"What kind of political convention do you call this anyway?" the old ward heeler wanted to know. And for good reason. There wasn't a smoke-filled room in the hotel, not a button or balloon in sight, and the bars were half-empty. As for the speeches, they dealt with such arcane matters as "A Mathematical Model of Ambivalence in Decision Making" and "The Function of Models and Metaphors in the Development of Federal Theory."

All of which baffled "Knocko" Flaherty, a political pro who thought he knew all there was to know about his trade until he stumbled into the 75th annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. The APSA convention adjourned yesterday, after a long weekend of heavy -- if more tepid than hot -- sessions at the Washington Hilton.

"Listen to this," said Knocko, perusing one of the hundreds of academic papers delivered to the 2,200 political scientists attending the meeting. The text that attracted the old pro's attention, delivered by Joseph A. Pike of the State University of New York at Buffalo, was titled "White House Boundary Roles: Linking Advisory Systems and Presidential Politics."

Knocko adjusted his glasses and began quoting from the Pika monograph: "Perceived relationship with other portions of the White House system could heighten the salience of co-worker norms and attitudes as guides to behavior. In addition, behavioral cues emerge from interactions in other White House Office sub-units."

The old pro shook his head. "I think the guy's trying to tell Ham Jordan something," he finally concluded. "But damned if I can figure out what it is."

Knocko's bafflement was understandable to one of the APSA conventioneers, Kathleen Gille, a 27-year-old graduate student from the University of Chicago. Though she went into political science because "it allows you to take an idea and follow it through logistically," Gille believes "there's a tendency for many people in the field to get too engrossed in their subjects, and this creates barriers to understanding by wider audiences."

"You took the words right out of my mouth," agreed Knocko. "I mean, it's like the people around here are talking a foreign language." He plucked another academic presentation from the convention stacks, this one by Robert Biersack and Mary Ann Steger of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and commenced reading:

"The central research question addressed here involves the relationship between leadership attributes and group impact . . . In this particular institutional framework, it is hypothesized that leaders whose perceptions and background reflect a more activist orientation will be involved in groups which have a greater impact on their communities or clientele than groups with leaders not having this orientation."

"All it is, is what Dick Daley used to say," surmised Knocko after reflection, "the squeaking wheel gets the grease. Only he said it better."

"Political scientists talk to political scientists, and to do that we work out our own vocabulary," explained a visiting APSA member from Canada. "We're interested in different things than politicians are. Working politicians are involved in the decisions that will get them reelected. Political scientists are interested in the decision-making process, and our first priority isn't whether a particular personality gets elected -- which, I guess, is why more working politicans aren't interested in our advice."

Knocko Flaherty couldn't have agreed more, especially after retiring to the semi-deserted hotel saloon to look over a text titled, "A Reappraisal of Theories of Voting," by Steven Rood of Boston University.

"I thought I'd learn something," said the old pro, blowing foam from his beer. "You know, a good Boston boy and all that. But listen to this: 'Pomper's causal modeling can be seen as an imaginative way of showing what factors had importance in what elections, but it hardly adds up to a theory. Pomper is slightly mistaken then, when he says, "In new circumstances, new findings and new theories are required" (VC xiv; supra, p. 15).'

Knocko finished his brew, ordered another, and lit a cigar. "I think this guy is trying to tell Jimmy Carter something," said the old pro.

Eloise French, the convention coordinator, listened politely to Knocko's complaints about the lack of buttons, balloons and smoke-filled rooms, but pointed out that the APSA isn't that removed from flesh-and-blood politics. She cited a number of working politicians listed on the association membership roster, past and current, including Sen. Mark Hatfield and Reps. John Schmidhauser and John Schmidt, as well as Hubert Humphrey and Woodrow Wilson.

The old pro was moderately impressed, but only moderately. While French was reeling off the names, Knocko was half-scanning "The Function of Models and Metaphors in the Development of Federal Theory," a paper presented by William H. Stewart of the University of Alabama. He began reading, aloud:

"Another academic justification for metaphorical models is heuristic devices," he recited, eyes aglaze. "Anthropologists Galt and Smith feel that 'the heuristic model provides a frame of reference from which discoveries can be made . . . ' . . . Lippitt also has noted the heuristic value of models and his observations would be applicable to adjectival federalisms."

"Woodrow Wilson, huh?" Knocko muttered, retracing his steps toward the bar. It figures."

"No, it's not exactly show time at Las Vegas, but that's not what we come to these meetings for," explained Chris Allen, a 32-year-old Brandeis University graduate student specializing in the West German trade union movement. "Some of the stuff presented here is obscure, but political scientists approach the subject of power and its uses from a broader perspective than working politicians. It's not all neon and bright lights, you know."

"Yeah," replied Knocko, now 14 pages into a paper titled "The Mystery of the Missing Idea: A Non Paper on System Transformation," presented by Dina Zinnes of Indiana University:

"The third configurational variable may well be questioned by some. Its treatment in literature is more recent and spotty. Nevertheless, analysts like Organski (1961); Galtung (1964), and even Kaplan (1975) and researchers like Singer, Small (1966) and Wallace (1971) have suggested a plausible third dimension . . . "

The old pro gnawed his cigar. "Wallace," he mused. Then, shaking his head: "Nah, couldn't be the same one."

"Staid?" said John Wahlke, head of the political science department at the University of Arizona and an APSA past president. "Yes, I think on the whole our members spend less time in the hotel bar than other conventioneers. Most of the people here are very involved in their work, and some live in an academic world that -- well, that just doesn't include real people."

"I'll stake you to a drink on that," said Knocko Flaherty, but Wahlke took a rain check, having a previous commitment to eat dinner with three of his staid colleagues.

Knocko shrugged and retired to the bar, alone.

"Political Science," he read, wrapping his mouth around the title of a paper by John Robey of New Mexico University, "from an Interdisciplinary Perspective."

"This paper argues," begins Robey's monograph, "that if future generations of political scientists are to successfully confront many of the problems that will be facing our discipline, we must open ourselves to incorporate many of the concepts and models that are being used in the fields of psychology, anthropology, economics, and computer science as well as other areas."

Knocko Flaherty quaffed his beer, called for a refill and, despite the immediate absence of smoke, buttons and balloons, thought he saw a glimmer of light in the dark tunnel of academia. "This guy Robey may be on to something," said the old pro, blowing foam across the empty room. "Maybe one of these days, they'll even include the field of politics."