic, champion of the little guy, the candidate who urges his peasant-supporters to storm the bastions of corporate capitalism: he likes Grand Marnier souffle.
In movies, however, Mr Buchanan's inclinations are more consistent with his public image. The only surprise is that he made the same choice as Mr Forbes. The two men are so different it is hard to believe they belong to the same species. Yet the film that has moved the two of them most is Mel Gibson's buttocks-baring Scots epic, Braveheart. Mr Dole, who is making an obsessive third run for the White House, opted for The American President and Mr Clinton, who evidently likes to unwind by ceasing all mental activity, chose Broken Arrow, a recently released action movie directed by Jackie Chen, Hong Kong's king of kung-fu.
When it came to favourite songs, it was Mr Buchanan who again proved to be a psychoanalyst's delight. Stump terror turned Humpty Dumpty, he chose "I Fall to Pieces", as sung by Patsy Cline. Mr Forbes, who would not be accused by his worst enemy of possessing a soul, went for the brassily obvious "Stars and Stripes Forever". Mr Clinton, revealing his soppy side, is moved by "A Song for You". And Mr Dole, the sentimental old soldier for whom - to paraphrase the great Liverpool manager Bill Shankly - politics is more important than life or death, said his favourite was "You'll never walk alone".
The favourite books list was the least interesting, though once more it was the scourge-of-the-rich Buchanan who blew his cover by confessing that the last book he had read was The Trap, by Margaret Thatcher's super- rich buddy Sir James Goldsmith. Mr Forbes, earnest in his efforts to become a human being, chose Values Matter Most by a certain Ben Wattenberg. Mr Dole chose a Lincoln biography; and Mr Clinton a book by his electoral spin doctor James Carville, We're Right, They're Wrong.
It is no accident that the book preferences should have been the most perfunctory: few Americans read books. But the whole idea, of course, of making information available about personal tastes was merely to reach out to the electorate, to try and elicit the response "Yeah! He's one of us!"
A veteran observer remarked that, with the exception of the incorrigibly blunt Mr Buchanan, it would be a mistake to imagine that the candidates had not thought long and hard before providing the answers. "They probably spent millions on focus groups to decide whether Braveheart or Rob Roy, chocolate or chocolate chip ice cream were the right responses," the observer speculated.
Of the bunch, the man they call Pitchfork Pat is the one who has spent the least on his campaign. Soon he won't have to spend anything at all, allowing him to return once more to his Washington mansion, sit back and read his favourite millionaire authors while sipping on his Grand Marniers.Reuse content