Why don't we call the game on account of rain and start over -- just write the primaries off and forget them? They are well on the way to becoming the reductio ad absurdum of political procedures; form has long ago supplanted substance; style and technique are obliterating considerations of quality.
Our politicians should consult ethology -- the study of animal behavior -- since the primaries bear an increasing resemblance to the ritual fighting of cyclids, a small fish of the perch family, which tries to defeat other cyclids by display and maneuvers designed to make itself seem bigger and stronger than the others; or to the "arena behavior" of the male Ugandan antelope, the kob, which systematically competes for a stomping ground because only a super-kob holding that designated bit of turf is entitled to impregnate doe kobs. Our rituralized primaries are obviously tailor-made for ex-actors, yet almost certainly the kob's procedures result in more efficient natural selection than was just achieved in New Hampshire.
That vote-gathering techniques have now superseded substance is evident from the fact that the media devote far more time and space to the relative effectiveness of a candidate's campaign organization and his trifling conceits and devices intended to project the desired "image" than to his views -- if he has any -- on the somber issues of the day. George Bush incessantly prattles about the "big mo" -- which he seems now to have lost if he ever had it -- as though its possession would somehow validate his claim to make a "crackerjack president." The candidates argue frenetically about who should "debate" whom, like children bound for a Little League game, shoving one another for a place on a bus platform. So far, the most degrading incident occurred when the aspirants paraded like a police roundup before an assembly of Malthusians dedicated to keeping down the animal population through an annual festival of killing. With the honorable exception of John Anderson, each slavered at the mouth to demonstrate that he was the one most eager to guarantee every moron the right to a gun.
Adlai Stevenson expressed a widely held public conviction when he once said to me: "This sure ain't a blue-ribbon year for political cattle." The reason is not hard to discover. Participation in the embarrassing pageants we are now observing can be stomached only by second-raters. When such a rare politician as Anderson subjects himself to the indignities of factory gates and shopping centers from a compulsion to talk sense, he is dismissed as not having a chance. No wonder we have not heard a memorable word or phrase during this whole dreary affair.
Because primaries have metastasized to the discredit of participatory democracy, the time span of our quadrennial election orgy has been progressively extended to a point where the ordeal morally and physically demeans and depletes the candidates. In addition, it limits the field largely to unemployed politicians prepared to devote their digestion and two years of their lives to the emetic gastronomy of rubber chicken. Even more important, it paralyzes the effective conduct of our national government for one out of every four years; in fact, the period is rapidly expanding. Those who bewail the decline of American "leadership" -- a favorite word of the mediocre lot who claim that magical attribute -- should understand the reluctance of friendly nations to follow the lead of a country where the government is cyclically immobilized and where candidates for high office behave like aborigines performing bizarre tribal rites.
Prior to 1952, candidates at least felt compelled to expose their views in half-hour speeches. But ever since an Eisenhower advertising agency invented the "saturation" or "blitz" spot campaign, they have been forced to condense their insights on complex issues into 90-second or, at the most, three-minute spots in competition with deodorant commercials. Will George, Ronald, Teddy or Howard win the brass ring for banality? Watch for the next installment next week.
No wonder we lead the world in the small percentage who vote in national elections. Bored to distraction by our Opera bouffe political campaigns, Americans have become cynical and disenchanted. What, then, should we do about it? We need, as a starter, to restore the party system, leaving party leaders to select the candidates while the ensuring campaigns are restricted to six weeks. Given the pervasive reach of national television, there is, after all, no reason why a presidential aspirant must shake hands in every bar and drugstore in 50 states -- to say nothing of Puerto Rico -- to show that he understands the vast political, economic and social forces at work in the world. Since an intensive six-week campaign could hold public attention while attracting candidates of proven ability and intelligence, we might then hope to produce presidents worthy of our country.
But it is late in the day. If we continue to settle for the current political travesty, we shall find the campaign period gradually extended to three and then four years. Presidents will not longer need even to pretend to go to Washington; they can spend their entire terms touring the country, clowing before Rotary Clubs and posturing at militant gatherings of the National Rifle Association.
They style and histrionics will have gained the ultimate triumph.