Here we are at the termination of Campaign '80. The voting booths have been rolled into place. Anon, millions of taxpaying Americans will step into them and pull down hard on the lever. Yet few voters expect to hit the jackpot. These are not the gorgeous, exultant days of McKinley and Bryan when raucus partisans snaked through the streets singing party anthems and waving the banners of their messiahs and would-be employers. These are the days when the average Yank turns on his boob tube and roosts before the wry face of the gloomy TV anchorman insinuating his way through Campaign '80.
When the 60 or so percent of eligible American voters head off to the voting booths, they will have droning in their heads the dirges of the evening news, the laments of all the TV commentators who were so let down by Campaign '80. Voting in the Great Republic ought to be more exhilarating than this. And I believe it would be, if only the average American would swear off his boob tube during the political season. For my money, the candidates put on a swell show. There were dire warnings aplenty. There were calls made to our patriotism, our compassion, our basic and eternal selfishness, our good sense. Even the president's young daughter was heard from. My guess is that this campaign will go down as a classic in the annals of the American democratic art form. The major candidates had admirable resources of moral outrage and sonorous vision. They shouted and solemnized to the very end.
I am sure that in the Happy Hunting Ground where American pols of yore schmooze and trade fibs, FDR and HST, Harding, Coolidge and Ike enjoyed the show enormously. JFK has probably already arranged quarters for Jimmy and Ron when their time to depart this vale of tears is at hand. Moreover, there is the heavens you can be sure that all the stars of campaigns past had a thousand or so laughs at the expense of the TV wisenheimers scowling into the cameras nocturnally and grousing about the unparalleled drear of Campaign '80. No discussion of the issues? "How much did I provide?" asks FDR as he pats dear Fala's noggin. Not enough facts? The doughty Harry knows; facts can be poison. Campaign '80 was waged for the presidency of the United States, not for the presidency of the American Political Science Association.
Let me say it here and now and with the full knowledge that I shall henceforth be marked down as a deadly menace to the First Amendment: the least savory aspect of the campaign was the naive and dismal reportage.
TV news epitomizes this shoddy job. The euphonious blatherings of Dr. Cronkite, et al. -- always factless and fanciful -- have cast a miasma over American politics that enervates the electorate and weighs heavily against all the natural verve that has traditionally animated the American pols' rush for power and glory. There is in the blatherings of these TV wisenheimers a sophistication, but from a timidity and a slavish need to propitiate one another and the Philistine moguls in the network board rooms. As a result, the suave blanks behind the microphones very decorously settled on a few glum myths as the higher wisdom of Campaign '80 and then they shaved every event to conform to them.
One leading myth suggested that the campaign was boring and maladroitly executed. This the reporters held to even as they reported that Carter was a spectacular vilifier and Reagan a klutz and then an incredible smoothie. Well, such candidates might be many things, but they are rarely boring. Actually, the Georgia mudslinger and the California crooner gave us a lively campaign. Those reporters who grew distraught over the lack of high-flown dialectics and the dearth of facts ought to read the histories of prior campaigns. But then, if any of the TV sages read books, they would not be on TV. There is apparently an unwritten law prohibiting literacy and learning from that exalted realm.
Another leading myth held that the candidates had absconded from "the issues." Actually, the candidates addressed a whole range of issues -- possibly too many. It is just that the issues were not resonant with the media. Of course, the media's sages were too busy conjuring why the candidates said what they said to report on what the candidates had said.
Our media's ability to bring to confusion and to Weltschmerz a presidential election campaign was brilliantly displayed in last week's debate. The candidates' feathers were still sailing above the stage at Cleveland's public hall when the commentators began their schoolgirl bawlings: the debate was uneventful, mediocre, indecisive. Truth be known, we have here a better description of the commentary than of the debate.
Last Tuesday the candidates showed themselves to be competent performers. No commentator I heard could have stayed in the ring with them for 30 minutes, let alone an hour and 30 minutes. Both men deserved polite applause. They had facts at hand, used them well and analyzed each other's positions intelligently. Given the circumstances, they did well and were informative. I doubt that any recent leader from here or abroad could have done better.
Moreover, the debate was not indecisive. Reagan won. In his very first response he brought the battle to the president, and he kept after him. Through out the contest, he boldly took issue with the president's remarks, correcting the president's occasional misstatements and adumbrating, as Carter could not, a vision of America's future -- for this, Reagan was described as "defensive." Carter battled back, and sounded all the alarms at his command. He adroitly appealed to all the old Democratic constituencies. Yet he was at a dreadful disadvantage. He was standing in an open grave, the result of his failed presidency. He had to duck his record and frighten voters with what Reagan might do. Reagan rarely ducked, and he eloquently reminded voters of what Carter had already done.
Average Americans understood this, and in informal polls all around the country they chose Reagan. Yet over the next few days they saw their wisdom bashed and battered in the media. The wisenheimers were the only viewers in the country who found the debate inconclusive. They grumbled and whined and fudged. They were guilty of all the shortcomings they attributed to the candidates.
The problem with these pundits is that they know no history. They are the creations of the frenetic world of whirring cameras and 10-second clips. They utterly missed the historic fact that Carter and Reagan represented two entirely different conceptions of government: Carter the statist, Reagan the volunteerist. The difference is dramatic and significant, and the campaigners held their positions stubbornly despite the constant carping of the TV wisenheimers. I think them and salute them.