Now that it's over, I suppose they'll begin writing the histories of the Carter-Kennedy campaign. Surely they'll write about the Carter manipulation and the Kennedy "character." They'll write about Iran and Chappaquiddick.
But I hope they also write about another strange illusive aspect of the story: Kennedy and guilt. Not his guilt, but ours.
What brings that to my mind was the mood in the convention hall last week for Kennedy's final speech. Feelings ran high that night. From his own people came regrets and might-have-beens. From the Carter supporters came a certain measure of respect for a man who had done something no one in his family had done before. He had lost . . . and lost gracefully.
But there was also another emotion in the hall, subdued but present. I couldn't place it exactly until a friend told me the next morning, "He made me feel guilty." That was it.
Kennedy talked about the people we once called "the needy," before we decided that we were the needy. He talked about what we once called fairness, before we decided we couldn't afford fairness.
He said, "The commitment I seek is not to outworn views, but to old values that will never wear out. Programs may sometimes become obsolete, but the ideal of fairness always endures. Circumstances may change, but the work of compassion must continue."
"The poor," he said, "may be out of political fashion, but they are not without human needs. The middle class may be angry, but they have not lost the dream that all Americans can advance together."
So guilt was one of the mixed feelings spoken by this speech. Because in fact this is our national dream . . . and we've put it on hold.
For the most part, the politicians in this election year have stoked and stroked middle-class pain. Nearly every speaker in Detroit and New York -- including Kennedy -- mentioned the anger that people feel when they realize they may not be able to buy a house. This has become a symbol of disillusionment.
But Kennedy said something more, something we also know. That there is a difference between the lives of people who cannot afford a suburban down payment and the lives of people who cannot move out of the South Bronx.
That there is a difference between the lives of people whose paychecks are not keeping up with inflation and the lives of people who have no paychecks at all.
I am not in the business of measuring pain on some human Richter scale. The middle-class indignation about inflation is real and honest. The dismay of those who watch their children become downwardly mobile is not something to discount. But the fact is that in good times we are willing to share, to talk about fairness. In bad times we are more worried about joining the poor than about helping them.
So one of the worst side effects of this economic anxiety attack is the loss of compassion or generosity. Whatever our fantasies about the wonderful yesteryear of the Depression, people are not at their best under stress. It isn't admirable, but it is human.
People in physical pain become almost hopelessly self-obsessed. In an instant, one's own world can be reduced to the ache in one tooth.
So too, in our own economic lives, we find it difficult to care that someone else's heat is turned off when our own bill is overdue.
Self-centeredness is a peculiar thing. It can be cruel or it can be a survival instinct. The two are tightly woven together. There isn't always a difference.
Prick the conscience of people who are struggling and they may feel uncomfortable one moment and turn on you the next. They may find you unsympathetic.
Reagan hasn't made that "mistake."
For one moment Tuesday night, Kennedy proded us again. "Let this be our commitment," said the man. "Whatever sacrifices must be made will be shared -- and shared fairly."
He touched our soft spot of guilt because we know it won't happen. Not this year.