I know a lot of people who are thinking about this election the same way they think about the Iran-Iraq war. They desperately want it to be over, but they don't want anyone to win. Evidently this sentiment is also causing an enormous number of people to persist in describing themselves as "undecided." My own hunch is that as the great national Dentist's Appointment draws nigh, most people will find a reason to vote for the candidate whose politics they were predisposed to from the begining, never mind what they actually think of the guy.
But for Washington, or that part of it that lives at the high-strung center of national politics, the October uncertainty is deranging, destructive and, in its own odd way, revealing. What is being revealed is the pathology of the place. Its salient feature is a passion to have been demonstrably on the right side and to have been there in time . This calculation of what was in time, of course, along with the rather more fundamental calculation which was the right side, keeps changing. That, in turn, accounts for the distinctively twitchy way we walk around in this town. The point is that you must at all times be adjudged by today's standards to have been "right" yesterday.
At a simple and crass level, this is nothing more than careerism at work. Usually by this stage of a campaign the wind is beginning to blow one way or the other with sufficient velocity to encourage a number of ambitious upper-range government workers to intimate that they have always harbored certain political sentiments no one ever heard them express before. Like being for Reagan, for instance. But I find less of that this year than before. By this time in 1968, the State Department was awash in Foreign Service types who had always had (they said) the deepest respect for Richard Nixon, just as a "lifelong" anti-Republican underground began to emerge and declare itself in the bureaucracies some time in October 1976. We can presume that this season's holding back must be accompanied by intesified anxiety -- greatly heightened, possibly terminal, Twitch.
But there is a 1980 variant on the classic ship-jumping. People who work for Jimmy Carter in Washington, and who are periodically out campaigning for him these days, habitually say terrible things about him behind his back. I suppose this could be regarded as evidence of the flowering of an era of openness and free speech in government, but it strikes me more as a hedging of bets. In the first week of October, talking to people close to the Carter campaign effort, you got a tiny whiff of attempts being made here and there to detach, to distance oneself, to arrange for a separate peace . . . just in case.
Something more subtle and complicated than the careerist's job search was at work here. It had more to do with this city's preternatural fear of what we characterize as a "nightmare of recrimination" (all recrimination in Washington, which sometimes seems to do little but recriminate, is called a "nightmare"). The impulse, the necessity even, is to prepare the ground for subsequent self-justification, no matter how the election comes out. So a lot of Carter people are flashing signals around that they had nothing to do with the more grievous flaws of the campaign or Carter himself, just as those who have abandoned him for cause -- especially those liberals who have turned to John Anderson or indifference -- are having to shore up their defenses already against the charge that they are responsibile for whatever dreadfulnesses a prospective Reagan administration might perpetrate.
The dispiriting thing about this scramble is that for some mysterious reason -- perhaps because we're all in it together -- the desired result is always achieved. By the time the recrimination gets under way, recriminators outnumber recriminatees by a hundred to one. Nobody was on the wrong side ! It is a miracle, the Washington miracle, and it works just about every time. We have all, always, been retroactively for what has since prevailed or been deemed right: civil liberties, civil rights, the frying of the Nixon administration.
In some degree we like to torture out candidates on this point. Washington did it to that expert position changer, Jimmy Carter, now Carter is doing it to his fellow expert, Reagan. We call them stiff-necked and inflexible when they won't revise a position, fuzzy and opportunistic when they do. We urge them, once nominated by their parties to "move" to the center, the mainstream (remember the exhortations to McGovern and Goldwater) and then bash them for fakery and cynicism when they so move. Reagan is getting it this week and, true to the rules, insisting that his changes are not changes.
This insistence, not the changing itself, is what ought to bother us. Why should it be considered intolerable for a politician to admit that he has changed, grown, seen something differently, yielded to the arguments or evidence or even pleas of others? God knows all three of this year's principal candidates have veered and swung and changed over the years with world-class dexterity and speed. And I am afraid the rest of us who hang out in this town do the same. But we will not accept responsibility for what we thought or said yesterday afternoon. We are all -- politicians seeking election, bureaucrats seeking position, journalists seeking advancement and glory -- terrified that we will not be able to put the word "infallible" in our resume's. That's what we're selling. ("Remember where you heard it first," we journalists love to say.) It has a distorting effect on journalism, a positively dehumanizing effect on politics.
What if this country finally had the argument it really owes itself about the Vietnam War? What if Ronald Reagan told us, in a sufficiently elaborate and plausible way, how he came to view some social problem with more sympathy and concern than he did before? What if Jimmy Carter told us he was wrong, how he has changed his views of the Russians or the Pentagon or the bureaucrats since he came to office? I think it would be liberating for our politics. I also don't think it will happen.