LAST SUMMER, Bruce Babbitt and I drove out to a fundraiser in Virginia. On the way I asked Babbitt questions about the contras, the debt, the economy. To each question, Babbitt responded by saying how he packaged his positions. "I say this," he said -- and then he would tell me what he says. "I say this," and again I would get the McBabbitt package -- the conditioned response to the bell of a question Babbitt had been asked countless times. The endless campaign had taken its toll. Babbitt had no thoughts. He only had positions. He was Bruce Babbitt playing Bruce Babbitt.

The canned answers of a numbed Babbitt, a bright and genuine man, helps explain why Dan Rather's interview of Vice President George Bush last week proved to be such compelling television. The interview was pure oxygen pumped into a suffocating campaign. It's been a dreary affair of candidates plodding from one debate to another like donkeys on a treadmill, intoning the same words over and over, always in such a way as to offend absolutely no one. The campaign seems to be orchestrated by a funeral director -- the false, comforting calm, the high seriousness, inoffensive words, a solemn atmosphere in which every candidate, like the deceased in the coffin, is treated with ritualistic respect and equality. For a lifetime in public service, George Bush is allotted the same debate time as that effervescent evangelical, Pat Robertson, who was just recently shouting at a hurricane to spare his broadcasting tower. (Has anyone interviewed the hurricane?)

But now the campaign is about to go live. Iowa -- thank God for Iowa! -- is about to have its caucuses. Who cares at this point if the state is not representative of the nation, that its residents are actually literate, left-leaning in the Democratic Party, cynical in the Republican Party about Ronald Reagan, obsessed with farming, too nice for words, a bit older than they should be, too white, too short, too enamored of Garrison Keillor and living as if Lake Woebegon were a real place? The point is that these people -- these nice, white, literate people -- are actually about to vote and there's not a person in the land who knows for sure what will happen. Thank God for Iowa.

In his 1961 book, "The Image," the historian Daniel J. Boorstin coined the term "pseudo-event." Much of American politics now consists of that -- a succession of staged debates, speeches, commercials, position papers, polls and, of course, the incessant Talmudic interpetation of it all by a yeshiva of commentators. Worse, this particular campaign features a collection of men who are generally cautious and, well, boring. Even Jesse Jackson, once a firebrand, has evolved into the subdued poet laureate of American politics, interrupting now and again with sonnets of sense that he no longer yells, but whispers. He has, alas, seen himself on television. It is, after all, a medium where actors in commercials apply underarm deodorant to the elbow. The box has constrained and processed even Jesse Jackson. He has become the pseudo-radical of the pseudo-campaign.

But Rather's interview of Bush was different. Here was a real event or, rather, a pseudo-event gone berserk -- an interview that rocketed off course and should have been aborted by mission control. It was emotional. It was sloppy. Rather was passionate, engaged -- a journalistic Evel Knievel off on a jump over too many barrels. Bush was angry, determined to prove that he had not walked into the vice presidency a rooster and come out a capon. There were charges and counter-charges, a virtual marital spat right there on the most boring, predictable and homogenized of all the media. This was a journalistic equivalent of a train wreck, a real honest-to-God unpredictable event.

To an enormous degree, what we call news -- what we think of as unexpected -- is neither particularly new nor unexpected. Events are planned and processed -- fabricated and pre-fabricated, assembled, smoothed, sanded, lobotomized and reduced to a minute or so on television. We yearn, we thirst, we CRAVE the live, the unexpected -- the sudden turn of events, the explosion of emotion, the heat of passion. Politics should be theater, fun, a romp to the White House. Instead it has become an endless seminar in which we are obliged as citizens to take notes.

Hurray for Iowa! Thank God for all those serious people in mittens and ear muffs who will -- it is promised -- do something real. It's not that absolutely nothing has happened. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) is no longer with us and only the ghost of Gary Hart now stalks the land, doomed for eternity to shriek the word "morality." But these fatalities were really self-inflicted, political suicides. The voters -- remember them? -- rejected neither man. The hemlock was passed by the press which, up to now, has played an inordinate -- but not really controlling -- role in the political process. It has intervened, judged, refereed -- determined the winners and losers in a pre-season in which not a single game was played. It seems to some that the press has kept the people out, kidnaped the process, surrounded the candidates with a wall of bristling notebooks and TV cameras. Let us in! cry the people. In Iowa, a door is about to open. Please, feel free.

To a certain extent, though, the candidates themselves are to blame for the soporific quality of the campaign. They are, by and large, an unexciting bunch -- most of them self-invented leaders who, having anointed themselves, now seek a constituency. They have reversed the process. Their leadership is self-proclaimed, not sought. The nation has fallen into an issues and leadership chasm. Jackson represents a constituency and so does Pat Robertson. But both groups are special and not large enough to put their man in the White House. As for the others, describe the Gephardt constituency? The Dukakis one? How about Robert Dole and George Bush? Bush stands courageously for a reduction in the capital gains tax. Can you see people massing for that, waving banners, battling cops, singing the Capital Gains Internationale? Oh how he lifts the spirit!

What crusades do these candidates lead? There's no overriding issue, no Vietnam War, no Watergate scandal, no inflation running up our legs like ants at a picnic. Things could be better, but they could be a lot worse, too. The times are neither hot nor cold. They're tepid.

It's ironic, but understandable, that the most extemporaneous and unpredictable of human endeavors, politics, has come to rely so much on the pseudo-event -- and, in The Year of the Non-Issue, has to rely on it more than usual. It's precisely because politics is so unruly, so chaotic, that its practioners attempt to purge it of unpredictability. So much is at stake that one slip, if momentous enough, can doom a campaign. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) was a goner in 1980 after he could not tell Roger Mudd why he wanted to be president. Hart was finished after the Miami Herald came to his house and found one too many people in residence. Biden became a campaign asterisk when his mouth raced ahead of his accomplishments. None of these goofs or miscues had much to do with how the candidate would perform in office. Nonetheless, they were politically fatal.

It's no wonder that campaign consultants and public relations experts now dominate politics. Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) ran first for governor by working one day each at various jobs. He was a stevedore; he was a policeman; he was a fisherman. The genesis of Graham's campaign tactic was a real event: the determination of the city-born Rep. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) to learn more about farming. A staffer suggested the best way to do that was to work on a farm. Harkin did and then his media advisor, Robert Squier, did what came naturally: He filmed and packaged Harkin the Farmer. Squier then expanded Harkin's idea and took it south. Graham was an unknown running in a huge field. He needed somehow to distinguish himself. Squier suggested, Graham mulled and then accepted. In that campaign, he worked at something like 100 jobs and, in the end, became governor. The Harkin event had become the Graham pseudo-event.

In a political campaign, the pseudo-event is both central and seminal. Take, for instance, a debate. It goes without saying that it's a staged event. But even so, it seems to be something that's really happening before a live audience in the hall and zillions of others watching on television. Political pros know better. Except possibly in sparsely-populated states like Iowa, the real audience is neither in the hall nor at home watching on television. The real audience consists of television news directors who will select sound bites from the debate. Thus, every candidate comes prepared with a line, a quip, or a stunt that they hope will make the nightly news. Babbitt stood up for taxes during the NBC debate in Iowa. But he did so only after his staff checked with the NBC technical crew to ensure a standing Babbitt would be in camera range. Had they said no, Babbitt probably would have stayed put.

The public senses the contrived nature of these events. Even in the television age, it knows the difference between synthetic and real -- and it responds to the latter. In his book, Boorstin points out that the enduring popularity of crime and sports news on television is due to their unpredictability. No one knows where crime will strike next or who will be its victim. As for sports, the outcome of any event is always in doubt. Nowadays, Boorstin would add something else: the weather report. It could be given briefly -- hot tomorrow with a chance of rain -- but instead it's extended into a adventure tale of highs and lows, the effects of mountains and seas -- a storm approaching that might, or might not, bring snow: a real event!

Although it was not planned that way, the Rather-Bush collision was also a real event. And what gave it its punch, its power and energy, was not Bush, but Rather. Intentionally or otherwise, this CBS anchorman transcends the pseudo-events over which he presides -- the crisply-edited, totally inoffensive, 30-minute show that purports to give you all the news in the whole world. The unpredictable, the strange, keep happening to him. His life is unedited glitches in the otherwise smooth flow of the news.

Rather walked off the set in Miami; Rather was mugged on the street and then mugged Bush in the studio. (What's the frequency, George?) Unlike the other anchormen, Rather keeps going over the wall, escaping the pseudo-event, announcing in his own weird way that he is, dammit, a human being -- someone who's both good and bad, nice and awful, sincere and insincere. Surveys show that lots of people view him unfavorably, just like a . . . What? Well, a politician -- the genuine, unprocessed, article.

Lyndon Johnson was such a politician. Remember the passions he aroused? There was a man who could not be contained by the pseudo-event. He lifted his dog by the ears; he displayed his surgical scar; he berated aides, made war and loomed over the country like a thunderhead -- all menace and unpredictability. Or take Richard Nixon. Here, too, was the personification of unpredictability. For every campaign, he announced a personality transplant. He had become Albert Schweitzer -- a new Nixon, a nice Nixon, a wonderful Nixon brimming with confidence and self-assurance. But as the public watched in horror and fascination, the lap dog always turned doberman. The real, genuine Nixon was uncontainable. Unlike Ronald Reagan, no one could believe Nixon actually napped. Instead, he probably went upstairs to scheme.

But Reagan sleeps -- and emits a metaphorical snore that provides the ultimate context for the Bush-Rather brawl. For all his deeply-felt ideology, Reagan's the pseudo-event personified. Where are his gaffes, his displays of temper, his petty vanities? He's the anchorman as president, the guy who makes us feel good and who has converted the raucous game of politics into a soothing photo opportunity. Jackie Mason, the comedian, does a wonderful imitation of Reagan. All he does is laugh. Tell him the deficit is growing and he laughs. Hoo-ha. Tell him the Third World is sinking in debt. Hoo-ha. Tell him his aides are crooks, the underclass is growing, kids are starving . . . Hoo-ha, Hoo-ha, Hoo-ha.

In an amiable way, Reagan has completed the trivialization of politics. Nothing matters but the look of things -- the appearance of calm, of prosperity, of thoughtful policy. It's all going to be fine. Shhh. Rest. That's a good country.

But the country is rousing. The Reagan Record is ending and so, too, is the seemingly endless pre-campaign campaign. The Bush-Rather confrontation, as askew as it was (Rather, after all, is not a presidential candidate) was the promise of springtime, a real plant appearing after a long winter of pseudo-events. We are about to wake up and smell the flowers.

Richard Cohen is a Washington Post columnist.