I have sat there as earnest-faced as the next reporter, asking the candidates questions whose answers interest me only marginally if at all.
"You have talked about a job-creation program to get people off welfare. But how would you pay for it? What exactly would it cost?On precisely what combination of revenue gains and welfare savings do you project that your program would pay for itself after five years?"
Or "How many troops -- and from which military services -- would you bring home from Europe? What exactly would you do to get the Middle East 'peace process' back on track? What funding level would you seek for federal aid to education?"
Now, thanks to an outfit called RESULTS, I've got a new one: "What would you do about domestic and world hunger?"
All of these questions deal with profoundly important issues, and I think any serious presidential candidate ought to have some general ideas for approaching them.
But it doesn't bother me in the slightest if they don't have the technical basis for precise answers to our terribly specific questions. Indeed, it might bother me more if a candidate did. A would-be president ought to be able to articulate his general view of America's place in the world, his view of what our priorities ought to be, some indication of how his approach would differ from that of his rivals and his predecessor and, yes, some idea of how he would pay for the things he proposes.
But so what if he loses track of the precise number of warheads in our nuclear arsenal or can't describe the details of his welfare-reform program or isn't quite certain what he would do about domestic and global hunger?
RESULTS, a self-styled "citizens lobby for generating the political will to end hunger," has put that last question to all the candidates, and the answers of the seven who responded range from Sen. Robert Dole's pledge to increase funding for WIC (a supplemental feeding program for women, infants and children) to Rep. Richard Gephardt's proposal of a joint U.S.-Soviet initiative on hunger and Jesse Jackson's and Bruce Babbitt's calls for land reform in Third World countries.
The honest answer to the question, and to most of the detailed questions put forward at candidates' luncheons with reporters, is: I don't know, but I think it's important, and I would certainly have my staff work out something.
But such an answer would (at least in the view of the press) paint a candidate as incompetent and frivolous.
Even RESULTS (an acronym for Responsibility for Ending Starvation Using Legislation, Trim-Tabbing and Support -- trim-tabbing is a nautical term, once used by Buckminster Fuller, that means . . . oh, never mind) isn't as interested in the specifics as its questions to candidates suggest.
As one RESULTS volunteer told me, "It's not important what they outline but that they are thinking about the 13 million undernourished children in the United States and the 14 million people worldwide who die of hunger-related diseases every year."
Just so. I want my candidate to be interested in the problem of hunger (and joblessness, education, drug abuse and trade and bud-get deficits too), but it's all right with me ifhe hasn't yet drafted a program to deal withit.
My view, though perhaps heretical among journalists, is probably the prevailing view of the electorate. Wasn't the knock on President Carter that he was overly immersed in detail -- that he acted more like a staff man than a leader?
A prospective president ought to be able to enunciate some specifics for dealing with a major priority or two, and he ought to be held to account for those specifics, as the press tried to do with candidate Reagan when he proposed cutting taxes while increasing military expenditures.
But apart from the handful of issuesthat form the core of his campaign, it is enough that he be sufficiently interested in the other problems to put his people to work on them.
Voters want a president who shares their vision (or can sell his vision) of what America ought to be, who has some proven leadership ability and who makes sense. They don't require that he be an expert on defense, diplomacy, agriculture, budget, housing, energy, health, education and hunger.
That's what Cabinet agencies are for.