DURING THE nation's stately march toward Election Day 1976, Gerald Ford and his assorted challengers agreed on one thing: My family, friends, neighbors and I were all basking in a state of detente, defined by Noah Webster as "a relaxing." I had a gnawing sense of doubt about that at the time. I still do. Perhaps all my relatives and acquaintances were spending their days laid back and tension-free, but I remember feeling that I was a two-ulcer-man facing a three-ulcer world.
Now, as America glides with habitual grace and dignity toward another election year, Jimmy Carter and those seeking to succeed him propound the notion that I and virtually all Americans have been in a state of malaise, a condition defined by the same Mr. Webster as an "indefinite feeling of bodily unease."
That's more like it. I had known for many months that something was wrong, but it took the president himself to put his finger on it. I had been afflicted by a sustained, lassitudinous hangover which, in my ignorance, I thought was the aftermath of having spent last August in Washington. To learn, instead, that I had been suffering from a prolonged attack of something as lofty as a "malaise" cheered me immeasurably. I felt something akin to the pleasure of Moliere's bourgeois gentleman when he discovered he had been speaking prose all his life. It almost compensated for my pique at having my condition diagnosed strictly in terms of exotic French diseases. Almost, but not quite.
Not quite, because the president warned me in the most dire terms that acute malaise was rampant from coast to coast. What this meant, of course, was that at long last I was shuffling along to the beat of the same drummer as the rest of the country. Since then I have been trying to snap out of whatever it is he said I had and to zing into what it is he thought I hadn't -- to jolly myself up, as it were; to get my act together, so to speak. But, alas, a cure for malaise seemed no readier at hand than a cure for the common cold.
In more simple, salubrious Cold War days -- as old diplomatic hands will report, in the improbable event they are ever asked -- global confrontation provided an antidote to French diseases. To be sure, Dwight Eisenhower had occasional bouts of malapropism, and John Foster Dulles was a carrier of ennui, but I can say without the slightest equivocation that neither was ever troubled by a fit of detente. Moreover, their propensity to romp at the brink left little time to contact malaise.
The example seems not to have been lost on members of the present administration. There was the time last summer, for instance, when Zbigniew Brzezinski turned up with a nostrum, if not a specific; Carter and all the rest of us, he said, should be in a swivet about the Arc of Crisis.
Trembling with swivet, I took globe and compass in hand. By George, there it was: India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and all that. Here was a pretty kettle of fish, a mish-mash of considerable consequence; Changing governments! Atomic bombs! Holy wars!
But what should I do? What could I do? After all, I was not eliglble to run for office in India; I had once become hopelessly lost in the Kabul bazaar; my doctor reminded me that I was allergic to radioactivity; and, by the ayatollah's standards, I am not a good Moslem.
Despite its ripe, rould feel, the Arch of Crisis turned out to have only a momentary, superficial appeal; somehow, it just wasn't me. Me remission from an indefinite feeling of bodily unease was shortlived. And, within days, my malaise plunged.
But all was not yet lost. Hardly had I reached for the Geritol when the Case of the Muscovitge Danseuse plied in. For 24 hours, I reverted to my old saucy self. Would she or wouldn't she, did she or didn't she? In the end, she wouldn't and she didn't. It was glorious while it lasted, but when all was said and nothing done, I had to admit that malaisewise, the Bolshoi caper bombed. I sank back into torpescence and sluggishness.
But not for long, not for long. Sen. Frank Church pushed the "on" button in the nick of time. The president and all the rest of us, he said, should be frenzied about the Russians in Cuba. Carter leaped to the challenge. Well, now, here was a shemozzl worthy of getting out of bed to confront! Then, just when I felt a resurgence of pizzazz, the senator blew it: Instead of confining himself to unadorned rhetoric -- "hordes," "swarms," "mobs" -- he fell victim to the cursed Washington temptation to quantify: In short, he blinked.
The realization that the District of Columbia's police department outnumbered by 2 to 1 the Russian troops in Cuba was a cruel letdown. And so, despite the best efforts of the president and the senator, the Soviet military presence off the coast of Florida turned out to be too little and too late -- all the more so in light of the expectation aroused. The brigada marched into the sunset to the sounds of muffled percussion and muted brass.
Clearly, I have been letting the side down. Nothing my leaders serve up seems to bring me out. Am I a permenent casualty of the dread disease? After all, "le malaise de la fin du siecle," kept much of western Europe in thrall for several decades a century ago. For a host of intellectuals, artists and just plain folks, during the late 1870s and the 1880s, the haranguing of the Positivists and the politicians began to ring slightly hollow. The Best People become hopelessly bored, fatigued and listless; many of them were into tuberculosis.
Is this what is in store for me, my friends and relatives? Will we be known by historians as the Lollygag Generation? Have latter-day Positivists sucked our adrenalin dry?
In desperation, I turned for guidance to a wise old friend who has never let me down. If only Church and Carter had consulted him instead of dashing blindly up San Juan Hill! "Do not make a business of what is no business," Balthasar Gracian, the 17th century Jesuit, wrote. "Troublesome things must not be taken too seriously if they can be avoided. Much that would be something has become nothing by being left alone, and what was nothing has become of consequence by being made mush of."
Gracian knew the difference between nuclear missiles and a couple of thousand foot soldiers; Cuba, 1979, was "no business." And, too, he could tell the difference between slick international abstractions and concrete national security considerations; the "Arc of Crisis," circa the summer of 1979, was also "no business."
It took another man of the cloth, this one living in the 7th century, to make the distinction clear. Indeed, the Ayatollah Khomeini and his merry band of ineffable young ladies and gentlemen may have been the only folk outside the ranks of official Washington to have confused the new American skepticism about academic exercises in geopolitics with a state of malaise. The Teheran gang is probably no longer confused on this score. One hopes the same holds true for American politicians.
As for myself, I stopped yawning many weeks ago; I am once again full of perk and vinegar. But to insure against a relapse in 1980, I've booked passage on the Delta Queen for next August.