This year's election process began more than two years ago with the formal announcement of Rep. Phil Crane and continued through some 37 caucuses and primaries and two national conventions; and the end is not until Nov. 4. Repeatedly, since the long season of primaries and caucuses got under way, thoughtful observers have been asking whether this really is the best way to choose our national leadership. Some have asked whether wise and competent leaders can possibly emerge from the gauntlet of image-making, publicity-seeking and the feverish quest not for ideas and solutions but for "momentum." An increasing number of observers, jaded by the spectacle, have begun to look back fondly toward the brokered conventions and smoke-filled rooms of an earlier era.
The selection of our president is, of course, the most critical function of our democratic system. It is disillusioning and frustrating to Americans to see the process trivialized in an atmosphere of a circus dominated by TV ringmasters. It is mystifying and alarming to our friends and allies; it is both encouraging and disturbing to our adversaries, who, beyond utter mystification, perceive verification of their belief that our society is doomed by its internal contradictions. At the same time, they are disturbed that such a great power is directed in such a strange and unprecedented manner. t
The contrast in the time and complexity of our procedure in selecting our chief executive with that of other democratic societies is indeed striking. oBy November, we will have taken more than 100 weeks for campaigning, compared with about six weeks other democracies require for their elections.
Our Constitution and the structure of our government are 200 years old. For the conditions for which they were designed, they were eminently successful, but surely we can all agree the circumstances that now confront us are quite different from those facing George Washington and James Madison. It seems reasonable to me, without denigrating our Constitution or our history under it, that we might well give serious consideration to making some basic changes designed to strengthen our capacity to deal with modern conditions, especially in the area of our foreign relations. It is no secret that the division of power in our system presents a major obstacle to effective diplomacy, a weakness we can ill afford in this nuclear age.
An appropriate manner in which to approach this problem would be for Congress to propose amendments to the Constitution, or for two-thirds of the states to convene a constitutional convention, for the purpose of developing suitable amendments, as provided in Article V of the Constitution.
Personally, I think Congress or a convention should give serious study to the system of executive selection and accountability now employed in most of the world's successful democracies. Selection of the executive by the legislature from among its own members could be beneficial to our government in a number of respects, especially in enabling a president, so selected, to carry on our foreign affairs more effectively and more responsibly.
The proposal might seem less drastic if considered in the light of recent events and contemporary personalities. Had executive accountability applied at the time of the Watergate scandal, the president could have been removed from office by the simple process of a no-confidence vote -- far less drastic, protracted and traumatic than the impeachment procedure -- while he, in turn, had he dared, might have sought vindication by dissolving Congress and calling a national election.
As to personalities, the present system, as it has evolved, is an invitation to amateurs to compete for the highest office in the land. Experienced public officials are, among other things, too busy to spend two years working the precincts and building hundreds of local organizations across the country. Of the major-party nominees for president and vice president this year, three of the four were, prior to their first nomination, in effect unemployed. The result is a system of on-the-job training for our top political leadership, a costly and dangerous practice for the world's leading military and economic power.
By contrast, only the members with the longest and most successful experience in government would be chosen by Congress to be our chief executive -- such men as Taft, Russell, Barkley, Rayburn in the past and, more recently, Byrd, Baker, Ribicoff or O'Neill.
This is not the place to present the substantive arguments for the proposal; they should be submitted to a constitutional convention or to Congress. Suffice it to say that our recent electoral experiences have been unsatisfactory, so much so that the experts are predicting that no more than 50 percent of the qualified voters will vote in November. In the recent election in Japan, by contrast, more than 85 percent voted.
A serious examination and evaluation of the way we nominate and elect our presidents would at the very least have educational value. Either it would reassure us as to the validity of our procedures or it would enable us to recognize the need for modernization of those procedures in spite of our emotional attachment to ancient traditions. I have no doubt that such an undertaking would revive the interest of all citizens, especially the younger generation, in how an enormous community of 230 million diverse people govern themselves. A better understanding of this question would surely lead to a greater interest in making it succeed.