Well, here we are again -- in the same old place, only five months (roughly) ahead of schedule. We are complaining like crazy about the prospective nominees for president. An abysmal choice, we say, the worst ever. . . . What kind of system is it that could produce such bleak alternatives, and so forth. This is ritual. You don't have to support either Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan or even believe the two men's nominations are assured to know that we are in the presence here of a preordained, cyclical response, the great bipartisan, national, four-yearly yuck!
I am more interested at this point in its inevitability than in its justification or lack of one. My hunch is that this is an attitude -- a posture of despair -- that would exist irrespective of who the candidates were. And recent history tends to coroborate this suspicion. It has been solemnly and sorrowfully lamented, after all, that there was no ideological and/or moral difference -- i.e., "nothing to choose" -- between Kennedy and Nixon, Johnson and Goldwater, Nixon and Humphrey, Nixon and McGovern, Carter and Ford and (presumptively) Carter and Reagan. I don't believe it. There is and was plenty to choose in every case. The problem is that in some profound and abiding sense we are apolitical, even antipolitical, in this country. We don't want to make the serious and imperfect polticial choices that confront us. We want the easy choice, the unattainable candidate and, failing that, we want to grouse.
Americans are, in some strange and special way, spectators at the scene of their own politics, chomping peanuts in the stands and hooting derisively at the players, or raising their opera glasses the better and more critically to see the baritone who is making such a hash of it. We tend to view the proceedings as a failed entertainment. Never mind that we ourselves have encouraged, abetted and occasionally even elected these poor wretches.
There is, I suppose, something healthy in the unrelenting suspicion and distaste with which we sooner or later view most all of our politicians and their handiwork. But it is self-indulgent too, and to the extent that it engages us all in a kind of fantasizing and political play, it also helps create the very candidacies and calamities -- the reality itself -- we do deplore.
Playskool politics, for example, first flattered us that we were getting presidential nominees unworthy of our own moral wonderfulness because all power was vested in some dirty, crooked "system" (bosses, et al.) that was tyrannizing the country. So we threw the rascals out. Now look. This season the complaint is exactly the same, except that it is based on wholly different conditions. It is said to be the reformed system -- open, gabby to the point of garrulity and stupefyingly accessible to myraid citizen-organizers and special causists -- that has done us in. Sen Kennedy, speaking to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington the other day, likened the 1980 primary process to the politics of the "smoke-filled room," suggesting that once again the nation was experiencing the political "fix."
There is a lot wrong with the reformed system, as there was with the one it reformed, but the inhibitions it puts on the political process really do not account for who is winning and who is losing so far. That is the doing of people, real ones who either are or aren't responding to a variety of candidates who, in turn (it is necessary to remind oneself from time to time), are also people. And there are, or at least were, plenty of candidates. The Republicans had an amazing range to choose from, one of everthing -- Dole, Crane, Anderson, Baker, Bush, Connally, Reagan. And they did seem to choose.
Confronted with this fact, a certain number of people will persist in bemoaning the injustice -- the plain, downright rottenness -- of the outcome, and this will take them inexorably into a terribly snobbish and self-satisfied thicket, the place where you find yourself saying that the people who chose the winners were, well, duped or dumb or mean and nasty and vindicitve or something like that. They did it, in other words, for the wrong reasons or because they didn't know any better and were hopelessly manipulated.
I reserve my own quadrennial "yuck!" (we are all allowed one for this snobbery. It is among the most unfriendly and unattracitve of the programmed responses we make to our political festivities every four years. But it is not the only one. Here are some others. There is the journalistic whipsaw ploy. This is a habit -- shared, alas, by much of the public, judging from survey statements -- of denouncing straightforward, clear-cut stands as "simplistic" and (therefore) "dangerous," while jumping the unfortunate candidate for "whaffling" just as soon as he shows an appreciation of the complexity. Voters in general and journalists in particular love to pretend they can't understand which side the candidate is on, etc. The fact that, just as candidates are imperfect, so issues don't come in simple, primary-color yeses and noes is understood but put aside in the judging of the poltician's speech.
I was interested last week in watching Reagan on what I took to be a de-monsterizing tour of Washington. He came to the capital, as outlanders do, with a gruesome reputation, one so overstated -- and this is the point -- that the permanent Washington subculture, viewing him, was obliged to notice that he was not Godzilla. He neither kicked the dogs nor poisoned the babies and so, victims of our own exaggerations, we now said to each other: "My, my, he seems so amiable . . ." Reagan has a way to go with this set, but I am betting there will be a period of Reagan-chic, briefly, this spring, before the next assault is mounted.
My problem with all this ritual and pattern-ridden reacting is my sense that neither our enthusiasm nor our despair -- our various vogues and postures and assorted head-clutchings -- has much to do with who these guys are and what they represent and which of them would be better to do what. Hot enough for you? Have a good day. What a terrbile choice.
We are living inside a cliche and we help make it come true.