With both primary races deeply muddled and with the pre-Super Tuesday lull upon us, it is time for a quick look at the 400-pound gorilla that runs the show, the media. Covering a 13-ring circus is difficult. On the basis of early returns, the media have done a tolerably good job. I count only three sources of exasperation. Adhering, however, to the maxim that only bad news is news, I make them my subject.
Win, place and show. There is nothing wrong with the media's treating the campaign as a horse race, but there is something bizarre about the rules they have created to regulate the race. Why exactly is it that in New Hampshire Simon had to finish at least second and Kemp at least third to stay alive?
Horse racing settled on a system of win, place and show to give fans a fixed betting system with plenty of action. But what possible difference to the legitimacy of Simon's candidacy is it that he got 3,442 votes less than Gephardt in New Hampshire? It is not just that the absolute numbers -- 3,000 out of an American electorate of 180 million -- are so preposterously small. The idea that placement is more important than support is even sillier.
Kemp made his cutoff. He beat No. 4 by 4,149 votes. So what? The placement benchmark tells us nothing about whether Americans want this man for president. It is an entirely artificial construct, as artificial as the point spread in football, which is the "expectations game" at its most mathematically precise. At least in football, as in racing, these devices are a contrivance to facilitate betting. In politics, they have no comparable socially redeeming value.
The retrospectoscope. This is the name medical students give to the (imaginary) instrument by which every doctor becomes a diagnostic genius after the patient has died and the autopsy report is in. Retrospective diagnosis is the specialty of media election analysis. Within hours of Bush's Iowa debacle, the theories were pouring in to explain why he had done so poorly. The instant consensus was that he and his campaign had been empty all along: no vision, no message, no style, nothing but a re'sume'.
Two things about this analysis. It did not explain very much. Bob Dole, big Iowa winner, had no message either, even less vision, and a personality that is not exactly engaging. More important, if "empty" explained Bush's Iowa collapse, why is it that no one was saying it the day before Iowa? This is the same Bush who was the consensus winner of just about every debate, rising to greatness with such immortal lines as "Pierre, let me help you on some of this." If his Iowa collapse was so inevitable, how come no one predicted it?
The people are right. The flip side of retrospectively savaging the loser is beatifying -- in politics that means ascribing seriousness to -- the winner. History is always kind to winners, treating them with far more respect than they deserve. Journalism even more so. Pat Robertson gets 25 percent of the Iowa vote and all of a sudden one is required to take him seriously. As a political nuisance, perhaps. But as a president? Robertson was a kook before Iowa, and he remains a kook afterward. No doubt the man talks rationally 95 percent of the time. But you don't want that percentage in your doctor and you certainly don't want it in a man aspiring to control 18,000 nuclear warheads.
Every once in a while some of that off-the-wall 5 percent just slips out, and it makes you think that the rest of the time he is barely covering up. I am not talking here about the oddities of his now-renounced TV evangelist days: commanding hurricanes to change course or receiving purchasing instructions from God (". . . He said to me, 'Pat, I want you to have an RCA transmitter' "). I am talking about the pronouncements he has made during his presidential campaign. His cure for Social Security, for example, offered in the first Republican debate last October: "By the year 2000 we will have aborted 40 million children in this country. Their work product by the year 2020 will amount to $1.4 trillion, the taxes from them would amount to $330 billion, and they could ensure the fiscal stability of the Social Security system." As an argument against abortion (of which there are many), this reasoning is loony enough. Coming through Robertson's fixed Jonathan Winters grin, it causes a chill.
On the eve of New Hampshire, Robertson went and did it again. He imagined his very own Cuban missile crisis by blithely announcing that Cuba is hiding SS-4s and SS-5s. "My contention is there might be missiles in the caves. . . . I don't know the exact sizing of it. But nobody can say for certain that those missiles aren't there." And nobody can say for certain that Bigfoot hasn't bought a condo in Miami.
Americans tend to believe that if a man gathers a following, political etiquette requires according him deference and assuming his seriousness. The cast of kooks that have achieved political power in this century (in Europe especially) should be impressive enough to discourage this liberal attitude. Fifty million Frenchmen -- and Italians and Germans -- can be wrong. So can 26,761 Iowans.