Bring back cigar-puffing political king-makers and their smoke-filled rooms, begs Donald Herzberg, a student of American politics and one of the gurus who help television networks make election eve predictions. Bring back the wheeling and dealing, the compromising and trading -- anything, argues Herzberg, to replace the 14-month campaign season, hyped-up primaries and confusing caucuses such as tomorrow's exercise in Iowa.
"In the name of reforming political parties, we're destroying them," says Herzberg, 54-year-old dean of Georgetown University's graduate school. "One of the indications of how bad things are going is demonstrated by the steady decline of voter turnout. We're rapidly reaching the point where the question has to be asked: 'Does the guy who won really have a legitimate mandate?' For example, what would you say if I told you that 73 out of every 100 Americans of voting age did not vote for Jimmy Carter in 1976?"
In 1976 only 54.5 percent of the eligible voters cast ballots, and just over half of those voters chose Jimmy Carter. That's down from the century's highest turnout, in 1960, when 63.8 percent of the nation's eligible voters went to the polls. A couple of years later Herzberg served as staff director of a commission appointed by President John F. Kennedy to study ways of increasing voter turnout. Herzberg says almost all the commission's recommendations have been implemented, but to no avail. Since 1966, as he's helped ABC predict outcomes of states on election night, he's watched the percentage of voters decline.
"Americans have a sports-page interest in politics, anyway," says Herzberg. So, partially with tongue in cheek, he's come up with an all-star team of back-room boys. "My one criterion is that the person they select can't be a clown, so no one from the group that picked Warren Harding made the team."
The nominees: Alexander Hamilton, who hated both Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr but threw his weight behind Jefferson when the Electoral College was tied; Martin Van Buren, the New York politician who not only operated shrewdly in smoke-filled rooms but also later became president himself; David Davis, lawyer who supported Abraham Lincoln and worked the convention for Lincoln (who was not present, as was the custom) through three votes; Mark Hanna (William McKinley's political godfather); Jim Farley, FDR's political guru; David Lawrence, former Pittsburgh mayor who was Democratic boss of Pennsylvania during the FDR-Truman-Stevenson era; and John Bailey, former Democratic National Committee chairman and Connecticut Democratic state party chairman from 1944 until his death in 1973.
Herzberg -- who naturally enough smokes cigars -- says he'd like to eliminate all primaries and caucus votes to restore the two-party system and eliminate delegates committed to one candidate or a single issue. But what about a candidate like Jimmy Carter, who quietly worked America's backroads to become president?
"The boys wouldn't have come up with him," admits Herzberg with not too much regret in his voice. "He really had no track record the boys could go on. He liked to be an outsider and used that as part of his campaign. My team gets suspicious of guys who run against them."