The other day my university sustained a visitation from on high. Surrounded by a retinue of campaign aides, Secret Services and media gnats, Sen. Howard Baker came to town to proclaim himself the new messiah.
In the hall where Baker was to speak, all the seats were occupied 15 minutes before the proceedings were supposed to begin. Those who came after that stood in the back, wondering where they should go.
Ten o'clock, the hour advertised for the show to begin, came and went. The crowd at the back became restive when the mob outside, having just been released from 9 o'clock classes, tired of chanting "We want in!" and launched a concerted shove.
What no one could figure out was why this auditorium had been chosen for the assembly when one with seats for perhaps 300 more was available on the other side of the campus. It occurred to me, though, that maybe Baker's advance men had their reasons. Three years ago in San Francisco Jimmy Carter's people had blitzed the city with advertising for his final campaign appearance, to be held in the courtyard at the Ghirardelli Square market. Naturally, thousands of us showed up, only to be turned away at the gate; it nearly turned into a riot. Later, newspapers reported that Carter's media advisers, fearing a low turnout, had deliberately selected too small a public space so the cameras would show the candidate drawing wall-to-wall crowds until the very end.
But there could be no riot outside Sayles Hall; the people in the back finally had to be permitted to sit in the aisles.
Up front stood a podium and a decorous line of chairs. Below them, the first eight rows of seats were roped off and appeared to be reserved. A large plywood platform about 15 feet long had been erected at shoulder level about 10 rows back; laden with TV cameras, recording equipment, photographers and technicians, it effectively blocked the view of most people sitting on the right side of the hall. Beyond the rope, a lot of important-looking people huddled in groups, then burst forth periodically in flurries of activity. Assorted student sycophants from campus political groups ran around acting as if they enjoyed a little too much their temporary indispensability to this traveling festival of democracy.
The excitement crested when Baker and Rhode Island's own Sen. John Chafee entered at 10:25 in the company of Mrs. Baker and several dignitaries. The student body president gave a brief welcome and then turned the microphone over to Chafee, who took off into a laughably hyperbolic audience warm-up. When Baker rose to the podium, the crowd erupted at last in a standing ovation. The cameras panned. The candidate thanked Chafee for the generous intruduction. "And I want to tell you I deserve every bit of it," he added, looking pleased with himself.
Baker spoke extemporaneously, with poise, and restricted himself to the smooth highway of generalities. He stopped, rather abruptly, to take questions from the floor.
What was most fascinating to me about Baker's campaign techniques was his talent for shaping what he had to say in a form the reporters and film editors could use most easily. He always managed to encapsulate the question along with the essence of his answer in the first sentence of his reply. And he has the anchorman's gift for televised salesmanship: he moves his head vigorously while making a point; his hands arc gracefully through the air to lend visual emphasis; he modulates his voice interestingly. You can tell that his sentences, unlike President Carter's, begin and end where they are supposed to. Television translates this style into Backbone, Action, Control, Fluency, Intelligence and Stage Presence. The fact that Baker said nothing at all of substance is lost unless the reporter chooses to say so in the voice-over.
After about six questions, Baker announced that the next one would be the last. Apparently it wasn't a very good one, because as soon as he started to answer, the technicians started to dismantle the equipment. Then it was all over. The crowd applauded warmly and moved toward the back of the hall. Predictably, the exit quickly choked.
We were standing there talking, my friends and I, when a man with a plug in his ear barreled through, yelling, "Clear the aisle, please! He's coming this way." The crowd parted, leaving a void soon filled by a slow-moving clot of men. I expected to see Baker among them, but I couldn't. I picked out a head that had to be his. It belonged to somebody else. A hand stuck out from the mob in my direction. It seemed to be Baker's, and I almost reached out to shake it before I realized it was attached to one of the Secret Service linebackers. Better not touch.
Finally, I saw him, at the heart of this artichoke of gray flannel. He may have been shaking hands down the other side of the aisle, but he wasn't anymore. He was just this man, as short as I am, who could barely move. The heightened importance he was accorded charged the atmosphere not with seriousness or high moral purpose, but with a tangible aura of lunacy. The expression on his face was strained and uncertain -- perhaps he was unused to the Secret Service's zealousness -- and right then the only thing he seemed to want from anybody was a way out. One imagined him thinking, "Four more times today, six times tomorrow, every day from now until next November, if I'm lucky . . ."
If he's lucky, he will still be sane next November.
A full one year in four we allocate to this three-ring circus. And what do we get for our trouble? Not leadership, surely, nor satisfaction. Whoever we elect will not bring back the authenticity missing from our political life. But it does distract us from the truth: regardless of how we vote, the cities will not heal, the currency will not hold fast, the world will not right its tilt. And so every fourth year, we assemble before the cameras for our ritual slouch toward Bethlehem, where we know what waits to be born.