I don't read very much. I get my insights by going to movies. I saw a movie not long ago in which Angie Dickinson, while standing in a shower, became so engrossed in thoughts other than cleanliness that she neglected to notice that someone else was standing in the shower with her. Whoever this other person was, he promptly placed his hand over her mouth such that she couldn't call his presence to the attention of her husband (who was standing nearby, shaving) and she was dragged off to some horrible fantasized fate. The lesson in this was obvious to me: ignore at your own risk what should be obvious to you; if you allow yourself to fantasize, cruel reality will take its toll.
All three presidential candidates have already demonstrated their ability to ignore the obvious. Ronald Reagan seems unwilling to admit there can be but one China, Jimmy Carter keeps avoiding any admission of personal fault for the disaster that his first term has been, and the stranger in the shower may have already carried off John Anderson if he sincerely believes the fantasy that sheer disgust with Reagan and Carter will somehow result in an electoral majority for himself. In the real world, Reagan can't both deal with the People's Republic and recognize Taiwan, Carter must at least admit that he's learned a few things in order for the people to warm to the idea of enduring a second Carter term, and Anderson has got to demonstrate himself worthy of positive support or voters who otherwise are willing to examine him as an option will become susceptible to the argument that, rather than waste their votes on meaningless protest, they could use those votes to punish the major party candidate they find most offensive.
Had I been reading about this race, I would have long ago awarded Reagan the presidency. Of course, the perception that Reagan was a sure winner was created by a succession of polls that merely reflected the people's rightful anxiety about the way Carter was handling his job. There was never any positive expression of sentiment for Reagan. I suppose, now that the polls have tightened up, Reagan will be subjected to undue scrutiny simply because reporters and television newsmen have crawled too far out on the anti-Carter limb.
Reagan isn't saying or doing anything differently; if the polls show a different picture today, it is simply because people don't feel quite as bad about Carter as they did a month ago.
The real world of politics has little to do with polls. In the real world, no incumbent president is so bad off with the people that he can't correct his circumstances. The last elected incumbent to be refused reelection was Herbert Hoover, who steadfastly refused to admit there was a Depression going on. That was 48 years ago.
The people revere the presidency, and therefore they subconsciously root for the man who holds it. As much as the office dominates most men, it also protects them. Challengers can only succeed by being more presidential than the president. You can criticize what the incumbent has done, but at a certain point even the best criticism sounds hollow: he's been there; he's wrestled with the awesome burdens of the office; it shows in the lines on his face; the people respect that. You don't outpoint the champion, you've got to knock him out. Anything that even looks like a tie means he'll keep his title. Edward Kennedy knows it's true.
The challenger has got to defrock the incumbent; he's got to make the people look at the man separate from the office. Reagan must steal Carter's robes and put them on before Carter even notices they are missing. He's got to prove that he knows the office better than the man who holds it, and that, of course, if very difficult to do.
Reagan is the best stand-up performer in politics today. As he speaks, he is impressive, authoritative, leader-like; matched against Carter the man, he is all the things that Carter is not. But he will not beat Carter the President unless he can prove his judgment to be better, unless people are confident that he understands the seriousness of governing,
Of course, the other way Reagan might win is that Carter could simply hand the presidency to him. For some reason, Carter sometimes lapses into periods when he tears off his robes and refuses to act like a president. I have never understood whether this is some strange assertion of manhood or whether he has never discovered where he is. Presidents don't see swimming rabbits, they don't have time to decide who should use the tennis courts, they don't keel over running in marathons. The people don't want an ordinary man as president; they want someone whose strength they can draw upon.
But Carter seems to know that all he has to do is prove that Reagan is not presidential; that was apparent in the orchestration of the Democratic convention. For the moment, Carter has wrapped his robes around himself and is holding on to them white-knuckled.
It is most likely that the so-called debates will provide the answer as to which of the candidates is willing to discuss his candidacy in a relevant context. If none of them does, it will be a close election, with Carter having the edge because of his incumbency. If Reagan demonstrates that he has clear and detailed answers to the nation's problems, not just criticisms of what Carter has done, he will win.
However, if, as you are watching the debates, you think you see a hand coming out of nowhere to grasp one of the candidates firmly over the mouth, don't become alarmed. It is only the stranger in the shower. He carries off those who try to ignore the obvious. All three candidates should be wary of him this fall.