The pair of political debates last weekend -- the Democrats in Des Moines and the Republicans in Hanover, N.H. -- proved once again that silence is golden. They produced some of the toughest exchanges and most spirited quarrels of the young campaign season.
But all the sound and fury were less striking than two stunning moments when nothing could be heard.
One came early in the Des Moines Register debate, when editor James Gannon asked Gary Hart if he thought he had disposed of the ''character question'' by suggesting in an interview with Gannon's paper that if elected, ''I would not be the first adulterer in the White House.''
Hart replied that he had meant the remark simply as a reminder that ''all of us are sinners. The question is whether that disqualifies us. There is another level of morality at stake here. This administration has been bankrupt in its commitment to public ethics. I would never lie to Congress. I would never shred documents. I would never sell arms to terrorists.''
When Hart had finished this self-serving declaration, he looked expectantly into the Civic Center audience for affirmation. What he heard was a thundering silence that could be felt halfway across the country in Cambridge, where I was watching on television.
The Iowans were simply not persuaded that anyone who promised only to exceed the standards set by the worst fools and knaves in the Reagan administration passed muster for the presidency. By their refusal to give Hart a single hand clap, the good people of Des Moines were telling him that he would be judged by their exacting standards, not by lowest-common-denominator political morality.
The next afternoon at Dartmouth, NBC's John Chancellor, who is so gifted a discussion leader he should be drafted for permanent duty in the debates, produced another remarkable silence by asking one of those questions only he seems ready to utter.
The candidates had been going on about their plans to combat drugs, bragging how they were going to get tough on the pushers, on the overseas growers, or maybe even deny driver's licenses to users who flunk random drug tests. They had all recited their standard position-paper prose on the subject and seemed ready to move on to the next set of staff-created, pollster-tested cliche's when Chancellor begged to ask one question of his own.
In New York, he said, and in other cities, the drug rehabilitation centers are so overcrowded, so short of staff and facilities, that kids who are trying to break their drug habits find themselves standing in line or being turned away when they seek help. What are you going to do for those who have found the courage to say no, he asked, but who need professional help to make their vow stick and to get their lives back under control?
Chancellor threw out the question to the six Republican candidates, and there was a long moment when they eyed each other, waiting for someone to pick up the challenge. That silence continued just long enough for everyone in the auditorium to become acutely aware of the discomfort the Republicans were feeling. And then Bob Dole spoke. ''It's going to take money,'' he said.
Just five words, but they were as welcome as a cup of coffee after a long hike in the chilly woods around Hanover. The applause that greeted Dole's extended answer signaled the audience's gratitude for his candor.
The silence that Hart encountered in Des Moines and the silence that Dole broke in Hanover are symptoms of something very healthy in the climate of this election year.
After all the shocks of 1987 -- the Iran-contra story, Jim and Tammy Bakker, Gary Hart and Joe Biden, the Wall Street insider traders and the rest -- there was an understandable upsurge of cynicism among the voters. They have real concerns about the future of their children and their country. But understandably, many of the voters I have met doubt whether the power seekers and the power brokers are prepared to deal seriously with those questions.
When Gannon and Chancellor, two of the best journalists in the land, confronted candidates with some of that reality, the reaction was revealing -- and reassuring. Hart learned in Des Moines how little tolerance there is for his rationalizations. The voters have learned that a man who can't get his own identity straightened out is not likely to straighten out the country's problems.
In Hanover, Chancellor challenged all the Republicans to acknowledge another reality: that good intentions and strong principles are not enough. When people are in trouble, they need help, and often giving them that help costs the government money. When Dole acknowledged that bit of reality, he not only aided his campaign, he struck a blow against the cynicism that's out there. More debates, more silences, could cure the cynicism.