"Well,I see he got back in," I told the cabbie. I had stayed at the office late to watch the election returns, and I couldn't suppress my frustration that the voters had reelected a man widely known to be a cynic, a demagogue and worse. "Makes you wonder about people's judgment," I sighed.

"I don't know how you found out," the cabbie said, "but that's exactly what I told my daughter less than an hour ago."

"You're right to discuss these things with the kids," I said, pleased that, for once, the cabbie and I seemed to be in perfect agreement. "Otherwise, they'll go on repeating the same mistakes we made."

"You're right about that," the cabbie said. "I told my daughter the guy was no good. Oh, he's always been a smooth talker and all that, and he always seems to have plenty of money to throw around, though Lord knows where it comes from. But smooth talk and cash don't mean a thing when it comes crunch time, I told her. You want somebody you can depend on. I was really shocked when I heard he was back in."

I had to admit I hadn't been too surprised. There are always a certain number of voters who are willing to believe words and gestures that make them feel good, no matter how many times the words and gestures prove facile and false. Still I thought this particular guy had been uncovered for the fraud he's always been. "I didn't think he had any credibility left," I said.

The cabbie nodded his vigorous agreement. "It's not like there wasn't anybody else around," he said. "I'm talking about decent, presentable guys who'll treat you right. Maybe they weren't flashy enough or didn't have enough cash. Tell you the truth, with the right kind of guy, I wouldn't mind putting up some of the money myself."

"Well, finance is certainly a part of the problem," I said. "People who get their money in funny ways often do funny things. But incumbency is part of it, too. The fellow who's been there always seems to know exactly the right promises to make, always managing to sound sincere. Sometimes I think it would be a good idea to have a rule that no particular guy could stay on the scene past a certain length of time ... "

"I don't know about that," the cabbie said. "I don't like the idea of having a whole bunch of guys in and out of the house 'til before you've hardly got a chance to know them. I mean, people start to look at you funny."

I had to admit that there was something to be said for stability. "I just wish people had a better sense of their long-term interest," I said.

"I hate to admit it, but it wasn't all that much different in our day," the cabbie said. "I remember there were always a few guys everybody knew wouldn't amount to a hill of beans, and at the same time there were some smart, decent fellows that you just knew were okay. Guess which ones were the most popular."

"Go figure," I said. "Maybe people have this deep-seated desire to identify with the in-crowd -- even at the price of their own integrity."

"I wish you'd explain that to my daughter," the cabbie said. "I've been trying to teach her the difference between flash and long-term values, but you know young people ... "

I assured him it wasn't just young people. I was thinking of senior citizens, always ready to defeat the candidate who threatens to cut their Social Security; the gun lovers, willing to overlook everything else if the candidate utters the right mumbo-jumbo about the right to bear arms; the people for whom the only consideration is a candidate's stand on abortion, and a host of other single-issue voters. "The trouble," I said, "is that too many people are interested in just one thing."

"My daughter's not that kind of girl," the cabbie said. "Still you wouldn't know it to look at who just got back in the house ... "

" ... and the Senate," I put in, "and several governorships and state legislatures as well."

"What the hell are you talking about?" the cabbie said.

"I'm talking about the same thing you're talking about," I told him. "I'm talking about those lying, cheating, single-issue, PAC-backed incumbents who keep making a mockery of our political system."

"Political system?" the cabbie exploded. "I'm worried sick about that goofball my daughter is seeing again, and all you can think of is politics. Sometimes I think you newspaper guys and us ordinary folk speak different languages."

It took all the restraint I could muster not to agree with him.