As I was preparing to leave Washington for a first look at Spain, there was a strange ambivalence about the capital and country I was temporarily abandoning.
Washington was as beautiful as ever in the spring, and the nation seemed as prosperous and comfortable as I could remember it in all the years I have been traveling and reporting on its politics. But just beneath that placid surface there were apprehensions so deep that the mood seemed almost schizophrenic. Consciously and, I think, not foolishly, the question in my mind as I packed was whether the euphoric spell would be shattered by the time I got back.
I hope not. But three conversations, among many, will tell you why there were some dark clouds on the horizon of my imagination.
The first was with Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.), an able and conscientious legislator who had just decided not to run for governor of his home state. Part of it, surely, was his recognition of the strength of incumbent Republican Gov. Thomas H. Kean, but part of it also was his sense that things are headed for a crisis that could make such a race more than hazardous.
"There is so much anger in the meetings I've been to between local officials and citizens," Florio said, "that it's painful to watch. With the cutbacks in federal aid, the local officials have to raise taxes or fees -- and the people say they can't take any more. I find myself trying to keep people I like from hitting each other.
"It's the same way up here (in Congress)," he continued. "Reagan keeps pushing for more defense spending and blaming Congress for the deficit. And my colleagues are so frustrated they lash out at each other. It's really gotten mean."
The second conversation was with an estimable Republican, former Vermont governor Richard A. Snelling. He is working full-time, through an organization he created called Proposition One, as an unpaid lobbyist for major deficit reductions. To Snelling, that means spending cuts in both defense and domestic programs and a tax hike.
Snelling, who had a successful business career and four terms as governor before retiring last year, said: "I'm an incurable optimist, but for the first time in my life, I'm scared. This deficit could do my country in."
Although an ardent Republican, Snelling often challenged Reagan's fiscal policies when he was chairman of the National Governors Association, and he is even more outspoken now.
"Ronald Reagan is a totally honest person," he said, "and he believes we can grow our way out of this deficit. But last year the economy grew over 6 percent -- and the deficit increased. Reagan says he's cut taxes, but he's really just put the country on a tax holiday. We just haven't been sent the bill. . . . I think we have six months, maybe a year, to start getting this under control, or it can destroy us."
The third conversation was with Lee Iacocca, the Chrysler chairman whose autobiography has made him more of a folk hero than any other American businessman. Iacocca is a nominal Republican who is caustically critical of the leadership of both parties.
Iacocca talked as much about the trade deficit as he did the budget deficit. In blunt terms, he said he thinks the present national leadership lacks the guts to deal with either of them. Because of that belief, he has put his company on "idle speed" for the next three years, postponing any thought of expansion of its domestic production facilities. And he sees an upheaval ahead.
"Unless we decide somehow to sit down and stop this flow of blood, there will be a radical change (in national leadership) in 1988," he said. "The IOUs are out of control. They're just piling up for our kids."
These were three separate conversations with three very different individuals who have major disagreements on most political issues. What was striking was the shared sense of deep apprehension -- the belief that the bubble has to burst, and the only question is when.
They all see the current economic prosperity and political euphoria as being a thin veneer covering the cracks in the foundations of American society. They all believe that delay in dealing with the deficits is putting the financial and political systems under a strain that could easily crack the country wide open.
I hope they are wrong. But I can't convince myself they really are. That is why I looked at this departure with more apprehension than any trip I can remember.