I remembered her well -- that curly-headed girl who always sat in the front row. It had been more years than either of us cared to recall. She was phoning for advice. But first, she fell into an age-old trap:

"You've been in Washington a long time," she said. "You must have an inside track on the truth."

I have the inside track on one thing only, I told her -- which sandwich is on special at the corner carryout today.

But old school ties run deep. I told my classmate from long ago that I'd be glad to try to help.

She's in the process of reinventing herself, she told me (we're at an age where that carries neither shame nor surprise). She's taking a course in American government at a community college in Southern California. She's hoping to become a political columnist, bless her heart. She wanted my impression of the 2004 presidential campaign so far.

"I'm really glad you asked," I said, "because I've been amazed that the major point has been missed so far, by both parties."

"And that major point is?" she asked.

"That the big issue will be the same one that has colored every presidential race since Lyndon Johnson in 1964," I said. "Not foreign policy alone or terrorism alone. Not domestic priorities alone. But the question of whether it's a good idea to have a president who's a Washington insider."

"By 2004, Bush will be an insider," she said.

"Very true," I said. "He already is one. But you can bet he'll position himself as an outsider because he and his people know very well how Washington experience plays. In a nutshell, it doesn't."

My classmate asked me for some examples.

"Let's begin with Jimmy Carter. He was an outsider when he came and he was perceived as an insider when he left. Was he reelected? No."

"But Ronald Reagan was reelected after his first term. I voted for him," my classmate said.

"Yes, but somehow he did what Carter couldn't. After four years here, he could still get away with the aw-shucks-I'm-still-learning posture. Call it personal charm, which Carter obviously didn't possess. Call it an ability to avoid being bogged down in details, which Carter obviously didn't possess, and didn't want to possess. Regardless, it paid big dividends to be Mr. Outside."

My classmate asked if Mr. Reagan's opponent in 1984 might have had something to do with it.

"Lots to do with it," I replied. "Walter Mondale had been a Washington insider for more than 20 years by that time. His pitch was that he knew all the players, all the back alleys, especially on Capitol Hill. But America seems to disdain that kind of political experience, even though America would demand it in business or industry."

My classmate proved that she had been paying attention back in the 1960s. "We always had citizen politicians when the country was young," she said.

"There was no such thing as a Washington insider, no such thing as Potomac Fever. John Adams kept his farm. So did Thomas Jefferson. So did everybody."

"But the issues are so much tougher now, and the mechanics are so much more cumbersome," I responded. "There were only three cabinet-level departments until well into the 19th century. It was easy to be a farmer who ran a federal government on the side."

"And now the country wants a fresh slate -- as well as a fresh face -- every four years?"

"That's not quite it," I said. "What the country wants is a person who won't be beholden to the dug-in interests here. Which is why the Democrats are amazing me so far."

"How so?"

"The Democratic field is clogged with candidates, which tells me that they think Bush is extremely beatable. But all the major contenders have been in Washington almost as long as I have. Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, Dick Gephardt certainly know where the bodies are buried. They've even buried some of those bodies. It's strange that the Democrats don't come up with an outsider candidate themselves. Maybe someone who isn't a politician at all."

My classmate pointed out that one senator -- John Edwards -- is a relative neophyte, and one governor -- Howard Dean -- has never run for national office.

"Look where they are in the latest polls," I said.

"Don't you know that polls aren't worth much a full year before the first primary? If polls at this stage were what it was all about, Bob Dole would have won the nomination in 1980, not Reagan."

"Right you are. But campaign money gives us a hard-to-ignore measure of who's commanding interest. So far, those who've been Washington insiders longest have the longest bank accounts."

"Isn't that exactly why the country hates insider-ness?"

"You mean because insiders can lay their paws on big bucks faster and more easily?"


"Again, that's only some of it. I think America hates insiders who spend big money on projects that suit their political interests first and the national interest second."

"You mean pork?"

"Around here, pork is what's for dinner."

My classmate asked me whom I'd like to see opposing George W. Bush.

"I don't have a particular individual in mind as much as a type of individual," I said. "Why not a university president? Or a businessperson? Perhaps a religious leader. Or a military hero. Dwight D. Eisenhower was one of the most popular presidents in history, and it was all because of his record before he held the big job. He had never run for anything before he ran for president."

"Are you arguing for Colin Powell?"

"No, because I don't think he's interested. But there are lots more Powells. Some are even Democrats. Do I think the right one could beat Bush? Yes, I do. And if he were an outsider as well as a hero, so much the better."