Baseball, which made a major comeback in the '70s, has a number of stars who play the game with exceptional skill and excitement. But one, Pete Rose, plays the Summer Game with a unique mix of talent, enthusiasm and intensity. To be lucky enough to watch Pete Rose perform the difficult art he has perfected is to see a gifted individual do what he does very well, what he believes is important to do and what he very obviously enjoys doing. Pete Rose loves his work: batting practice and clubhouse banter as well as World Series and All-Star games.
Patrick Caddell, President Carter's polling prodigy, unintentionally brought Pete Rose to mind in his interview in the current issue of Play-boy magazine. Defending his friend's and clients uneven relations with Congress, Pat Caddell said of politics (which made anything but a major comeback in the '70s): "The national interest, it seems, has given way almost completely to the individual interests, to special interests, to plain old self-interest."
Caddell is on to something. Monogamy should be growing half as fast as single-interest political action groups. Narrow political agendas are very much the rule. Legislative litmus tests are an almost daily occurrence in Congress. The Emergency Council to Protect the Widget does not confuse its members with "The Congressman's" record on widows and orphans or war and peace, but every dues-paying subscriber to the "ECPW Newsletter" will get the lowdown on how "The Congressman" voted on widgets in subcommittee.
Old coalitions are, in fact, crumbling: political parties have all the clout of the U.S. Cavalry. To heed Pat Caddell is to conclude that what the republic urgently requires, and soon, is the political equivalent of Pete Rose: a leader with demonstrable political skills and a relish for the relentlessly human process of politics.
Pete Rose never met Woodrow Wilson, but "Charlie Hustle" would most certainly agree with Wilson's description of the active president: "If he rightly interpret the national thought and holdly insist upon it, he is irresistible; and the country never feels the zest of action so much as when a president is of such insight and calibre." Pete Rose would agree and so would both Roosevelts.
President Jimmy Carter, Caddell's client, has proved that he is very good at the electoral part of politics. But like fielding in baseball, elections are only part of the business of politics.
In 1976, Carter's campaign was able to elevate his national political virginity to high electoral virture. The facts that Jimmy Carter had never been listed in the District of Columbia phone book and had never taken the Law School Admissions Test became recommendations for high office to an electorate sick of law-breaking lawyers and "Washington" dishonesty.This was all, of course, shrewd political shorthand to say Jimmy Carter had not been corrupted by hanging around with all those politcal types. He was one of "us," not one of "them."
Most people do not change dramtically in their personalities or values after the age of 55. The humorless do not miraculously become witty, nor do the lethargic become frisky. It is unlikely that President Carter, elected to a second term, would begin to enjoy either the company of politicians or the sounds and smells of politics. The needling, the cajoling, the give-and-take, the schmoozing are all alien to Jimmy Carter. Like a lot of his countrymen, the president seems to believe that politics is a melancholy task and more than a little bit disreputable.
That attitude, which President Carter has not hidden from other politicians or the public, has been a distinct liability in his relationships with Congress and large parts of the political world. The communicated mood of dutiful obligation is of litle help in building the new coalitions that must be constructed, almost issue by issue, in this period of political fragmentation, if we are to avoid a protracted era of national drift and legislative stalemate.
In short, to lead effectively, the next president will need extraordinary political skills. He, like a political Pete Rose, must be able to persuade both Congress and the country that politics -- the public's business -- is important, that it is important to him to do it well, and that politics can be both honorable and a helluva lot of fun.