The presidential primaries have reminded us how candidates love to pontificate about the "issues." But they prefer to deal in generalities and keep silent about specifics. They sometimes appear more concerned about the political fallout than the substance of national problems.
In front of a television camera, they would rather make promises than offer solutions. They learn to speak in an anesthetic way. When they address disparate groups under the spotlight, they try to beam different signals to each.
National politicians, especially those in presidential politics, usually seek to weave enough ambiguity into their postures so that they would not appear to be hostile to any major constituency. If circumstance prevents them from being seen as an undoubted friend, they would hope to appear, at the worst, to offer sympathetic neutrality.
There is an art to courting interest groups. An experienced presidential contender tries to speak quietly enough so as not to draw undue media attention, but just audibly enough for the selfish interests to hear.
To the citizenry at large, each candidate seeks to present himself as the protagonist of far-reaching but noncontroversial reforms, as a large-minded statesman who wears the collar of no particular interest. But to the special interests, he seeks to appear as a devoted, lifelong advocate.
The Voters Caucus, a nonpartisan group that uses computers to track candidates' views, has made a heroic effort to pin down presidential contenders. For five months, this group has pleaded with them to answer 55 simple questions, which would reveal where each stands on major issues.
Most candidates responded by sending overblown and oversimplified position papers. The Voters Caucus contacted some campaign staffs as many as 10 times in an attempt to separate each candidate's views from the blarney and establish a truth-in-politics standard.
In most cases, the group had to dig out the candiates' views painstakingly from their past utterances culled from newspaper clippings, television and radio scripts, congressional hearings and other public records.
There were exceptions. Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) completed the questionnaire and mailed it back promptly. Bruce Babbit complained that the questions weren't specific enough; he was willing to spell out his views in even more detail. And Jesse L. Jackson, after a delay caused by a staff shift, answered all 55 questions with candor.
Meanwhile, the time has come to ask the presidential candidates again: "Where's the beef?" When this question was put to them, most served up Pablum.
Footnote: The Voters Caucus is a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization, sponsored by the International Platform Association, a group of public speakers. It distributes voter information prepared by University of Utah professors to a grassroots network of political columnists and radio-TV talk show hosts. Jack Anderson is nonpaid president of the International Platform Association.