Back at the California State Democratic Convention in Sacramento, there was a press room and in that press room was a television set. As the speeches in the hall droned on--there were seven certified Democratic presidential candidates present--reporters drifted into the press room to watch football and engage in what is known as pack journalism. Even that early in the campaign a consensus was reached: There are no nuts in the race.
Now that is a stunning political development. In the past, especially the recent past, the political landscape has been strewn with nuts--a term loosely used to mean almost anything. It embraces people who are truly deranged (no names here), those who are mere egomaniacs (again no names), but it also can be stretched to include that most dangerous of all political practitioners--the rank amateur who knows little and about whom little is known.
This year, though, there are no amateurs. Five of the Democratic candidates are members of the Senate, some of them for a long time. Of the remaining two, one is both a former senator and a former vice president and the other is the former governor of a Florida and the former chief trade negotiator for the government.
The Republican Party boasts a similar array of pros. Ronald Reagan has lost his amateur standing by virtue of being president. Should he choose not to run, his Republican understudies are all well-qualified--a vice president, a senate majority leader, a senator or two. Even Jesse Helms is no amateur. He is, in fact, a foreign policy expert--wrong, but knowledgeable nonetheless.
All this is good news. It means that the country is beginning to shake off some of the combined effects of that awful period that included the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. Between the two, they produced such a loathing for government, such a distrust of experts, that the nation turned in two successive presidential races to men who had not spent a working day in Washington, who knew nothing about foreign policy, who knew next to nothing about how the government works and whose theories--economic, military and otherwise--were formed in the boutique of state government or in colloquies with the ignorant. I am referring, of course, to Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan--neither the best, nor the brightest.
With both Reagan and Carter, a certain amount of their presidencies had to be spent just learning the ropes--and re-learning what they thought they already knew. Both men came to Washington, prepared to cut the government down to size (what size?) and feisty to do battle with the bureaucracy. In mid-term, Carter had to reconsider it all. He summoned the cabinet to Camp David, fired some of it, roared off around the country to hear from the people and then promised it would all be different. It was not.
Reagan, too, has had his mid-course correction. Now, suddenly, the government is not the enemy of the people, but its friend. His anticommunist theory of world events has been shattered. Terrorism, once the administration's highest foreign policy priority, never gets mentioned anymore. As for the Soviet Union, while it is still Godless and duplicitous, it is nevertheless now worth a chat. To accomplish that, the president recently announced his willingness to talk to Yuri Andropov.
The nation suffers for such on-the-job-training. No person can assume the presidency fully prepared for the job, but even the minimal preparation has been lacking in the last two presidents. It was, in fact, their amateur standing that propelled them into office. They benefited from the almost universal distrust of government--a government that had lied during both Vietnam and Watergate and that had cost the nation dearly in lives, honor and the respect of the governed.
But now, in the press rooms of the moveable campaign, the consensus is that the horizon is stocked with experienced candidates, some of them good, some of them mediocre, but none of them inexperienced in the ways of the national government. The era of the rank amateur, Vietnam and Watergate's most pernicious legacy, appears to be over.
Bring on the pros