WANTED: Smart, effective, charismatic, honest person to serve as president of the United States. Must have experience running large organization, dealing with Congress and the public. Job involves long hours, lots of travel. Salary: $200,000 a year, plus furnished home, and $50,000 expense allowance. Future includes solid book possibilities.
The handwringing has started. People who ordinarily don't care about politics are starting to talk about who they are going to vote for and they invariably wind up telling you who they are going to vote against. Picking on Jimmy Carter has become America's favorite indoor sport. A colleague, for example, remarked the other day that Jimmy Carter is like the kid in the chemistry class who never seems to be able to do anything right. Everything he touches explodes.
Unless the Democrats open up their convention and go back to the trusty old smoke-filled rooms, the American people once again will be offered a set of bleak alternatives for the highest office in the land. Ronald Reagan's supporters may love him, but it would be hard to argue convincingly that he is among the best and the brightest thinkers our country is capable of producing.
Gov. Reagan is an attractive, articulate candidate, someone with timbre in his voice, but no college is ever going to pick him to be dean of its law school. There is, the saying goes, no substitute for brains. The word on Jimmy Carter is not so much that he isn't smart, but that he isn't effective. The word on Reagan is a little more alarming: that he is effective, and maybe not all that smart. The choice, as things stand right now in the two major parties, appears to be between a man (Carter) who might be able to understand the complexities of the economy but doesn't know how to cure it, and between someone (Reagan) who doesn't understand but thinks he knows the cure.
But what about John Anderson, you might be saying. Well, John Anderson, we keep hearing, is not electable. Voting for him is throwing your vote away. But there's more to the John Anderson question than that. John Anderson's make-America-Christian amendment is there on his record. So are his anticonsumer votes and pro-big business votes. There is the very real matter of his personal style, which verges most of the time on posturing. Anderson does not have charisma, that special brand of leadership that inspires allegiance, that makes people do what you want them to do. Reagan has charisma. Carter does not.
Sen. Edward Kennedy has charisma. He also has the kind of experience in Washington that none of the other leading candidates have. If there is anything valuable to have been learned from the Carter White House, it is precisely how difficult it is for relatively inexperienced outsider to come to Washington and to exercise presidential power and get things done. From the first insult to the Speaker of the House all the way to the Billy Carter affair, the Carter White House has seemed to be in way over its collective head. And no wonder. Who among us could seriously argue that serving one term as governor of Georgia adequately prepares a person to be president of the United States?
On that point, Ronald Reagan is about where Jimmy Carter was in 1976. Reagan's experience, his job credentials for the presidency, consist of being governor of California for two terms, and California, no matter what Californians say, is not the entire United States. Gov. Reagan is running for America and against Washington with, I suspect, no very clear idea of how presidents work, let alone how Washington works.
For months, this past spring and summer, I've had the same feelings I had in 1976 and 1972 and 1968, which is that once again we are being offered mediocre choices for the presidency. Instead of being able to choose between two or three experienced, smart, charismatic, accomplished candidates, we end up trying to figure out who is the least flawed.
This year, if the scenario holds, we will be asked to choose, for the most difficult job in the world, between two individuals: one who has deonstrated to the satisfaction of the overwhelming majority of the electorate that he can't do the job, and the other, yet another governor claiming that experience has readied him for the presidency. No Fortune 500 corporation would hire its chief operating officer this way.
The latest Gallup Poll among Democrats found Carter still ahead of Kennedy in a two-way race, with Kennedy rapidly closing the gap. Only 39 percent of the Democrats favored Carter as the nominee, with 52 percent preferring someone else. A majority of the Democrats polled want an open convention with their delegate released to vote their choice.
The Carter people are crying foul and claiming that the open convention is a euphemism for a dump-Carter movement. It probably is. The fact of the matter, though, is that Carter has given new dimensions to a president slipping in the polls. He's setting speed records. So the open convention may, indeed, be part of a pro-Kennedy movement within the Democratic Party. But given the alternative for Democratic voters these days, it is hard to find fault with that. Kennedy came in second to Carter in the primaries. He has the kind of experience in how Washington works that no other candidate can offer. He got an 84 rating from the National Women's Political Caucus for his voting record on women's issues, compared to 16 for John Anderson, who didn't vote a lot.
Certainly, if Kennedy walks away with the nomination, it would be the upset of the year. But the Democrats are watching the polls. They could do a lot worse.