BOSTON -- During the week before the election, a woman of my intimate acquaintance appeared in the bathroom mirror, asking: "What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?"
The place was a political location known as a quandary, located precisely halfway between a rock and a hard place. The rock was John Silber. The hard place was Bill Weld. The problem was whom to vote for as governor of Massachusetts.
The governor's race here has bewildered outsiders who think of Massachusetts as the land of the liberal, the miracle and the Michael. Two angry years after Dukakis and the economy went down the chute, the choice for his successor will be either a Reagan Democrat or a Bush Republican.
Peering over the sink, I repeated the bare facts of the case to the woman before me for her judgment. On the one hand, there is John Silber, the president of Boston University, a man whose style of open, intimate, interpersonal relationship is winning through intimidation. Even Henry Kissinger once described working with Silber as "a bloody brawl." But Silber's a man with some attractive ideas, especially about early education.
On the other hand, there is William Weld, the affable patrician-in-training who worked in Reagan's Justice Department until he resigned in protest. Weld exudes the politics of the well-fed, favoring a tax-cut proposal on the ballot that threatens a lethal blow to the state's services.
The pack of national journalists who have come to read the entrails of liberalism finds this pair anthropologically interesting. But to the natives, this is not merely a chapter from "Smart Women, Foolish Choices." We have to pick.
This governor's race may be an entry in the era of post-character politics. For a time, the reassuring notion was bandied about that if you knew the person you could judge the policies. But here we look into the mirror and ask: What do you do when good people are in favor of bad things, and bad people are in favor of good things and when it's hard to tell them apart?
To the more-worried-than-angry voters of Massachusetts, the quandary has seemed like a sinkhole. Each time an undecided voter swallows hard, determines to go with Weld's temperament and hope for the best, he makes them choke. How do you vote for a guy who talks about the AK-47 assault weapon as if it's sporting equipment at the Myopia Hunt Club?
Just when another undecided voter figures that she can pull the Silber lever without sending a lethal electric shock through her veins, he raises the voltage. Last week, Silber's comments on blacks and Cambodians were topped by the charge that children were "neglected" and "abused" by working women "who have thought that a third-rate day care center was just as good as a first-rate home." How do you vote for a pit bull hankering for a fight?
The woman in the mirror and I have tried to apply, like lipstick, every logical proposition to this race. We have looked at this decision from every angle.
Angle One: It's better to vote for policies than people. This is a popular theory, but how do you believe it after decades of broken promises and shattered platforms?
Angle Two: Vote for the person who seems decent, and assume that he doesn't mean what he sometimes says. It's a nice idea, but didn't some Americans try that with Ronald Reagan?
Angle Three: Don't vote for either of them. However attractive this notion (my position for weeks), not to decide is to decide. Even if you vote for nobody, somebody will win.
But having explored the terrain of undecided turf, inch by inch, only one angle holds any promise of decision. Angle Four: Which one of these men do you most want to vote against?
Backed into this unhappy corner, an answer of sorts is emerging. The woman before me admits that she most wants to vote against the man with a lifetime of contentious bullying in his curriculum vitae. She most wants to stop John Silber before he gets on the yellow brick road of national politics.
Surely John Silber's scorn for others, his lack of interest in listening and what it implies -- an occasional change of mind -- makes him unfit. So does the message that the victory of this ambitious man would send nationally: The politics of anger are winning. Any state that sends candidates to the country so regularly has to remember the subtitle of Silber's book: "What's Wrong With America and How to Fix it."
So at last, clambering miserably up the sides of the quandary on this tortuous path of reason, I offer one last exchange with my mirror image. This is what's "wrong with America," we agree: So little to vote for, so much to vote against.
The voting machine may count this a vote for Weld. But Bill, don't take it personally.