One year from now the first presidential election of the 1980s will be consigned to history. However it turns out, it begins with a dismaying tone. Nothing, it appears, can prevent it from becoming one of the most acrimonius of presidential years. It promises to be dominated by personalities, by what one candiate can say about another, to a degree unmatched in many years.
There is, of course, a paradox in this. The 1980s could prove to be perhaps the most critical decade of this century in terms of the issues facing America and the world -- the fragility and interdependence of the world's economic structure, the depletion of natural resources, the strain on governments everywhere, the rise of terrorism as an instrument of policy, the clash of cultures, the heightened tastes for more in a time of less. Yet it seems almost certain the candidates won't be debating issues and ideology in what will be the longest, most costly election ever. They will be trying to outpoint each other.
"You really have to wonder if what will come out of it will be edifying to the republic," says Horace Bushby, Lyndon B. Johnson's aide and confidant for many years.
In talking to people like Busby, who have helped elect presidents in numerous campaigns, a number of common themes emerge about the state of American politics on the eve of the '80s. But the central one involves the Democratic Party.
The disintegration of the old Franklin Roosevelt coalition of labor, Catholics, Jews, blacks, urban North and rural South that enabled the Democrats to rule politically for almost half a century has been under way for years. Only in recent times, though, has the glue that held together the disparate wings of the party come so unstuck. The result has been a destructive turning on each other -- North vs. South, Sunbelt vs. Northeast and Northcentral -- that has left the Democrats deeply divided and fragmented.
Putting back together the pieces of that coalition quite likely is an impossibility. Fashioning a new one that articulates new approaches to new issues and thus becomes able to govern nationally remains one of the key political questions of the next decade.
Yet all the while that side of the political process has been unraveling, the presidential elections themselves have become increasingly personal. We've been celebrating personalities instead of examining and confronting issues for almost a generation. The Kennedy-Nixon, Johnson-Goldwater, Carter-Ford presidential campaign year centered on personal questions. It's been the prsonal contests, rather than the political content, that has mattered.
Now, as we approach the somber issues of the '80s, we are embarking on one of the most personal and emotional presidential contests of all. And the choice facing citizens almost surely comes down to a personal reading of the people offering themselves for president. In this season of political cynicism, and media manipulation, that assessment becomes even more difficult than before.
Television is the great public eye of our time, and we view all our politics through the prism of the TV lens. In only a generation since John F. Kennedy became our first television president, the impact of TVhas intensified the celebration of and desire for new political personalities: what television does poorly is examine complicated public issues; what it does superbly is show a glimpse of the political people themselves. There, I believe, lies the heart of the next election.
In this most personal contest we are about to witness, television undoubtedly will play its greatest role and face its greatest test. It won't help citizens understand the issues all that clearly, but it will enable them to pierce through the canned political commercials, the slick productions, the set speeches and synthetic rallies to gain an insight, however imperfect, of the candidates' personal qualities.
Two examples of the power of TV are before us. Both bear directly on the political pictures we are about to form as the election year begins.
The other morning I turned on my set to CBS. It was the day the papers were reporting the great political boost given Ted Kennedy when Chicago's Major Jane Byrne endorsed the senator. CBSshowed two scenes while reporting that political development. The first was a tape of the mayor speaking at the big Democratic formal dinner in Chicago attended by the president two weeks before. Byrne was wearing a long off-the-shoulder evening gown and was looking sincere and earnest as she said into the microphone that if she went into the Democratic caucus today she would vote for the renomination and reelection of Jimmy Carter. The next clip showed her, looking hard and tough, as she explained why she was backing Kennedy: a poll showed Carter couldn't win, she said.
Those pictures were the most devastating political commentary I've seen in years. The pundits may tell be Byrne's endorsement represented a big plus for Kennedy and political damage for Carter. But I believe that anyone who saw it would view it as a cynical act of the worst sort of politics -- precisely the sort that turns people against a candidate and a political system the celebrates such "victories."
Another type of example comes before the nation tonight. The interview of Kennedy with CBS's Roger Mudd offers the closest kind of look at a potential president. Only television provides such intimate scrutiny from which the citizen viewer can judge the candidate personally. It's on such glimpses, not on the examination of the issues, that this election is likely to turn.